The Spirit of Avarice

image for vicesPart 3 in our Friday series on the vices.

St. Paul says, “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). The statement is nice, nicer than it at first appears.

First of all, he does not say that the love of money is the greatest evil, the ultimate evil, or even the cause of all evil. He says it is the root. St. Thomas’s commentary on this passage has us consider what a root is. Fundamentally, a root supplies nourishment for everything else.

This is a good opening for thinking about money, and property in general. These goods are entirely relevant. We cannot go without food or we would starve, and at least the race in general cannot go without sex or we would die out. But property is only needed to support other things – and so every kind of property is possible to go without, and some people are able to go without owning anything at all. This includes not only the most radical Franciscans, but also children. As long as what they need is supplied, they don’t actually need to own anything, and they certainly don’t need money. Money, and all property, is always in order that – we need money in order that we can get something else.

A funny consequence of this is that there is never “enough.” When you eat, you get full, because you only need a certain amount, and at some point you are so full that you can’t cram anything more in. This is because food is directly related to a particular need. But there is a kind of infinity about money. You can keep accumulating more and more precisely because you are always saving for other things. There is no “enough,” no “full.” This is true of other property, too. You have a house for living in – but though you can have enough food, you can always have a bigger, or fancier, kitchen to cook it in.

Because money, and indeed all property, is a supplier for other things – a “root” – we have to be careful. We have to keep an eye on this desire, and make sure our focus is on what we’re supplying – actual living – rather than on the money that lets us get it.

Somewhere in here fits Pope Francis’s nice line of Argentine hospitality: “you can always put more water on the beans.” That is, to some extent, hospitality, and life in general, doesn’t actually need that much stuff.


Second: Paul says the problem is the love of money. Money isn’t a bad thing. Indeed, things are not bad – we are! In fact, property is a great good, something worth defending with a Commandment (Thou shalt not steal), and a whole aspect of Church teaching (Catholic social thought). We should fight to make sure people have enough. But indeed, the primary reason we don’t is because of where our hearts are. When we love people, we work to care for them, and provide for them. (And when we love God, we love people.)

But when we love money, our heart is not in the right place. And, indeed, just as money itself is a root for other things, the love of money is a root of evil. It is a root of evil because it is idolatry: setting our hearts on what is not in itself loveable takes us away from loving what is. You cannot serve both God and mammon. This is an excellent reminder of what the moral life is all about. The focus is on the heart, what we love. When we love wrong, we act wrong, and we go wrong. We are commanded to act right so that we will love right.


Third: how should we relate to things? Earlier in First Timothy, Paul warns us of “seducing spirits, and doctrines of the devil” (4:1). These spirits, he says, will teach us that the material world is evil: “forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats” (4:3a). (Note that he points to sex and food: the most basic bodily needs of the individual and of society.)

But this is wrong, says Paul, because these are things that “God has created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (4:3b-5).

The key point is thanksgiving. The bodily world is good when we rise with thanks to God; but we are evil when we forget him who is the source of all good.

Click here for the entire “Vices” series.