The Spirit of Envy

image for vicesPart 6 in our weekly series on the vices.

I recently got to chat with a holy older friar, a somewhat prominent theologian, distinctly conservative (for what that matters) and an expert on moral and spiritual theology. We were talking about Pope Francis – and the rage against him from some parts of the Catholic world, who proclaim him insufficiently pro-life, etc. “We have some elder sons going on,” quipped the old friar. And so we have two excellent tales: the prodigal son’s elder brother, and the conservative outrage at Pope Francis, with which to consider the second-to-last of our vices, envy.


The elder brother is perhaps easier to understand – because he is at a greater distance. When the father treats the prodigal son well, the elder son is outraged: “these many years have I served you, never at any time transgressing your command – and yet you never gave me a kid, so that I might make merry with my friends!”

The first lesson of the elder son is that there are sins other than those of the flesh. These are subtler sins, but no less poisonous in our relationship with God and with our neighbor. He followed the commandment – but that wasn’t enough, because he still raged against the Father and against his brother. Sin is altogether finer than we often think. It is all about those two simple relationships: yes, slovenliness and lust hurt our relationships with God and man – but the point is the relationships, not the lust. Envy strikes just as deep. Indeed, it strikes deeper, because it lays hidden. At least the prodigal knows he has a problem.

Envy hates the goodness of others because it is in love with its own goodness. The Latin invidia, the source of our word envy, means something like “looking into,” as in, with a look that burns holes in the other. It is different from jealousy: it isn’t about wanting what the other person has. It is about hating the other person, hating his goodness, because it is a threat to my pride. This is dangerous stuff. It comes close to the sin that brought down Satan: he could not stand to see Jesus and Mary elevated, could not rejoice at their goodness.


What is going on in conservative outrage against Pope Francis? It’s worth noting that they constantly misquote him, and build false oppositions between him and his predecessors, though I can’t get into that here.

That holy old friar said – laughing, because he is actually humble – “It’s not fair! I’ve trained my whole life to say intelligent things, and Francis wins them over with a simple gesture!” Envy, invidia, burning holes in him with their eyes. How dare he be loved! How dare he suggest there is any goodness in the world other than mine!


Francis has something to teach us about the cure for envy, too. It lies in being part of a community. When I view myself as an individual, a free agent, then other people’s success looks like nothing but competition. But that is not the reality. We are on the same team! My brother’s goodness is good for me!

Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (a favorite document of Pope Benedict’s), says,

“The laity should, as all Christians, promptly accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church. Let them follow the example of Christ, who by His obedience even unto death, opened to all men the blessed way of the liberty of the children of God.”

Obedience means, first, being a team player. Obedience to legitimate authority – even my boss! but especially my pope and my bishop – is an important way to cultivate a sense of team work, of being part of a community that is bigger than myself. Finding myself in the communion of the Church, instead of outside, being critical, helps overcome my sense of competition against other people’s goodness. Obedience is at the service of community.

Second, obedience means respect for my elders. Their wisdom is my gain. The Christian longs to learn from his elders: from Scripture, from the Tradition, from the Magisterium, also as a way of cultivating a sense that the truest goods are ones that are shared. Respect for our elders is a sure way to fight envy.


Are we elder sons: at work, in the family, in the Church? No worry: God has mercy on us too. A fabulous line lies hidden in the parable of the Prodigal Son. “The elder son . . . was angry, and would not go in: therefore his father came out, and entreated him.” Even when we refuse to stoop, he stoops to us.

Click here for the rest of the “Vices” series.