The theologically minded are often suspicious of wealth. Here is Jürgen Moltmann: “The rich, the oppressors, and the haters are unknowing and blind, even if they are of good will.” Indeed, rich men can be bad men, but Moltmann’s unqualified equation of wealth, oppression, and hate with ignorance and blindness overlooks important elementary distinctions of traditional moral theology.
For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas, in the course of discussing wealth and poverty in his Summa Contra Gentiles, emphasizes that “things that are means to an end must derive their goodness from the end.” Wealth, he explains is simply a means; the primary question is, toward what end is it applied? (The same is true for voluntary poverty, which Aquinas defends at great length.) His conclusion: “It happens to be a good thing for some people to possess riches, for they use them for they sake of virtue, but for others it is a bad thing to have them, for these people are taken away from virtue by them…”
Put another way, money is a tool. And wealth is a lot of tools. As P. J. O’Rourke notes, “When a carpenter has a lot of tools, we don’t say to him, ‘You have too many tools. You should give some of your saws and planes and nails and chisels to the man who’s cooking omelets.’” In other words, we close the “tool gap” not by redistributing the tools of the rich to the poor but by helping the poor to accumulate a tool kit of their own.
Make no mistake; indifference to the plight of the poor is sin. But addressing issues of wealth and poverty requires clear thinking, both theological and economic. One of the major projects of the Acton Institute is to promote such a synthesis, a project that your support makes possible. Thank you.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico