Contemporary religious thinkers sometimes present a stark division between wealth and righteousness, arguing that embracing righteousness necessarily means spurning wealth. The early church, however, had a more nuanced view. Consider, for example, Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 ad). During Clement’s lifetime, Alexandria was among the world’s important centers of culture and trade, and his congregation was one of the most cosmopolitan of the Roman Empire. But did Clement exhort his affluent congregants to cast away their wealth?
Not exactly. In his homily on Matthew 19:16–30, “Who Is the Rich Man That Is Saved?,” Clement cautions that wealth can be perilous, but one cannot avoid this peril merely by renouncing wealth. Rather, wealth and worldly goods are gifts of God. As such, Clement explains, “They lie at our disposal like materials or like instruments that can be well used by those who know how.” If an instrument is used poorly, one blames the one who wields it, not the instrument. In the same way, the blame for the unjust use of wealth lies not with the wealth but with its owner. “That which is capable of using it well or ill by reason of its free choices is to be held responsible,” and, for Clement, “this is the human mind, which possesses both independent judgment and the power of free choice in the disposal of what has been given it.” Therefore, according to Clement, “what is to be destroyed is not one’s possessions but the passions of the soul, which hinder the right use of one’s property.”
God has given us reason, freedom, and responsibility, as well as goods, wealth, and property. Stewardship does not necessarily mean renouncing wealth (though some are called to do so); it does mean responsibly using that which God has entrusted to us. It is a difficult calling, but one we are not free to reject. The Acton Institute is committed to promoting the responsible stewardship of wealth in a market economy, and I thank you for the support that allows us to do so.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico