Money, money, money, money

Categories: Guest Views

Are we so obsessed about having it–and about who does or doesn’t–that we dissent from church doctrine?

February 28, 2014, edition
By Kyle Eller

“No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Matthew 6:24

At heart of the Bible are the Gospels, and in them the heart of the preaching of Jesus is the Sermon on the Mount, where we find the words above.

8bmoneyI could fill this entire space with passages from the Gospel alone on similar themes. There are parables — the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man who stored up his grain and said, “Eat, drink and be merry!”

There is the solemn and terrifying warning about the sheep and the goats at the last judgment. The Lord’s statements about the rich young man who wouldn’t leave his possessions and how hard it is for the rich to enter heaven shocked his disciples, and still shock us.

There is the Lord’s blunt “Woe to you rich!” in Luke’s version of the beatitudes.

I remember, when I was first coming back to faith, still a convinced libertarian “fiscal conservative” and not yet Catholic, sitting in a Lutheran pew and encountering Mary’s words in the Magnificat, words the church prays every day: “[God] has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:53).

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but not having paid much attention to that part of the Bible, I didn’t recognize it. I thought some “peace and justice” type put it in, and I rolled my eyes a bit. Then I noticed it was from the Bible.


Time to rethink things.

Jesus talks a lot about money and our relationship with it and what we do with it and how we think about and act toward those who lack it. So does the rest of the Bible, from start to finish. God shows a concern with these things bordering on obsession.

Can we say the same?

I suggest that even among Christians it is common to find ideologies obsessed with money and the poor — but obsessions very different from the biblical one.

We have our obsessions

I used to think that dissent from the church’s moral teaching was mainly a matter of abortion, homosexuality, contraception, pornography, lust. That is undeniably real and serious, particularly on matters such as abortion, which takes an innocent human life, and the nature of the family, which is the foundation of social life.

However, over the years I have experienced just how “bipartisan” dissent really is, and how similar the sides are. You can prove this yourself.

At a parish event, try striking up a conversation with your neighbors about the right to immigrate, or the church’s teaching on environmental stewardship, or the obligation to pay a just wage, or the right to health care, or the obligation of business to concern itself not exclusively with profit but also with the common good.

All of these are found directly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

You will be fortunate if someone does not begin forcefully pressing arguments, none very good, for why that teaching can be ignored or downplayed. You may be told it’s all prudential judgment, not binding teaching. You may be told these things only involve personal charity, ignoring what the church treats as demands of justice.

You may be told the bishops and perhaps even the popes are just “liberals” or “Marxists,” or that they live in ivory towers and know nothing about the real world, so you can dismiss them.

You may be told science or lived experience refutes Catholic teaching.

You may be told to go read the person’s favorite pundit or “theological expert” who can explain in great detail how one can be “faithful” while ignoring these teachings or “nuancing” them into oblivion.

There are analogues to all of these tactics among those who dissent from church teaching on contraception, human sexuality and marriage.

Francis makes waves

Pope Francis has brought all this to the fore, most dramatically with his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”). The angry reaction in some quarters has been breathtaking, enough to make me wonder where someone stood on that whole God or mammon question.

Many have correctly pointed out that Francis said nothing that previous popes going back at least to Leo XIII haven’t said, often in stronger language. Those popes didn’t make it up. They applied principles found in the doctors and fathers of the church, who themselves found it in apostolic tradition and in Scripture going all the way back to the opening chapters of Genesis.

Pope Benedict XVI’s last encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate,” was if anything, even more challenging and, within Catholic circles, sent certain pundits scurrying to explain it away, but there was no outpouring of anger and condescension like we have experienced now. Why the difference?

Among other reasons, I suspect it’s because Pope Francis has managed to catch the world’s attention with this in a way Benedict did not.

We’re paying attention.

I’m glad he has succeeded. Catholic social doctrine is just that, Catholic doctrine. If you are not unsettled by it, constantly called to conversion by it, you’re doing it wrong.

Thinking challenged

Many people seem to find themselves in the midst of a moment like I encountered with the Magnificat years ago, shocked and then challenged to rethink things. Amid the ugly reaction there have been beautiful ones too, politically conservative Catholics challenged but responding with Christian humility, open to the idea the church’s teaching has something to teach them.

The funny thing is, the economy wasn’t even the main point of the 50,000-word document. The fact that it has so dominated our conversation is revealing, isn’t it?

Pope Francis is not condemning or running anyone out of the church, but he has with great skill challenged us with parts of the Gospel evidently just as difficult for our culture to accept as chastity or the “Gospel of Life.”

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of Duluth. Reprinted with permission.