Tenth in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
"What is a miser?" asked the teacher of her pupils, and the bright boy spoke up and answered: "One who has a greed for gold." But he and all the class were embarrassed as to how this greed for gold should be qualified. The boy at the foot of the class came to the rescue, and shouted out: "Misery!"
Less wise answers are made every day in our schools. Misery is indeed the lot, if not the vice, of the miser. 'Tis true that this is one of the few vices that arrive at permanent advantages, the others offering satisfaction that lasts but for a moment, and leaves nothing but bitterness behind. Yet, the more the miser possesses, the more insatiable his greed becomes, and the less his enjoyment, by reason of the redoubled efforts he makes to have and to hold.
But the miser is not the only one infected with the sin of avarice. His is not an ordinary, but an extreme case. He is the incarnation of the evil. He believes in, hopes in, and loves gold above all things; he prays and sacrifices to it. Gold is his god, and gold will be his reward - a miserable one.
This degree of the vice is rare; or, at least, is rarely suffered to manifest itself to this extent; and although scarcely a man can be found to confess to this failing, because it is universally regarded as most loathsome and repulsive, still few there are who are not more or less slaves to cupidity. Pride is the sin of the angels; lust is the sin of the brute, and avarice is the sin of man. Scripture calls it the universal evil. We are more prone to inveigh against it and accuse others of the vice than to admit it in ourselves.
Sometimes, it is "the pot calling the kettle black;" more often it is a clear case of "sour grapes." Disdain for the dollars "that speak," "the mighty dollars," in abundance and in superabundance, is rarely genuine.
There are, concerning the passion of covetousness, two notions as common as they are false. It is thought that this vice is peculiar to the rich, and is not to be met with among the poor. Now, avarice does not necessarily suppose the possession of wealth, and does not consist in the possession, but in the inordinate desire or greed for, or the lust of, riches. It may be, and is, difficult for one to possess much wealth without setting one's heart on it. But it is also true that this greed may possess one who has little or nothing. It may be found in unrestrained excess under the rags of the pauper and beggar. They who aspire to, or desire, riches with avidity are covetous whether they have much, little, or nothing. Christ promised His kingdom to the poor in spirit, not to the poor in fact. Spiritual poverty can associate with abundant wealth, just as the most depraved cupidity may exist in poverty.
Another prejudice, favorable to ourselves, is that only misers are covetous, because they love money for itself and deprive themselves of the necessaries of life to pile it up. But it is not necessary that the diagnosis reveal these alarming symptoms to be sure of having a real case of cupidity. They are covetous who strive after wealth with passion. Various motives may arouse this passion, and although they may increase the malice, they do not alter the nature of the vice. Some covet wealth for the sake of possessing it; others, to procure pleasures or to satisfy different passions. Avarice it continues to be, whatever the motive. Not even prodigality, the lavish spending of riches, is a token of the absence of cupidity. Rapacity may stand behind extravagance to keep the supply inexhausted.
It is covetousness to place one's greatest happiness in the possession of wealth, or to consider its loss or privation the greatest of misfortunes; in other words, to over-rejoice in having and to over-grieve in not having. It is covetousness to be so disposed as to acquire riches unjustly rather than suffer poverty. It is covetousness to hold, or give begrudgingly, when charity presses her demands. There is, in these cases, a degree of malice that is ordinarily mortal, because the law of God and of nature is not respected.
It is the nature of this vice to cause unhappiness which increases until it becomes positive wretchedness in the miser. Anxiety of mind is followed by hardening of the heart; then injustice in desire and in fact; blinding of the conscience, ending in a general stultification of man before the god Mammon.
All desires of riches and comfort are not, therefore, avarice. One may aspire to, and seek wealth without avidity. This ambition is a laudable one, for it does not exaggerate the value of the world's goods, would not resort to injustice, and has not the characteristic tenacity of covetousness. There is order in this desire for plenty. It is the great mover of activity in life; it is good because it is natural, and honorable because of its motives.