Envy is often at the root of our craving for wealth
April 18, 2019
When thinking about all the various ways that unity is undermined in our society, I have written about some ideological obstacles. They affect the way we view reality and how we think through solving problems in society. I’d like to address a practical obstacle that leads to an ideological one, namely our incredible wealth.
I have been rereading the fine book by Father Thomas Dubay titled “Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom.” Father Dubay clearly presents the Christian tradition of Gospel Poverty. Quoting St. Philip Neri, he points out that “it is far easier to convert a lustful person to God than a covetous one.” This is because a “love for elegance and for money has a peculiar deadening effect in the spiritual life.”
We are all rather familiar with the warning against a love for money, but let us read St. Paul’s words carefully: “For the love of money is the root of all evils; and in their desire for it some people have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs” (1 Tim 6:10).
Take note that St. Paul is not just condemning the greedy, he points out that having “pierced their hearts with many pangs” their greedy actions are responses to interior pain. I would like to posit that this pain is a result of another deadly sin: envy. This sin is what Father Dubay and St. Philip Neri are talking about when they refer to “covetousness.” And the corrupting power of envy is apparent in a famous Russian proverb:
A peasant fishing in his local pond encounters a talking fish, who grants him any wish he desires. The peasant thinks about asking for a castle or gold, but then the fish says that there is a catch: Whatever the peasant asks for, his neighbor will get double. Without another thought, the peasant says, “In that case, please poke out one of my eyes.”
It takes one type of spiritual dysfunction to harm one’s self to hurt another. It is another level of spiritual sickness to reject a blessing and choose personal harm so that one’s neighbor cannot share in that blessing. This is the nature of envy. Indeed, envy is so destructive that one becomes willing to destroy the thing one covets to avoid sharing that thing with someone else.
Envy is manifest today in various obvious and subtle ways. An example of the obvious was mentioned by George Orwell in “The Road to Wigan Pier.” Himself a kind of democratic socialist, Orwell came to the conclusion that some socialists act not out of love for the poor but out of hatred for the rich. For some, that wrath, another deadly sin, is a byproduct of envy.
Still, even in that case, envy can be a response to the incredible disparity of wealth, about which Orwell also wrote. There is a great deal of physical, psychological and spiritual suffering in our world due to poverty. We may be tempted, then, to hate the rich and act out of that hatred. However, we’re called to love all and embrace all and avoid the attitude of the Pharisees who preen about in self-righteousness.
To inoculate ourselves from these attitudes and to foster care for the poor, Pope Francis tells us in his latest apostolic exhortation that “mercy is ‘the beating heart of the Gospel’” (“Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 97). To work toward unity, then, is to try to live in and act out of that mercy. Living mercy and so working toward unity are part and parcel of the same spiritual effort. More on that next month.
Deacon Omar Gutierrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.