SPECIAL SERIES: The Seven Deadly Sins
Greed: it is good (with reservations)!
Gordon Gekko, the infamous lead character in the 1987 movie Wall Street, uttered the dictum, "Greed is good", which was to become the anthem for the decade of the 80s. Greed, or variously avarice and covetousness, are one of the Seven Deadly Sins, that popular list of "cardinal vices" that seem to have entered Catholic lore back in the 13th century. They have left their imprint on art and literature over the centuries since, figuring in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and, more recently, James Bailey. Stephan Sondheim's musical Getting Away with Murder, Kurt Weill's opera and ballet The Seven Deadly Sins, as well as the 1995 movie Se7en all took the cardinal vices as their leitmotif. Rumour has it that the seven castaways on Gilligan's Island each represent one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Can you guess which character stood for Greed?
Having said that, however, it might come as a surprise to many who have not been keeping up with changes in the Church that Catholic theology agrees with Gordon Gekko that "Greed is good". The Tenth Commandment certainly condemns the coveting of a neighbour's goods, including his wife, slaves, ox, ass or any other "property" (Ex 20:17; cf. Deut 5:21). Similarly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that "The tenth commandment forbids greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without limit" (2536). But the Catechism also qualifies this statement by saying "It is not a violation of this commandment to desire to obtain things that belong to one's neighbour, provided this is done by just means" (2537). The issue then seems to be one of justice rather than law. And this is typical of more recent Catholic theology on sin.
Breaking the Law
In the past, Catholics imagined that living morally was primarily fulfilled by obeying the law, either the Ten Commandments (divine law) or the commandments of the Church (ecclesial laws). Thomist theology also included the "natural laws" that flowed from observation of the created order, which were expressed in the moral teaching of the Church on sex, contraception, homosexuality, and social justice. "It's in the Bible" or "The Church says so" were often our most important reasons for being moral (Gula, 2006).
Sin was viewed in the terms of jurisprudence as a crime against God and a transgression of the divine law, which warranted penance and/or punishment. Analogously, this view was like driving faster than the speed limit designated for a particular stretch of road. Breaking that law made the action sinful, and the offender liable to a fine or incarceration. Conversely, if there was no mandated law, there was no question of sin. Using our analogy, we could say that if there were a section of highway with no speed limit one could travel as fast as one liked. Accordingly, the Church created a whole swag of laws, both drawn from the Bible and from Natural Law to dictate behaviour in all the various situations in life. Not to mention as well a whole list of appropriates penances or punishments to curb errant behaviour.
Of course, the Seven Deadly Sins do not depend on breaking laws as such. Medieval churchmen saw them as personal vices that could lead one to break the Law. Such vices destroy one's spiritual health, incline one to sin and ultimately lead to eternal damnation. Greed was particularly heinous in that it was seen as leading directly to the infringement of the social and property rights of others — issues that one might think a more modern phenomenon. One commentator (CBC, 2006) notes that Thomas Aquinas expressed an atypically socialist view in his Summa Theologicae (2:118:1) when he described Greed as "a sin directly against one's neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them". Particularly nasty punishments were reserved for the Greedy in Hell. In Dante's Inferno, the greedy are condemned to an eternity of performing useless labour, reflecting the uselessness of a lifetime of greed. Other authors suggested that one would be slowly boiled in oil for all time (Deadlysins.com, 2006).
Catholic theology has recently moved away from this "legal model" for understanding the moral life and sin. The crime and punishment view has been seen to be deficient in many ways. For one thing, the demands of being a faithful follower of Jesus, of living according to the vision and values of the gospel, challenge us in ways that can never be adequately prescribed by law (Gula, 2006). For another, we have come to see the Bible, not as a collection of teachings on moral and ethical behaviour per se, but rather as a record of the graciousness of God who calls us to deeper relationship with the divine being and with our neighbours (Feister, 2006).
A New Take on Sin and Greed
The old legal model of sin and punishment tends to make morality and ethics personal issues. Sin is something that I do that endangers my salvation. Accordingly, the guiding principle in moral behaviour becomes a matter of saving my soul through obedience to the law. This approach neatly skirts the more important social or "relational" dimensions of sin. Paul reminds us that no one lives for himself or herself (Rom 14:7). Paul speaks of the Christian community as the Body of Christ composed of various members who, nevertheless, suffer together and rejoice together as one (1 Cor 12:26-27). This is so also for the wider communities within which we spend our lives, and which constitute the network of relationships that joins each of us in responsibility to others and to all of creation (Gula, 2006).
Catholic moral theology views morality as akin to the maintenance of ecological balance in the world. Just as we can violate and compromise the environment by polluting our waterways and air with toxic waste, we can do violence to our moral ecology when we sully our relationships with discord, dissension, fear, mistrust and alienation. According to this view, greed, or more alternatively avarice (Lt. avarus, meaning "to crave"), becomes injurious to the moral ecology when "wanting more" or "wanting what you don't have" becomes an obsession that poisons relationships with other people.
With an incredible insight into human nature the framers of the Catechism describe this excessive "wanting" in terms of a "passion" for the "power" that comes with the acquisition of "riches" (2536). The problem with greed, as indeed the point of the greedy obsession, is not so much the goods that one craves, but the prestige, power, and position that one associates with "having more than the other guy". Moreover, greed only becomes sinful when one becomes so blinded by the obsession that one is willing to do anything to attain both the object of one's desire and the power that one imagines its possession will bring.
By the same token, greed that is not obsessive or injurious to one's relationships can be good and valuable. It is not in itself wrong to desire what another has. Indeed, healthy competition and vigorous aspiration can be a goad to personal improvement for oneself and one's loved ones. Those who seek to attain goods and a standard of living comparable to others around them by just means do not commit sin, nor are they endangering the moral ecology. Thus, with Gordon Gekko, the Catholic devotee can affirm that "greed is good". However, unlike Gordon Gekko, the Catholic moralist must frown upon those who would seek personal gain by unjust means — that is those whose obsession to possess would lead them to rationalize that "the means justifies the ends".
This new take on sin and greed is the result of both the insights of modern biblical scholarship and other significant philosophical shifts within the Church and wider society. Vatican II embraced anew the biblical themes of covenant, heart and conversion, and not law, as the primary moral concepts. Notions of responsibility and justice have displaced older concepts like obligation and law as the primary characteristics of the moral life. The new wave in philosophy has stressed the dignity of the human person and the social aspects of human character. Together these shifts in theology and philosophy support a new social or relational model of the morality. The relational model emphasizes personal responsibility for protecting the bonds of peace and justice that sustain human relationships. Within this framework, greed can only be the occasion for sin when it becomes obsessive, thereby polluting and souring one's network of relationships.
Bibliography and further food for the journey:
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