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Rich Bad, Poor Good? Is Wealth Good For Our Spiritual Health? | Mary Beth Bonacci

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If you haven't heard about it yet, Peggy Noonan has written an amazingly wonderful book about Pope John Paul II called John Paul the Great. I've actually only read one chapter, but it's already given me a lot to think about.

The one quote that jumped out at me wasn't even from JPII. It was from Michael Novak, who was himself quoting the philosopher Jacques Maritain. The quote, through all the paraphrasing, said that affluence inspires us to look beyond the material to find meaning in our lives.

In other words, it's when we have money that we realize that money doesn't fulfill us.

I can't say that I can speak from overwhelming direct experience on this one. I have always been what one would consider solidly middle class--well, sometimes much less solidly than others. But I've always had food and shelter and a car to drive, so compared to much of the world's population, I suppose I'm doing quite well.

We frequently associate poverty with piety. After all, religious priests, brothers and sisters all take a vow of poverty. Many of the saints lived in voluntary poverty. Jesus Himself lived as a poor man. Combine that with the oft-repeated saying that "money is the root of all evil" and it's not too far a leap to conclude that the wealthy are somehow less sanctified than those who struggle.

But alas, it isn't quite so simple. The "saying" is actually a misquotation of 1 Timothy 6:10, which says "The love of money is the root of all evil." (Italics mine.) That's different. It's not having money that's evil. It's loving it, setting it up as a god, making it the main goal or sole aim of one's life.

There are, of course, many wealthy people who make that money the center of their lives. They are tempted by the "heresy of materialism" to rely on their riches instead of on the Lord. They become comfortable and confident in their material power, and they forget that their entire lives are dependent on Him. Wealth can be tremendously dangerous to the spiritual life for that very reason.

But these dangers are by no means limited to the rich. How many people with little or no money make the acquisition and retention of money the centerpiece of their lives? In dealing with others, how many people of every income bracket look primarily at their own pocketbook instead of at the image and likeness of God in that other person? How many think of more about personal gain than about justice and fairness and "doing the right thing"?

In many ways, those who are poorer can be more tempted to make money a god because they don't have much of it. They think that money would solve all of their problems. Wealth is the "greener grass" on the other side of the hill, where life is perfect.

It is, of course, not universally true that all poor people make money a god, just as it isn't true that all wealthy people or all middle class people or all of any class of people make money a god. There are many, many astonishingly generous people in the world who very little money themselves. They give not from the excess, but from their want. They go without so that others can have a little more. God will surely reward them, far more handsomely than the will the rest of us who donate only what is left over after we've satisfied our own material desires.

My point here is simple. The acquisition of wealth doesn't automatically degrade a person's holiness. It can in fact do exactly the opposite. As Michael Novak says, "It's exactly because people have bread that they realize you can't live by bread alone."

Acquiring wealth can be a very disillusioning experience. When I first graduated from college, I worked in the Silicon Valley, where very young men and women all around me were becoming rich almost overnight thanks to generous salary and stock option plans. I have rarely seen such a spiritually hungry group of people. They discovered early on that money doesn't satisfy the deeper longings of the human soul. Some turned to religion. Others just dug in deeper, figuring the next million might satisfy where the previous millions had failed.

Remember all of those saints who lived lives of extreme poverty? Many of them--Sts. Teresa of Avila and Francis of Assisi among them--actually renounced significant wealth to embrace that poverty. They realized clearly the truth that the rest of us are inclined to resist.

Wealth will never satisfy the deepest desires of our hearts. The "God-shaped hole" at the center our lives is meant to be filled with Him. If we try to fill it with twenties and fifties and stocks and bonds--or the pursuit thereof--we'll just clog it up and keep Him out.

All of us--rich, poor and in-between--need to figure that out.

• This article originally appeared on RealLove.net on December 10, 2006.

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• The State Which Would Provide Everything | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
• St. John of the Cross | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.
• John Paul II and the Dignity of the Human Person | Carl E. Olson

Other IgnatiusInsight.com Articles by Mary Beth Bonacci:

Lust in the Workplace: It's Not Always About You Know What
The Love Behind the Rules
The Horrible "H" Word
Teens, Sex, and Real Love | Interview with Mary Beth Bonacci
There's More to Prayer Than "Saying Our Prayers"
Was Pope John Paul II Anti-Woman?
JPII, Why Did We Love You?
A Hero Goes to His Reward
Some Atrocities are Worse than Others
Parents Love the Chastity Girl
The Attack on Abstinence

Mary Beth Bonacci is internationally known for her talks and writings about love, chastity, and sexuality. Since 1986 she has spoken to tens of thousands of young people, including 75,000 people in 1993 at World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. She appears frequently on radio and television programs, including several appearances on MTV.

Mary Beth has written two books, We're on a Mission from God and Real Love, and also writes a regular, syndicated column for various publications. She has developed numerous videos, including her brand-newest video series, also entitled Real Love. Her video Sex and Love: What's a Teenager to Do? was awarded the 1996 Crown Award for Best Youth Curriculum.

Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate in Communications from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and is listed in Outstanding Young Women of America for 1997. Her apostolate, Real Love Incorporated is dedicated to presenting the truth about the Church's teaching about sexuality, chastity, and marriage.

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