A couple of weeks ago in an article titled “The Danger of Riches,” after considering the words of Jesus that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” I asked the question, How do you define the word “rich”?
At a silent men’s retreat that I attended during the 1990s, one of the men at the retreat asked the retreat master, Fr. John A. Hardon, this question: “How much wealth are we allowed to accumulate before we are in danger of losing our souls?” Fr. Hardon hesitated and then responded, “I can say with certainty that it is impossible for a billionaire to get into heaven.” He then went on to tell us about how he had provided spiritual direction to a billionaire and had convinced him to sell his fleet of jets and use the proceeds from the sale to help the poor and to teach others about the Catholic faith.
The retreat that I’m referring to began on a Wednesday evening and ended after a Sunday morning Mass, at which time all the men were allowed to talk and visit with each while eating breakfast in a large cafeteria. During breakfast, there was a lively discussion at the table where I was sitting about Fr. Hardon’s response to the question. Some of the men wondered why he didn’t offer us more guidance concerning the question of wealth and riches.
Fr. Hardon had extensive experience in providing spiritual direction to wealthy Catholics. He was careful about establishing a set formula for determining whether a person’s level of wealth put him or her in danger of losing his or her soul. I think he was more concerned about a person’s degree of spirituality and devotion to the teachings of the Catholic Church rather than the value of investments the person had accumulated.
By today’s standards, I suppose the rich man that Jesus talked about in the parable of the rich fool would be considered a centimillionaire ($100 million or more) or maybe even a billionaire. He had accumulated so much wealth that he no longer had enough room to store his goods. His plan was to tear down his storage facilities so he could build larger facilities to store the additional goods he was continuing to accumulate.
If you had a billion dollars, you would be able to spend a thousand dollars a day for 2,739 years and still have money left over. If you invested your billion dollars and received a rate of return of only 4 percent, you would earn investment income of $40 million per year. You could spend that $40 million every year without ever touching the $1 billion principal. Because most billionaires own controlling interest in multiple businesses, they routinely receive a rate of return well in excess of 4 percent a year.
After stating that it is impossible for a billionaire to get into heaven, Fr. Hardon added that a person who is worth $1 billion or more has no need for God. He can buy anything he wants, any time he wants. Besides goods and services, his purchases can also include influence and power.
Every year, Forbes magazine publishes a list of all the billionaires in the world. To my knowledge, none of them are committed or devout Catholics.
To further complicate the discussion of what Jesus may have been referring to when he talked about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God, according to one legend, the “eye of a needle” was a reference to a small gate at the entrance of Jerusalem that was opened at night when the main gate was closed. The only way a camel could pass through the smaller gate was when its baggage was removed and it was forced to stoop so it could squeeze through the gate. There is no evidence to verify that such a gate actually existed.
Even if the legend of the smaller gate is not true and Christ was actually referring to the eye of a sewing needle, I suppose one could argue that, according to Fr. Hardon, a person is allowed to accumulate wealth of several hundred million dollars as long as the total amount accumulated is not a billion dollars or more. Of course, that’s not what Fr. Hardon meant.
This entire discussion started with my question How do you define the word rich?
Whatever your answer to my question is, it’s going to be different from the answer given by every other Catholic I ask. The reason for this is because your definition of the word rich is going to be based on your own personal beliefs about money. And where did those beliefs come from?
Because we were all born as a blank slate (with no knowledge or experience), all the beliefs we possess were at one time or another constructed in our minds and eventually accepted by us as true. Most of our beliefs about money were formed and constructed automatically and unconsciously as a result of what we were exposed to while we were growing up.
While we ordinarily think about beliefs in the context of God and religion, each person has thousands of different beliefs. Other than (1) forced behavior and (2) built-in behavior (such as driving), all behavior is based upon (and arises out of) one or more beliefs. Name a behavior and there’s a good chance I can name the beliefs that make up the foundation for that behavior.
In addition to our beliefs about money, we have beliefs about whether God really exists, the church we belong to, the people we communicate with, how our children should be raised, what the appropriate age is for our children to start dating, whether we should take a shower once a day (or less often), how often we should wash our hair, how much we should be paid to work, how much we should pay someone to work for us, how many hours of sleep we should get at night, whether eating eggs is harmful to our health, whether global warming is fact or fiction, whether smoking marijuana is helpful or harmful, whether drinking coffee is harmful to our health, whether there is life on other planets, whether it’s wasteful to throw food away, and whether premarital sex is destructive to a relationship.
While the Catholic Church has provided us with specific guidance about what our beliefs should be concerning God, marriage, sex (both within and outside marriage), raising children, how we should treat others, and how we should behave and develop ourselves, there is no reservoir of knowledge or experience available concerning the acquisition and use of money. In other words, there is a glaring deficiency in guidance about what behavior is appropriate when it comes to money.
There is a reason for this, which I’ll discuss next week.