The strange thing about idols is that they usually travel in our blind spots. We may very well be aware of their dangers, but fail to see that we have succumbed to them. This is true especially when it comes to the idolatry of money. We may agree, for example, with Pope Francis that “the worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money,” but think that it is the greedy rich people’s problem and not necessarily our own. The plank is firmly implanted in our own eye and unless we submit ourselves to some self-examination we may remain permanently blinded to what has always been viewed as one of the Seven Capital Sins.
The Role of Money in Exchange
A word first on the reason many of us our blind to this particular vice. St. Thomas Aquinas, building on the economic teachings of Aristotle, thought that the marketplace was governed by two different types of exchanges which he called natural and unnatural. A natural exchange was one in which one good was traded for another. This might be a barter system or a money as medium of exchange system. A cobbler needs to feed his family and so he might trade a pair of shoes for a cow or he sells the shoes so that he could buy the cow. In either case the end of the cobbler’s transaction was to obtain a cow. It may be that he chooses to save the money so he can purchase the cow later, perhaps when business is slow, but his purpose is always clear—to obtain something he needs to feed his family.
An unnatural exchange, on the other hand, is one in which money ceases to be a medium of exchange but instead becomes the end. The cobbler sells the shoes with the goal of making money and to get rich. He does not have any particular end in mind, even if it is to save for some future hardship.
What also makes an exchange unnatural is when one or both participants has an irrational end in mind. All exchange should be governed by needs and rational wants. The needs are obvious but a rational want represents something that may not be strictly needed but is a reasonable thing to purchase. A second pair of shoes may be a reasonable want, a tenth pair, not so much.
When a commodity is the end of an exchange there is a certain protection against greed. One may desire only so many things. There is only so much room to store them. There are only so many loaves of bread we can eat. There are only so many pairs of shoes we can wear. Our desire may be unreasonable, but there is a natural limit to how much we will desire.
Money is completely different. Our desire for money is infinite. There is no natural limit on how much we can desire. For the rich, their “net worth” becomes merely a game to see how high they can go. This, of course, only happens when money becomes an end instead of a means. When we see it merely as a means to purchase those things we need and rationally want, we will be satisfied with only a certain amount.
Love of Money as a Capital Sin
Scripture tells us that the “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10) and Tradition labels it as one of the Seven Capital Sins. The latter are not sins in the classical sense, but more like motivations that gives rise to the actual sins in our lives. Objectively speaking one may commit the sin of murder, but the personal motivation is always rooted in one of these seven capital sins. We may murder because of wrath or we may murder to grow rich. The act is the same, but the motivation differs.
Understanding this helps us to root out the actual sins in our lives. When our motives change, our acts change. Love of neighbor will only replace love of money when we see it for what it is. Watch yourself over the next few weeks and see how often money motivates you; not by money as being able to purchase things that you need or rationally want, but just the idea of having more money. Whenever I do this exercise I am always surprised by how easily I have fallen into the trap again.
Covetousness, that is a love of money, remains hidden to most of us because it is woven into the fabric of the culture. Our economy is structured such that money is the end. It is not about producing goods that people need and rationally want, but creating a desire for consumption. Advertisers try to convince us we need something. This is all motivated by a love of money. Most people work, not because it provides for needs and rational wants and fulfills them as persons, but because they want to be rich. When you are swimming in water, it is hard not to get wet. The first step is to recognize that the water is what is making you wet and find ways to stay out of the pool. Examining our motivations and ways that we personally contribute to the culture of consumption will help to purify us from this dangerous idol.
What also makes money a particularly deadly snare as an idol is the fact that it can rob us of our trust in God. Money is usually a sign of security for most of us. After all, money can buy all the things we need, or so the thinking goes. Money contributes to the lie that man lives on bread alone. It is not without accident that when religious fervor was stirred in the hearts of Americans during the Second Great Awakening that the motto In God We Trust first appeared on coins. It is a stark reminder that our security is in God and not in money. Our Lord called the poor in spirit, those who put their trust in God and not in money, as blessed.