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Schubart: The Ethos of Great Wealth

I grew up in the arms of the Holy Family Catholic Church in Morrisville and, although I fell out with the church in my teens, I maintained a deep friendship with the priest I had served as an altar boy. We continued to meet even after he had retired and a stroke had impaired his communication skills. We often talked about what we were reading, philosophical and moral issues, and how the years had changed us.

I remember one such discussion only weeks before he died. Out of the blue, I asked, “When does the accumulation of wealth go from being a necessary human endeavor to a mortal sin?” He smiled enigmatically. Like Pope Francis, he was not a man of hasty or facile judgments. I could see him thinking.

“It depends on an individual’s circumstances,” he said. “As in anything to do with humans, details matter, such as the number of children and dependent family members, one’s living circumstances, special family needs. Don’t get me wrong, beyond a certain point the accumulation of wealth for its own sake is indeed a mortal sin, a sin for which charitable giving may bring absolution. But it’s up to us to judge how much is enough. Having said that, greed and mammon are an offense against God and mankind.”

I asked him how much is too much to want to leave to one’s children? He smiled and answered that “We’ve all seen the spiritual and emotional havoc inherited wealth can visit on succeeding generations. The natural world requires work of us. Humankind needs meaningful work and the psychological rewards it brings. Our work forms and identifies us, whether the work of raising a family or of earning a living to sustain that family. Finding a balance between leaving our children a safety net for life’s challenges, like college, first home-buying, starting a business, unexpected healthcare needs, and paralyzing our children with excessive wealth is the job of every parent. There is no numerical answer,” he answered.

I asked him again if the accumulation of great wealth is a sin. “That is for each of us to answer,” he said, “but wealth beyond immediate and future needs is unforgivable.”

Our conversations always ended this way, leaving me with a way of thinking rather than the simple answers that give us comfort. He died a few weeks later and I lost one of the best and wisest friends I ever had.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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