St Thomas Aquinas and Pope Francis are right to warn of this capital vice
The financial scandals of Rome do not exercise many of us the way that the sexual scandals of the past have done. That is understandable. Money is more abstract. It seems less personal. We are less sensitive to the harm it causes. But all of the other disorderings of the world which we rightly lament begin with the capital vices – not least avarice.
“All things obey money,” the author of Ecclesiastes tells us. For this reason, St. Thomas Aquinas says that avarice is a capital vice because it is a vice “which gives rise to other vices.” The Greeks called it philargyria or “the love of silver.” We call it the love of money. It’s not that money is bad. Wealth is an external good, and can be put to good ends. But Aquinas warns us about the “immoderate love of possessing.” This interior love of money, this lust for possession, “causes disorder in his affections,” and thus causes many other disorders of love. This is why we tend to say that the love of money is the root of all evil.
There is nothing wrong with wealth, and there is nothing wrong with the Holy See having wealth, and making investments. These are external goods which the Church needs to carry on her divine mission to make disciples of all nations. Yet every sin is a corruption of some good. And so when we say that the love of money is the root of all evil, what we mean is that some spiritual corruption has taken place in relation to money. As Aquinas says, “the lesser the good, the more deformed is the sin.”
Avarice isn’t just the love of money. It’s the pleasure a person takes in considering himself “the possessor of riches.” If billions sit in off-ledger swiss accounts, and you control them, you are, in a very real sense, the possessor of riches. It is this pleasure in being a possessor that makes avarice a spiritual, and not a carnal sin. It is, as Pope Francis reminds us, an angelic sin. It is akin to the devil’s desire to be the possessor of his own light — which is why he is called Lucifer. Avarice darkens the light of the soul in such a way that other evils arise out of this private pleasure of possession.
Out of this capital vice rises “an insensibility to mercy,” a hardening of the heart that prevents us from seeing the harm we do to our neighbors or the common good. The one who takes pleasure in private, secret possession will also become restless, anxious about one’s own status and needs. In the quest to become a possessor, the covetous man will employ force, violence, lying, deceit, falsehood, and finally, Aquinas adds, he will arrive at the treachery of Judas himself who betrays Christ for the love of silver – the weight of which can feel so good in the self-sufficient hand.