If we look at the advice Jesus gives regarding wealth, it may seem like he is calling everyone to denounce all possessions: “Sell what belongs to you.”(Matt. 19:21) and “store up treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20) because “Where a man’s heart is, there his treasure is also” (Matt. 6:21).

But since the time of Christ, the tradition of using wealth to give glory to God has been celebrated.

Many wealthy Christians have spread God’s kingdom with their wealth. St. Katherine Drexel used her wealth to establish missions to Native Americans and Xavier University.  St. Elizabeth of Hungary, a queen, built a hospital for the poor and served them herself.

The Bible is also full of characters who used their prosperity to give glory to God. Joseph of Arimathea, “a rich man,” laid Jesus’ body in his new tomb (Matthew 27:57), and Abram “was very rich in livestock, silver and gold.” (Genesis 13:2). 

St. Clement of Alexandria, who lived in the second and third century A.D., said wealth itself is not capable of doing good or evil, and is not responsible for avarice. He clarifies that Jesus calls us to put away not the means of our livelihood but the things that make bad use of them, the “infirmities and passions of the soul.”

This ancient wisdom is still relevant today. The misuse of wealth continues to give successful free market enterprises a bad reputation. As a result, many countries have passed socialistic laws in attempt to prevent the misuses of the free market.  This type of government intervention was discouraged by Pope Leo XIII, who said socialists, “would deprive (the wage-earner)  of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.”

He was following in the tradition of the scholastics who helped develop the concept of a free market society – while demonstrating how the free market supports human dignity.

While the Church has not baptized any economic system, many scholastics such as Franciscan friar Pierre de Jean Olivi (1248-1298), Jean Buridan (1300-1358)  and French Bishop Nicolas Oresme (1325-1382), supported a free market economy. To learn more about the scholastics’ contribution to economics, read Thomas E. Woods or Murray Rothbard.

In his book “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization,” Woods – who holds four Ivy League degrees –  explains that Buridan, rector of the University of Paris, demonstrated how money emerged freely and spontaneously on the market. Woods also states that Oresme made significant contributions to monetary theory and believed that government should not interfere with the monetary system.

Woods additionally argues that Jean Olivi was the first to propose the subjective value theory, which states that a just price is not determined by labor and other production costs, but emerges from the interaction of buyers and sellers on the market. The subjective value theory is arguably the basis of a free market economy.

I don’t mean to demonstrate what the Church approves or disapproves, but only to show the contributions many Catholic thinkers have made to economics.

As St. John Paul II stated, “The moral causes of prosperity… reside in a constellation of virtues: industriousness, competence, order, honesty, initiative, frugality, thrift, spirit of service, keeping one’s word, daring – in short, love for work well done.”

A true free market is founded upon neighbors directly serving neighbors in creative, useful ways. It trusts that people are good in nature because of their inherent human dignity given by God. So it turns out that Jesus’ calling to “love your neighbor as yourself” is just as good for a prosperous economy as it is for our individual lives.

Kilby is a freelance writer for The Monitor and editor of Rambling Spirit magazine (www.ramblingspirit.com). He is a parishioner in St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Yardville. ed.