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How to pull up sin by its roots

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The love of money is frighteningly strong and arises early. The promise of a one dollar allowance motivates my 8 year old son to take out the kitchen trash every day and, once a week, to take the bins to the curb -- in rain, snow, sleet, and hail. He would not do this, so consistently at least, for love of his mother.

Earlier still than love of money is love of things. A five year old might clean up an entire messy play room to receive a single small toy, such as a matchbox car. But money quickly becomes more desirable, because of its indefiniteness. To have money in one’s pocket is to have a little bit of power. “I can buy anything I want with this”, my son thinks. He has three dollars and quite literally he believes he has a small fortune.

If “the love of money is the root of all evil,” as St. Paul teaches, does this mean that my son has already turned bad? I am exploiting and maybe strengthening his evil tendencies by offering him an allowance? The love of money -- or “greed,” “covetousness”-- is one of the Seven Capital Sins. Might a boy like my son, then, be encouraged to reflect upon and perhaps confess his sin of greed?

I bet you don’t understand “the love of money is the root of all evil” the way St. Thomas Aquinas did. I bet you think the maxim means that love of money is the starting point of evil -- that it’s a kind of cause, and that other evils spring from it like effects.

Aquinas specifically denies this. According to Aquinas, when St. Paul uses the word “root,” he means to refer to the function of the roots of a plant or tree. Roots provide water for the plant to grow. In the same way, Aquinas says, money nourishes and gives sustenance to evil.

“We see that by riches,” Aquinas writes, “man acquires the means of committing any sin whatever, and of sating his desire for any sin whatever, since money helps man to obtain all manner of temporal goods, according to Ecclesiastes 10:19: ‘All things obey money’: so that in this sense the desire for riches is the root of all sins.”

The starting point for sin, Aquinas teaches, its originating cause, is something else -- it’s pride. Pride and money work together like a pair born for each other. Say the words , “I can buy anything I want with this money,” placing emphasis on the words “I want,” and you have pride; place emphasis instead on the word “anything,” and you have love of money. Pride supplies the goal of self-assertion and self-aggrandizement, and love of money steps forward offering the ways and means.

It’s not that pride has to come first in time. Pride always fills a spiritual vacuum. Suppose you have a jejune desire for lots of money -- just so that you can do anything you want. That you are supposing you might use money for anything you want, instead of for some good purpose (the more specific the better) is already pride. Idle money in one’s hands is a devil’s workshop.

By “love of money” we actually mean “love of money, just for itself.” Because money is an instrument, the moment we love it for something else, our love becomes love for that other thing, not love of the money. Suppose it’s a definite idea in the mind of a boy earning his allowance that he is going to save his money to buy Christmas presents for his brothers and sisters--no love of money there, only charity.

Likewise, we can allow an 8-year-old boy the fantastical thoughts that with three dollars he is fabulously rich, and that he can do anything he wants with such a sum of money. His having money -- his little share of power -- can helpfully lead him to think of himself as more grown-up and, in his own little way, as like his parents.

Yet, money will help him to mature only if he is taught that money means, not power, but rather authority -- and that all authority implies responsibility. It is imperative that his thought that “I can do anything I want” remain merely fantastical. He shouldn’t suppose that he can spend large portions of it without checking with his parents, or even small sums without being prepared, at least, to give them an account if asked.

It works the same way with us grown up children. When we desire money for some definite, good purpose, we do not sin, or when we desire money indefinitely, but suppose that we are accountable to God for its good use, not free to spend it on whatever we want.

When have we perhaps committed the sin of greed? When we don’t desire or use money only as a necessary means to some good. Here’s a checklist for uprooting the bad love:

-- Have I wanted and used money for no good purpose at all (out of “caprice”)?

-- Have I wanted it for a bad purpose, precisely in service of my pride (“vanity”)?

-- Have I wanted it for a good but not a necessary end (what might be called a “mere” comfort)?

-- Have I wanted or used more of it than was needed for the good purpose I hoped to achieve (“extravagance”)?

Michael Pakaluk is a corresponding academician of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas and professor of philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va. (www.ipsciences.edu).

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