The term "wealth" is not used here in the technical sense in which it occurs in treatises on economic subjects, but rather in its common acceptation, synonymous with riches. The purpose of this article is not to discuss the various uses to which wealth may be put with advantage to the public weal or that of the individual, but to determine whether and how far there is any employment of it which is obligatory, i.e. is the subject matter of a positive precept. It is unusual with writers on spiritual subjects to say that the possessors of wealth hold it in trust. This does not mean that they are not in any true sense owners, but only that their ownership is not unqualified to the extent of being unburdened by certain duties in its use. To say that one may act as he likes with his own brings forth the obvious rejoinder, what value is then to be attached to the word own ? If it be regarded as that which one may dispose of according to his good pleasure, we have a crude instance of a vicious circle. If it be identified simply with the entire store of a rich man's belongings, then the only sufficient defence of individual ownership fails by proclaiming it to be unrestricted. The beneficiaries in part, at any rate, of that trust are the poor. The command to bestow alms applies with special emphasis to those who have an abundance of this world's goods.
In attempting in general to define the validity and quantity of this obligation theologians have recourse to many distinctions. They separate carefully the various degrees of distress to be relieved, and put stress upon the actual financial standing of those who are to afford the succour. Thus the differences are noted between extreme, grave, and ordinary necessity. Likewise, in the condition of those whose duty to give aid is to be ascertained discrimination is made between: those who have only what is barely required to maintain themselves and family ; those who over and above the mere necessaries of life are provided with what is needed to keep their present social status but nothing more: those who have a real surplus. The wealthy may be deemed to belong to this third class. It is a pagan and selfish view that all of a rich man's income or holdings is demanded for the upkeep or betterment of his social position and that thus he cannot be said to ever have anything beyond his needs. The accepted Catholic teaching is that those who have a real superfluity of goods (as many other than multi-millionaires have) are bound to help those in want, whatever be their grade of misery. So much at least seems plain from the words of Christ ( Matthew 25:41-46 ). It is not so easy to define precisely when this obligation is a grave one. Some hold that it is only so in cases of extreme necessity, i.e. when a person is so situated as to be unable to escape death or some equivalent evil without assistance from others. However, Christ threatens eternal damnation (Matt., la. cit.) for the neglect to succour needs such as those which constantly exist in human society. St. John (I Epist., iii, 17) asks the pertinent question: "He that hath the substance of this world, and shall see his brother in need, and shall shut up his bowels from him: how doth the charity of God abide in him?"
The more probable opinion seems to be that a wealthy man is bound under pain of grievous sin to help those in want, whether the need be grave, i.e. such as would compel descent from one's actual social condition, or merely of the ordinary type, such as is experienced by the general run of the poor. A rich man does not, however, incur the guilt of grievous sin through failure to render aid in each and every instance, but only by habitually refusing to answer the appeals of the unfortunate. The Fathers, such as Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, and Augustine, characterize such persons as false to their trust and robbers of what has been given to them to distribute. The judgment of theologians is, however, not unanimous in this matter. Hence, the confessor could not impose a strict obligation as binding under pain of grievous sin, nor could he consequently refuse absolution because of unwillingness to fulfil this duty.
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