Preferential Option for Envy

Among those of a leftist political bent, it is worse to be known as rich than as an abortionist or an adulterer. For while the DNC fights for abortion and loves Bill Clinton, it continues the tired rhetoric of class hatred, notably in its platform:

[Republicans] think that if we simply eliminate protections for families and consumers, let Wall Street write its own rules again, and cut taxes for the wealthiest, the market will solve all our problems on its own. They argue that if we help corporations and wealthy investors maximize their profits by whatever means necessary, whether through layoffs or outsourcing, it will automatically translate into jobs and prosperity that benefits us all. They would … follow the same path of fiscal irresponsibility of the past administration—giving trillions of dollars in tax cuts weighted towards millionaires and billionaires while sticking the middle class with the bill…

[We believe in] asking the wealthiest to again contribute their fair share…

These are pulled just from the first section of the platform, but it illustrates the point. (Bonus eyebrow-raiser: the DNC wants to create an economy “built from the middle out.” Not from the bottom too? When did the Dems stop liking the poor?)

Who are the rich? To be in the top 5% of household income earners in 2010 only required $180,810 and the average household income of this top 5% was only $287,686. A household where the husband and wife are doctors could easily fall into this top 5%. So could a small business owner during a particularly good year. I only provide the data for context in case readers inclined to gripe about “the rich” may unintentionally be offending their neighbors, coworkers, or fellow parishioners.

Why is it okay to dislike the wealthy? Celebrities who make gobs of money rarely provoke such ire. If we are to avoid the near occasion of sin, and if envy is one of the seven deadly sins, then clearly there is a danger of envy if we begrudge people their justly-earned income. New Advent’s Catholic Encyclopedia notes that

[Envy] is defined to be a sorrow which one entertains at another’s well-being because of a view that one’s own excellence is in consequence lessened. Its distinctive malice comes from the opposition it implies to the supreme virtue of charity. The law of love constrains us to rejoice rather than to be distressed at the good fortune of our neighbour. Besides, such an attitude is a direct contradiction of the spirit of solidarity which ought to characterize the human race and, especially, the members of the Christian community. The envious man tortures himself without cause, morbidly holding as he does, the success of another to constitute an evil for himself.

More authoritatively, the Catechism states

2534 The tenth commandment…forbids coveting the goods of another… The tenth commandment concerns the intentions of the heart; with the ninth, it summarizes all the precepts of the Law.

If it concerns “the intentions of the heart” and not the size of net wealth, is it not possible that, though some of the rich have a disordered appetite for fast cars, fancy clothes, etc., that people of lower incomes may as well? Is greed only committable by people above a certain income?

The nearby CCC paragraphs (2534-2557) stress the point made in 1 Timothy 6:10 that “the love of money is the root of all evils.” Not money itself, but the love of it. Jesus clearly asks his disciples to practice detachment from earthly goods, but this again is a matter of our hearts and where our treasures lie. Another relevant passage is Matthew 19:

[Jesus said to his disciples] “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Note a few things: Jesus just says only that a rich man will have trouble entering heaven, but the disciples wonder whether anyone can be saved. They interpret Jesus as saying that the sin threatening our salvation is common to everyone, which is of course true of envy. If Jesus only meant that the top 1% would have it rough getting through the pearly gates, why would the disciples be “greatly astonished?” Further, Jesus responds to them by noting that the source of salvation does not lie in physically divesting oneself of all monetary assets, but in God, with whom “all things are possible.” It’s an odd kind of works-righteousness that presumes one’s salvation is secured by staying below a certain income limit.

I’m not arguing that the rich are immune from envy; only that they do not have a monopoly on it. Clearly, then, for those people (rich or poor) who struggle with envy the solution lies in addressing their morality. It would seem to violate the principles of justice and subsidiarity to “cure” a rich person of the sin of envy by simply empowering the state to take more of their income.

I’ve stressed in past posts that investors and capitalists have the same amount of human dignity as do laborers; I will likewise stress here that the rich have the same amount of dignity as the poor. I know we are to have a preferential option for the poor, but does that mean we have to have a preferential option against the rich?



  • The Poor Rich

    Why do you only compare wage incomes, Professor? If you look at net worth (and we don’t know about assets linked to offshore accounts), the wealth gap between the richest Americans and the typical family has more than doubled over the past 50 years. In 1962, the top 1% had 125 times the net worth of the median household. That shot up to 288 times by 2010. That trend is happening for two reasons: Not only are the rich getting richer, but the middle class is also getting poorer. Most Americans below the upper echelon have suffered a decline in wealth in recent decades. The median household saw its net worth drop to $57,000 in 2010, down from $73,000 in 1983. It would have been $119,000 had wealth grown equally across households. The top 1%, on the other hand, saw their average wealth grow to $16.4 million, up from $9.6 million in 1983. This is due in large part to the growing income inequality divide, as well as the sharp rise in value of stocks over the period. Net worth counts all assets including real estate holdings, minus debts. The distribution of wealth is way more unequal than the super-unequal distribution of income and wages. So Professor, your using income only as an indicator of wealth, in my estimation, amounts to a conscious effort at disninformation and waging class warfare on your part.

  • chris

    The Dems not only left the poor out of the platform and lowered the threshold of the “wealthy” but they parade their own wealth and demonstrate their own lack of connecting with their fellow countrymen on the most fundamental issues. Evidently they are either immune to the paying “their fair share” or they think that they are not to be envied because of their political affiliation. It is most sad that the real platform of the Democrat Party is the propagation of sin and vice in the name of fleeting temporal power.

  • The Poor are Envious and Greedy

    That’s your argument it appears. I don’t envy the rich — for I know that they will have a tougher time getting into heaven than poor and working families that have to struggle to make ends meet. Why is calling for justice and wanting the rich to pay their fair share of taxes a sign of envy? Claiming that such people are guilty of the sin of envy seems indicative of the sin of greed. And there are more indicators of wealth than just income. And as we all know, income from offshore accounts isn’t included as income on tax statements. Seems to me that folks supporting Romney/Ryan are the ones guilty of waging class warfare. Preferential option for the poor. The Priority of Labor. Get that piece of chalk writing thos two phrases at 1000 times on the blackboard Mr. Professor Sir!

    • Micha Elyi

      You misunderstand, Ms. P. Envious-Greedy, the author’s argument is that you are envious and greedy. Despite your protestations of “I don’t envy the rich” your other words betray you.

      You illustrate the mindset Mr. Shaughnessy warns of, one who cares little about the genuine “preferential option for the poor” but instead wishes to use those words as a populist club to demand “a preferential option against the rich”.

    • Maryellen Schroeder

      ON the news radio yesterday a gentleman was quoted as saying “The HAVES in this country do not want ‘have nots’ to have anything.” I wondered where he had the proof of that statement. I also think he is wrong. I am sure the “haves” don’t mind if the “have nots” get things at all. The “haves” like their lifestyle, but there is no evidence that they seek actively to thwart others from getting whatever “stuff” they can. It seems the quote really says that those who consider themselves “have nots” (they may actually have quite a bit, and certainly do compared to other countries,)are the ones who want the “haves” not to have anything, (or at least not to “have” more than they do!!) If this isn’t envy, I don’t know what is. It is also an example of the “stuff” mentality of our society.

  • Francis

    At the time I am writing this, my previous comment has only 56 dislikes. Come on, people (person)! You can do better than that!

    To reduce the Church’s long-standing, gospel-based principal of Preferential Option for the Poor to simple envy of the rich is beyond ridiculous. The idea behind the Option for the Poor and Vulnerable is that, in part, every institution (including government) must take into consideration how its policies are going to affect the least among us. Why should the government protect the wealthy from taxes that are being levied upon those who are not wealthy? It is not class warfare or even covetousness to suggest that those who are most capable contribute their fair share of taxes for the common good of society.

    • M and J

      I agree, it is ridiculous to reduce Preferential Option down to simple envy. But not in the way, I think, that you do. This article doesn’t do that, it’s the idea of “fair share” and rhetoric of class warfare that have done that. It is clearly a call to stoke the envy of those who have less towards those who have more.

      What is a person’s “fair share”? I have yet to meet someone who espouses those words who can definitivly say what that number is. When President Obama calls for taxing the “rich” and for people to pay their “fair share” is he not appealing to envy? He himself is extremely wealthy according to the scale of this country where even the poorest here live like a king compared to much of the rest of the world. Does contributing your “fair share” to the government obviate the need for you to help others. I think that for many who espouse the “Fair Share” mentality it does just that. Is the “fair share” the same today as it is tomorrow? If I am jealous of my neighbor who makes $180,810 per year and we tax their “fair share” down to the point where I make more than he am I now the bad guy? Reason tells me this is fundementally a spurious argument

      We shouldn’t envy or be jealous of other’s successes. A drive to create and succeed is part of what makes us human. Compassion for those who need help bring us closer to God. You don’t get a pass on that because you pay more taxes or because you pay no taxes. Or because you are “rich” or “poor”. There is always someone who is poorer and, at times, in need. We help those people regardless of where we are on the “rich” scale.

      As an afterthought, it would be a good time to point out that we are already progressivly taxed in this country. Indeed, a sizable part of this country pay no taxes once credits and rebates are accounted for. The class warfare rhetoric on the left ends up betraying the very poor that they are trying to help. Of course, this has all been addressed by the Vatican’s effort to curtail Liberation Theology which is the root of the class warfare argument for taxation. And this is because that argument is based on envy as a motivator and not charity (as the article above points out).

      I think that even Jesus would expect that once you taught a man to fish he’d do the fishing, not rely on someone to bring him a fish every day courtesy of a government “fish-a-day” program supported by tax dollars from “rich” folks.

      • Robert

        I accidentally hit the dislike button on your comment instead of the like. You are absolutely correct. I love it when Americans start talking about “paying their fair share.” So, lets follow this to its conclusion, since we’re talking about the morality of wealth redistribution- which is exactly what we’re talking about. Is Francis ready to give up all the mod cons, and move into a mud house? Americans are the richest 1% of the world, so if we are really all about paying our fair share, shouldn’t we all lower our standard of living? The whole idea is emotive, not logicical.

    • MARY

      The wealthy already do pay their fair share. The top 10% of earners pay 71% of all federal income tax while earning 43% of the income, while the bottom 50% paid only 2% of taxes. Almost half of Americans pay no federal taxes. Which among those groups recieves the benefits (food stamps, free school lunch, medicaid, fuel assistance, etc)? It is when the Democrats keep insisting on taking more and getting the poor to believe they are entitled to the earnings of others that they encourage class warfare.

    • Lisa

      OK, Francis, what do you think is the “fair share” of the top 5% or top 10%? Everyone always talks about them paying their fair share, but I have yet to see anyone who thinks they don’t pay enough put a number on it. Should they pay 20%? 50%? 99%? I really would like to know how much you think is enough.
      (People, please DO NOT post what they do pay now. At least not yet. I want to know what Francis thinks they should pay.)

    • Jim T

      I couldn’t be sure what your first post was saying. Now you’ve clarified it. You have unfairly accused the author of reductionism, and then do to the author’s treatise just what you accuse him of doing. I’m sure you’ve heard a great deal of the questions and arguments against your position already. I would only say that rather than being grateful for what you have, and freely sharing it with others, you seem to be looking at what other people have, and are upset by the fact that they are not using it in a way that makes you happy. I’d encourage you to go to one of the websites that let you determine how wealthy you are compared to the rest of the world, and with that information, set about correcting that inequality with YOUR OWN resources. You don’t need to wait for a law to be passed to do it – you can start today!

    • Margaret

      It is ludicrous to say that “the government protect(s) the wealthy from taxes that are being levied upon those who are not wealthy.” The bottom 40% of income earners not only pay no taxes, in most cases they get back more than was paid in, while the top 1% of income earners pay 40% of all taxes. Increase that figure to the top 5% and you’ve now accounted for 70% of all taxes paid. It hardly seems they aren’t carrying their fair share. I personally prefer to direct my donations to the common good of society by giving to organizations like Catholic Charities who will actually use most of the money to help people, rather than run a beaurocracy and use my money for items I consider morally objectionable.

    • Micha Elyi

      “Beyond ridiculous” you say?

      From thine own mouth is defined the magnitude and gravity of thy “covet thy neighbor’s goods” problem.

  • fr. merrin

    And if a doctor has his own practice, after taxes and employing a secretary and a janitor, they are just like me and you.

  • Francis

    “ONLY $180,810″? Good grief.

    • MAS

      I think you should probably not judge, which is what you are doing. $180,000 might seem like a lot to you, but consider this: 1. a doctor who has to be on call and take responsibility for peoples’ lives as well as work weekends, nights, holidays when most people are off works many, many hours for their salary, and if you figure out the hourly wage, it’s not as high as you would guess. 2. Same doctor or dentist went to school and into debt for well over the cost of the average mortgage without a dime of pay until their late 20s or, for some surgical subspecialties, early 30s, and they have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars back in educational loans which adversely affects their credit rating and ability to buy a house, a car, etc. In other words, they have to delay “gratification”, ie, starting a family, earning a paycheck for YEARS while their highschool classmates are getting on with their lives. All the while accumulating VAST amounts of debt which many take decades to pay off–(ie, some don’t get it paid off until retirement age). 3. Same doctor, when they do actually get a job and earn a salary or start a practice, does not get to keep that “180,000. He or she must pay a lot of taxes, (being one of the “wealthy” and also must pay thousands of dollars of malpractice insurance, usually pay his own (and his family’s healthcare insurance), etc., etc. He or she must also provide the usual expenses, child care, mortgage, food, clothing, (and it must be professional clothing, perhaps not designer, but not jeans, either), transportation, etc. 4. Same doctor does NOT get any “breaks” when it comes to any of the previous mentioned expenses including catholic school tuitions for their children due to their GROSS income, which, of course, as noted, is not their REAL income–they therefore pay full tuition, etc. 5. Everyone thinks “oh, they are a doctor, they are rich”, and the doctors and dentists get the class envy thing all the time, even if it’s not true. 6. Many insurers will not pay even what it costs to care for a patient. This is especially true for Medicaid (medical assistance). For instance, Medicaid in our area a few years ago paid only $4 for a tooth filling, which did not even cover the cost my brother the dentist had to pay for the filling materials!!! Other insurers also “negotiate” cutrate deals with large medical entities–my brother worked for Sears Dental and he took all the patients on medical assistance because it was the right thing to do. As a result,he did not even earn enough to pay his mortgage after all the taxes, and other “take-outs” were done. He went bankrupt, lost his house, and developed health issues, (but still had time to volunteer to coach sports for the local schools and to do service for his church, AND donated to charity.) So forgive me if I have little patiennce for those who judge someone’s circumstances merely by what their “gross” income says. “Gross” is “grossly misrepresented, dear.
      For myself, I do not to feel qualified to judge another by his income. What do I know of his circumstances?



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