Greed is a Real Sin. The Tenth Commandment You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.

03-24-2024Weekly ReflectionFr. Leonard F. Villa

There is a lot of talk on the streets and in the media about a thing called “corporate greed.” This greed is supposed to reside in entities called corporations that are somehow exploiting people to make a profit by valuing profit over people. The only problem with this construction is that a corporation is a “legal person,” but it is not a real person. And greed, being a sin, can only be committed by real persons; it cannot be committed by corporations. Because they are legal persons, corporations can break the law and be punished by the law, by fines or judgments, but they cannot sin. Sin requires human agency.

Where corporations figure in this human agency, is in providing cover for the sins of individuals and/or being a means by which the sin is carried out. So-called corporate greed then is just old-fashioned, seven deadly sin variety greed. And greed is a real sin committed by real people. But it is not only the stakeholders — whether executives, stockholders, managers, or employees — of corporations that exhibit greedy tendencies. Greed is not confined to any particular status or class of persons. A poor person may be greedier than his wealthy neighbor. And mere “profit” in the corporate bottom line is not evidence of greed any more than an individual’s paycheck amount is evidence that he or she is or is not greedy. A company that barely survives in the market place may have the most venal, dehumanizing scoundrels at the helm, while a board of kindly philanthropists might guide a company that makes money hand over fist. It’s complicated.

And it isn’t made any simpler by the fact that millions of real persons are invested through retirement accounts in legal persons whose identity and behavior – ethically and legally — is a complete mystery to them. It has become standard advice to average middle class American families that funding retirement will require savings in the neighborhood of a million dollars. Is it “greedy” to be aiming to retire? Is it greedy to be saving for retirement? Is it greedy to invest your retirement saving in funds that you hope will grow? Despite these complexities we are assured that greed is real (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2534-2537):The tenth commandment unfolds and completes the ninth, which is concerned with concupiscence of the flesh. It forbids coveting the goods of another, as the root of theft, robbery, and fraud, which the seventh commandment forbids. “Lust of the eyes” leads to the violence and injustice forbidden by the fifth commandment. Avarice, like fornication, originates in the idolatry prohibited by the first three prescriptions of the Law. The tenth commandment concerns the intentions of the heart; with the ninth, it summarizes all the precepts of the Law.

The sensitive appetite leads us to desire pleasant things we do not have, e.g., the desire to eat when we are hungry or to warm ourselves when we are cold. These desires are good in themselves; but often they exceed the limits of reason and drive us to covet unjustly what is not ours and belongs to another or is owed to him. The tenth commandment forbids greed and the desire to amass earthly goods without limit. It forbids avarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power. It also forbids the desire to commit injustice by harming our neighbor in his temporal goods: When the Law says, “You shall not covet,” these words mean that we should banish our desires for whatever does not belong to us. Our thirst for another’s goods is immense, infinite, never quenched. Thus it is written: “He who loves money never has money enough.”It is not a violation of this commandment to desire to obtain things that belong to one’s neighbor, provided this is done by just means. Traditional catechesis realistically mentions “those who have a harder struggle against their criminal desires” and so who “must be urged the more to keep this commandment”:

… merchants who desire scarcity and rising prices, who cannot bear not to be the only ones buying and selling so that they themselves can sell more dearly and buy more cheaply; those who hope that their peers will be impoverished, in order to realize a profit either by selling to them or buying from them… physicians who wish disease to spread; lawyers who are eager for many important cases and trials. Greed then takes two basic forms: avarice, an unbridled desire to accumulate material goods; and envy, the desire for what belongs to another. We cannot see “greed” usually, anymore than we can see “lust,” as these are traits of the sinful heart. They only become evident when they lead to actions that can be seen. When we see the adulterer having an affair, we assume lust motivated him. When we see the fraudster doing a “perp-walk,” we assume that greed motivated him. We don’t “see” the lust in the heart of the “family man” or the greed in the heart of the poor janitor. It is not until some action reveals these underlying capital sins that we make the accusation.

When an oil company forgoes best-known safety practices in pursuit of profit, we know that someone has made a decision based on greed. When banks engage in predatory lending, then sell their bundles of sub-prime mortgages as derivatives under false ratings in order to bet against their own borrowers in the market place, someone has made a decision based on greed. When officers of a company get millions in bonuses while the lowest paid workers are laid off into a poor job market, someone has made a decision based on greed. But greed is rarely so obvious. The connection between wealth and greed cannot always be easily surmised; while some actions reveal greed with clarity, many others are ambiguous. The bottom line is that greed — as a condition of the sinful heart — cannot be controlled or punished. Only actions can be judged and only crimes can be punished. This point is made because the mood, or sentiment, that “the rich” must somehow be punished for “their greed” is gaining more and more currency. We have to count on the law to protect us from others’ actions, but we cannot count on the law to protect us from sins in the hearts of people.

Take lust for example. The Taliban see lust as a serious problem. To protect their society from lust, they cover women from head to toe. That is the kind of thing that happens when a society tries to outlaw and punish a capital sin instead of dealing with the actions that sin precipitates. We can outlaw pornography, adultery, and rape, but it would be a fantasy to think we could outlaw lust. By the same token, we can outlaw fraud, blackmail, bank robbery, certain levels of interest on loans, breaking and entering, false advertising, etc. but we cannot outlaw or even punish greed. If we try to, we end up constraining freedom so much that we damage our society more than we help it. In the interest of “punishing greed” by taxation for instance we end up constraining generosity and we tend to forget that government can be just as guilty of “corporate greed” as any corporation. Greed is a real sin and it is not fought by law or by taxation.

St Thomas Aquinas explains that human law is unable to direct the interior acts of a man’s soul. As a result, human law has a difficult time directing people toward the path of virtue, since genuine human goodness depends not only on external actions but upon interior movements of the soul, which are hidden. This is not to say that the coercive power of human law may not play some role in leading people to virtue, or even that virtue should not be an express goal of human law (that virtue is an express goal of human law, see ST, I-II, 92.1, 95.1.). It only means that the power of human law is limited by the fallible intellects of the human beings who enforce it and who only see a person’s external actions. Finally, human law is unable to “punish or forbid all evil deeds.” (ST, I-II, 91.4). By this Aquinas means that human laws must concentrate upon hindering those sorts of behaviors that are most damaging to the commonwealth. Aquinas elaborates upon this by saying that the political community would “do away with many good things” if it attempted to forbid all vices and punish every act that is judged to be immoral. Thus understood, human legislators must remember that most of their subjects need to be governed in relation to their limited capacity for virtue. As a result, “human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft, and suchlike.” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, 96.2).

Like all capital sins, it is fought by real virtue. The virtues opposed to greed are generosity, munificence, solidarity, and stewardship – all of which virtues, along with the actions they prompt, require freedom. In fact, apart from freedom they are not virtues. If we want to see generosity abound, we have to stop thinking of how we can “force” those who are “greedy” to give more by taxation and instead free those who are generous to have more control over their own goods and wealth. Instead of focusing on controlling the wicked, let’s focus on freeing the good – on giving the good and generous man the maximum control over his own goods and wealth. Instead of worrying about whether some greedy corporate worldly capitalist pays his fair share of taxes, let’s worry about making sure our munificent wealthy brother in Christ keeps the maximum control over the goods he desires to use for the common good and building up the Church. Trying to force the world to take care of the poor and sick is setting the Church and the government on a collision course by squeezing religious freedom. Instead of trying to force the world to take care of the poor by increasing taxes on the rich, let’s maximize the freedom of action that the Church has and maximize the goods and money under the control of the children of light. I believe it will be the better strategy.