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The Seven Deadly Sins Revisited: Greed Print E-mail
By Mary Eberstadt   
Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Rural upstate New York, where I grew up, offers unique evidence these days about some shifting demographics of the Seven Deadly Sins. Fifty years ago, the area was dominated by family farming, an Air Force base, and copper manufacturing. Today, the growth industries are prisons and casinos – the former, big gray teeming boxes of all the Deadly Sins tied up and bowed with barbed wire; and the latter, pleasantly humming hives of the Deadly that is our subject for today: Greed.

Of course some readers might dispute the idea of linking Greed to gambling. We now call gambling an “entertainment,” sometimes, regrettably, an “addiction,” but almost never, anymore, a sin or vice. No, what we talk about when we talk about Greed today is usually something different: the ongoing global financial crisis instigated at least in part by money men putting personal profits ahead of the common good. As Pope Benedict has put it and all would agree, “it was precisely from this root of covetousness that the crisis sprang.”

At the same time, there’s a reason why the rest of us leap so easily to that big picture of Greed, rather than to smaller ones such as credit cards or casinos: because the covetousness of others is always easier to see than our own. Phyllis A. Tickle remarks in her short book Greed (one of a series on the Deadlies), such blindness is Greed’s characteristic signature. We spy the serpent quickly enough when other people are bitten by it: Third World oligarchs, hedge-fund titans, rapacious CEOs. But we resist seeing something else – that the covetousness Pope Benedict spoke of was not limited to the top of the financial order, but went all the way to the bottom in unpayable credit card debt, unsustainable mortgages, and every other manifestation of “living beyond one’s means.” The very fact that his phrase has ceased to have any moral sting in our society tells us something about how we’ve gotten here.

Tickle further observes that lively debate has been running for many centuries over which is more lethal: Greed or Pride. The Apostle Paul, she argues, voted for Greed. Both Hieronymus Bosch and Peter Breughel similarly situated avarice at the head of their treatments of the deadly sins. Pope Benedict devoted his April 22 general audience to another thinker who put Greed first, Ambrose Autpert. Widely known in the Middle Ages and largely forgotten today – much like the seven deadly sins and their corresponding seven virtues – this monk and abbot from the mid-eighth century was known in part for arguing that, "In the earth's soil various sharp thorns spring from different roots; in the human heart, on the other hand, the stings of all the vices sprout from a single root, greed."

If it surprises you that some theological heavy hitters thought Greed trumps even Pride in its deadliness, consider just how finely honed is our self-deception about this particular sin. That “our” is not meant metaphorically. It is an uncomfortable fact – or one that ought to make us uncomfortable, anyway – that traditionalists and conservatives underestimate the seriousness of Greed, as many of our adversaries seem to understand better than we do.

This is not the same as calling capitalism on the moral carpet. Capitalism per se – the free association of people for economic activity – is no more responsible for Greed than, say, lush farmland and mechanized agriculture are for Gluttony. Contrary to our President and many other leaders apparently insensible to the lessons of several hundred years of economic history, the answer to Greed is not socialism. It is capitalism –which is to say freedom – correctly exercised, as Michael Novak demonstrates in his masterpiece, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.

But just because we can’t easily see it in ourselves, or just because some of us have personal and political aversions to taking this Deadly as seriously as we ought to, doesn’t let anyone off the theological hook. Greed may not destroy as obviously as, say, Lust, but it detonates with just as much force in many a life.

In upstate New York and elsewhere, the casinos have brought employment to some people and disaster to many others: homes and families broken by gambling debt, working class people whose weekly checks disappear in a few hours’ time every Friday night. For many immigrants across the country, the seduction of easy credit and mortgages has similarly turned the American dream into a tornado of debt. A great many college students today also find themselves saddled not only with educational loans, but also piles of unpaid bills brought on by savvy credit card marketing – bills that have the further effect for many of postponing marriage and children. Yes, the companies that made these outcomes possible are partly to blame. But so is the persistent whisper in all our ears that we can live higher and more lavishly than we ought.

It is of some comfort to know – as Arthur Brooks has documented in his interesting 2007 study, Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide – that religious believers significantly outstrip secularists in the exercise of Greed’s corresponding virtue, Charity. But whether that difference will prove sufficient, in this world or the next, is a question that we privileged beneficiaries of unprecedented prosperity – financial crisis or no – should be asking ourselves night and day.


Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a contributing writer to First Things, and a columnist for The Catholic Thing.


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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Richard A, June 18, 2009
A very fine and telling article. I wonder, though, if it wouldn't be helpful to distinguish 'free enterprise' from 'capitalism'? The latter, it seems to me, depends too much on the requirements of 'capital' to return a profit, which is not very far removed from usury.
written by Pio, June 18, 2009
The author presents a false choice between capitalism and socialism. Capitalism has utterly failed to address critical issues like universal health care, which the church and the USCCB describe as a fundamental human right. "Correctly exercised" is also flawed, as it ignores the experience that unregulated markets are, by their very nature, prone to resource misallocation and speculative excess. The government's necessary role in regulating markets does not equate to socialism.
written by John, June 18, 2009
-There are many, many more Catholic thninkers who have written on capitalism and offer alternative views to Mrs Eberstadt's somewhat innocent equation of "capitalism" with "freedom." Among them a lttle known German theologian, Joseph Ratzinger. The Church is bigger than this one variant of post-Cold War American conservatism which, if it wasn't updated after the Iraq debacle (which we were saved from by people, not ideas), then it should have been updated in October, 2008.
Quaecumque Vera
written by Jim Wishloff, June 18, 2009
Thanks for this discussion of Greed--we would do well to think seriously about the seven deadly sins which really do live up to their billing. I would add my voice to the criticism about the reference to capitalism. Far from being the solution, it is the problem. Using money to make money, the essence of capitalism, (I am sorry--neither Michael Novak nor anyone else can change social reality by redefining terms) is the worship of Mammon, a master we cannot serve along with God.
I\'m Not Greedy?
written by Willie, June 18, 2009
St. Paul tells us that Charity is the greatest of all virtues without which the others are worthless. Could Greed be responsable for world poverty, financial collapse,divorce, abortion, infantacide, genocide and euthanasia? As the academic wealthy elite postulate how they are going to save Africa and Latin America by abortion are we to be hoodwinked into thinking this is an eleemosynary act? Yes. The results of Greed are ubiquitous as we meander our weary way through this economic cesspool.
written by Joe, June 18, 2009
I wish Mary had defined greed. Something for nothing? Some is not enough? As for politicians having the wisdom to allocate recources ... how has that worked out historically? Rather poorly. But I understate for humorous effect. Personal freedom works. Christians are required to make acts of charity. He said so. Hospitals are supposed to treat any and all. It was better when Catholic hospitals were staffed by those who devoted their lives to such care.
the root
written by Adam, June 19, 2009
The love of money is the root of all evil. Perhaps this is true precisely since such misplaced love betrays our lack of trust in Providence -despite the ubiquitous evidence to the contrary.

Placing ourselves at the mercy of the Merciful One opens up a radically different worldview than is typically available in any milieu without God as its center. Charity and Justice -fruits that come from trust in Providence -if we could live them as we ought, would trump any human socio-economic order.
written by Clare Krishan, June 22, 2009
Let's conceed covetousness is endemic, but may I query where that irrational behaviour is most commonly practised, before I join Mary in blaming the man on the street. The most egregious malfeasance is the misappropriated purchasing power of our savings via ex nihilo Treasuries, a seignorage on citizens' earnings potential (and that of their children) aka serfdom to the public purse.
written by Michael Pakaluk, June 23, 2009
Suppose greed showed itself in such thoughts as, "We're not ready to have children yet," or "I can't afford the time to pray." Then it would be common indeed, and commonly unrecognized. If greed is disproportionate regard for wealth, then regard for wealth (or time, which "equals money") which squeezed out children or prayer would be greed.

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