The Catholic Thing
On Inequality Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Envy, it strikes me, is a more dangerous and prevalent sin than greed. Greed wants excess in material goods. Such goods indicate what I think important, my end. Envy means that I refuse to acknowledge my neighbor’s real virtues and accomplishments. As Genesis taught, we can even envy God. We can covet God’s being as the source of good and evil. Greed is earthly and concrete, more forgivable and human. It wants real things.

Envy is spiritual. It blames my lack of honor and recognition on what others have rightly brought forth. Envy allows me to think that the honors I ought to have are denied to me because of what others accomplish by their own excellence. My lack is the result of someone else’s success, not of my own deficiencies.

Envy is closer to the sin of the angels. It is not the vice only of the rich and famous, but also of the poor and weak. It can flourish in slums, in mansions, and in most dwellings in-between, including churches. Invidia clericorum, the envy of clerics, can be lethal.

The proposition reads: “All men are created equal.” Yet all men make themselves unequal by their actions, by their virtues and their vices. In The Great Gatsby, we read: “A sense of the fundamental decencies is parceled out unequally at birth.” In a perfect society, everyone would be unequal in some significant way. These inequalities would be the foundation of a real common good in which everyone contributes something different. Plato understood this. It is difficult to imagine anything more boring than a society in which everyone is identical. That is the real objection to cloning. 

Equality, paradoxically, has become the justification for a radical “diversity.” At first sight, this sounds strange. If men are diverse, how can they be equal? If equality means that only the things men hold in common are important, diversity means that no criterion exists whereby one way of life is better than another way of life. In this view, cannibals, vegetarians, and those who refuse to eat pork are equal as their peculiar differences are equally irrelevant. This reasoning applies to views on God and on what is good. In the classic writers, the greatest diversity was that gulf between good and evil. But if “diversity” means, as it does in modern thought, that no relevant distinctions of this sort can be made, then the difference between virtue and vice disappears.

               St. Thomas Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli, c. 1476

In his Treatise on Grace, Aquinas writes: “The divine care may be looked at in two ways. First, as regards the divine act, which is simple and uniform; and thus His care looks equally at all, since by one simple act, He administers great things and little. But, secondly, it may be considered in those things which come to creatures by divine care; and thus, inequality is found, inasmuch as God by His care provides greater gifts for some, and lesser gifts for others.” (I-II, 112, 4, ad 1) It is noteworthy that it is God’s care that distributes the same love unequally. However great or small we may be, we are within the same care.

Thus, if I receive one or five talents rather than ten, it does not follow that God cares less for me. It means that my talent is needed for the good of the whole and thus for my good. Not all inequalities are just, of course, but many are. It is precisely God’s “care” that provides greater and lesser gifts. If we want to “equalize” all income or all talents, we do not end up with a more just and functioning society. We end up with an unworkable world in which no reason exists for doing anything while everyone wrangles about what he did not receive as his “due.”

The background, against which such considerations of inequality and diversity exist, is, in Christian thought, the Trinity. Here we have a diversity of persons and a participation in the same unity. The perennial arguments about equality and inequality, sameness and difference, have their origins – and their resolutions – here. Equality cannot consume differences. To be what they are, differences must remain.

And compared to the Trinitarian God, all things, including creation itself, are unequal. The whole of these inequalities, in their diverse unity, alone forms the apt external reflection of the inner life of the Godhead, into which, as unequals and diverse, we are each invited. Those who choose pride, envy, greed, or such radical paths are left with their final “diversity.”

We call this final diversity hell. This is the one place in the universe that we make solely by ourselves. But heaven is always, and rightly, pictured as an abundance of diverse beings, angelic and human, rejoicing in their uniqueness before the God who, as Aquinas said, “cares” for each of them equally, but still differently.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is CatholicThe Modern AgePolitical Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Readingand Reasonable Pleasures.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Gian, June 24, 2014
Is arbitrary inequality in wealth consistent with having a republic?

In other words, is economic inequality consistent with political equality?

Thus, economic inequality is more of a political problem in a republican polity rather than a spiritual problem.
written by George M. SIpe, June 24, 2014
I loved this thought provoking piece. It's an interesting exercise to compare sins. A strong case could be made for greed vis-a-vis envy. The desire for material things in ever more abundance seems idolatrous to me. If I can only pick greed or envy to be the worse, I'd have to pick both!
written by Schm0e, June 24, 2014
Not sure about the cloning bit but was glad to read the rest.

Vive la difference!
written by grump, June 24, 2014
Wasn't Pride always No. 1? Anyway, Greed seems to me to be a strong contender for second place. Envy? Meh. Fear and Greed: the twin drivers of Western Civ.
written by Ann-Marie, June 24, 2014
It's amazing how God speaks to us through others. I was feeling so guilty today about how Blessed I am in so many ways -- abundant in ways where others are wanting -- and seeking to reconcile why this happens this way. I know that to whom much is give much is expected. But this insight here helps make sense of our "differences" in a beautiful God loving and caring way.
written by Thomas R Lewis, June 25, 2014
For this an many other reason Fr. Shall, I have always like your thinking.

Thank you once again.
written by John McCarthy, June 25, 2014
Thank you, Fr. Schall, for this important and timely essay, which brought to my mind the Good Lord's saying: "Where your heart is, there also is your treasure." We can be greedy and envious about almost anything: looks, weight, skills, recognition, wealth, status, friendships, etc....And equality, too, can be a false god.

I am assuming that your essay, Fr. Schall, is, at least in part, inspired by the buzz about inequality created by Piketty's book, Capital in the 21st Century, which I, not an academic, recommend to all your readers. Bottom-line, it makes the case...persuasively...that economic inequality has, once again, getting out of hand, particularly in the USA, and needs corrective action. This is something that all of us need to ponder.
written by Jack Hartjes, June 28, 2014
I could agree with everything in this article except for this: I have no idea what in the real world (as opposed to abstract ideas) this article is about. Where do you see this envy that is worse than greed. Surely not in the protests against systemic economic injustice that Pope Francis talks about. Is it envy to complain that economic inequality in the U.S. has risen dramatically in the last 40 years to the point where we are at our most unequal since the beginning of the last century? Is it envy to worry about what skyrocketing inequality does to a sense of community? The author writes as if there must be lots of people who want everything to be equal, but I have never met or read about or heard of such a person. I do know of people who would prefer a little bit of balance in the world.

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