Envy, Jealousy and the Morality of Money

Envy is wanting what another has and being resentful one doesn’t possess whatever it is oneself; jealousy is wanting what another has and not wanting anyone else to possess it if it cannot be one’s own. That simple definition would never pass muster with a dictionary-maker, but I think it highlights an important distinction between the two: envy is not very nice; jealousy is plain nasty.

Politicians are adept at appealing to our envious tendencies. David Cameron’s latest pronouncement on tax avoidance may well backfire, but for the moment it is grabbing headlines. Jimmy Carr is richer than most of us will ever be. Stoking up public opinion against him (or more correctly, his accountant and tax lawyer, surely) is easy. Suggest a little moral outrage into the bargain, and once again you have a potential vote-winner on your hands.

The trouble is, life is not so simple. Mr Cameron is taking a calculated risk. What if envy becomes jealousy? Next in the firing-line may be political donors (again), millionaire members of the Cabinet (again), even perhaps M.P.s expenses (again). We are particularly sensitive to the ‘morality of money’. Bankers’ bonuses, chief executives’ pay and benefits, they are all under the spotlight of public examination at the moment, and, as you might expect, those who have less are not convinced that others need more, or at any rate, not so much more. One reason the doctors’ day of action hasn’t gained much popular support is that doctors’ salaries and pension schemes look very generous by most people’s standards.

Is there a knee-jerk quality to all this? Are we really thinking through the bases on which we make decisions about pay and salaries? In a monastery goods are apportioned according to need, which it is for the abbot to determine. Those who need less are not to grumble or be downcast; those who need more are not to become puffed up at the mercy shown them. That wouldn’t work in secular society, for we could never agree who should decide, still less agree the degree of need. There is one idea we could take from Benedict, however, and apply to our discussion of salaries and rewards: accepting responsibility for our own actions and the effect they have on others.

We cannot change how other people regard money; we cannot make others honest; but we can be honest ourselves; we can be generous ourselves. We sometimes lose sight of what we actually do with what we earn. The man or woman earning millions may be spending it all on self-indulgence, or they may be giving their wealth away in order to help others. Envy can easily become jealousy, almost without our being aware of it, and when it does, we lose the good along with the bad. Is that a risk worth taking?

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Business Ethics

At first sight, it may seem strange to turn to a sixth century monastic rule for guidance on business ethics, but RB 31, What Kind of Person the Cellarer Should Be (together with RB 57, On the Artisans of the Community), has a lot to say about our current concerns.

The cellarer is effectively the business manager of the monastery, responsible for everything from finance to food. Benedict begins by giving us a pen-portrait of the qualities the cellarer should have. Some of them, turned into corporation-speak, are still used today to identify senior management, but there are others which touch on the cellarer’s moral identity. How many financial institutions would dare to ask themselves whether the person they are considering for a senior position is ‘wise, mature in character (not necessarily age), abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, not a trouble-maker, not offensive or lazy or wasteful’? (RB131.1-2) To do so would be to acknowledge that the values by which we live our private lives are reflected in the public sphere. Benedict is principally concerned here with honesty and integrity and a watchfulness over oneself which is the mark of maturity. Such qualities have taken a battering of late, but they are at the heart of the trust on which so much economic activity still depends.

Benedict sees the cellarer’s responsibilities as all-embracing. In effect, he asks the question, what is wealth for? The answer he gives highlights the danger of losing sight of the purpose of God’s gifts. The cellarer is to ‘take meticulous care of the sick, the young, guests and the poor’, in other words, the most vulnerable members of society, yet at the same time to treat the monastery’s goods and property ‘as if sacred altar vessels.’ (RB31. 9-10) Again and again, the cellarer is reminded that his authority over these is given by the abbot and he must neither neglect anything nor go further than his instructions allow. He is essentially the servant of the community, but not in the menial sense we often ascribe to that word: his service is that of a father to the community (RB 31.2), one who provides, enables, fosters growth. So often we think about business success in terms of ‘what’s best for me’ rather than ‘what good I can do’.

It is clear that Benedict expects the work of the monks to generate something over and above what they need for mere existence, something that can be shared with others. Even this sharing, however, is not exempt from the need to be consistent with what the monks profess to believe. The cellarer is warned against the temptations to which his power makes him susceptible. Instead of arrogance, there must be humility; when there is nothing else to give, a good word must be spoken; he mustn’t use his office to demonstrate his own importance by acting haughtily or making others wait to receive their due.(RB 31 13 to 16) These are not only the temptations of the monastic cellarer and minor bureaucrat, they are the temptations of every person who is given a great deal of freedom in the exercise of his or her responsibilities.

The recent Note on Financial Reform from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the protest at St Paul’s, the Report of the St Paul’s Institute and, above all, the daily turbulence within the Eurozone have served to remind us that the economic structures with which we are familiar are all rather fragile; that ignoring the moral dimension of wealth creation and distribution is to undermine the basis of a civilized society which cares for the weak as well as the strong; that selfishness and greed make for general misery; and, most important of all, that it doesn’t have to be like that. We can be, like Benedict’s cellarer, good stewards, worthy of the promise contained in 1 Timothy 3.13. The question is, do we want to be?

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Money and Madness

With inflation at 5.2%, interest rates the lowest they’ve ever been, and unemployment, especially among the young, assuming quite frightening proportions, the ‘other-worldly’ message of the Churches can seem far removed from reality. In vain we argue that it is the true reality: that we are more than the sum of what we possess, infinitely more than what may ‘possess’ us. But our words sound hollow, especially when most of us are involved in fund-raising for this or that. Our language of gift and tithe is alien to many. Are we mad or simply a bit thick, unable to comprehend the new world economic order in which the haves will tend to acquire more and the have-nots to have less and less? Wasn’t it ever so?

Yes and no. The perfect community of Acts 4 has always left me unconvinced. We’re fallen creatures and it shows. The best we can hope to do is to embrace a frugal lifestyle that allows us to be generous to others. We must learn to love not having as once we loved having. One of the great things about being a nun is that we can really live the dispossession of the gospels. Here at Hendred it’s no fiction: the community finances are permanently on a knife-edge, but we still aim to be as hospitable as possible. We don’t experience the poverty of many in the so-called Third World, but by many of the indices used to assess poverty in Britain, we are down there with the best of them, and I myself wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. It is when one is utterly dependent on the mercy of God that one knows true freedom. The trouble is, most of us don’t really want to be free. We prefer the chains of habit and possession. Maybe the rather grim economic future we all face will make us think again about our priorities: we may not have much money, but perhaps the very lack of it will help us regain our sanity.

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The Treasures of the Church

St Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome martyred during the persecution of Valerian and whose feast we keep today, was a very modern kind of churchman. When asked for the treasures of the Church, he pointed to the poor. I was reminded of this yesterday when accosted by a fellow shopper in Sainsbury’s. Inevitably, the conversation turned to how rich the Catholic Church is (it’s either that or paedophilia these days) and how surprised she was that we are struggling to afford more permanent premises. It is perfectly true that some parts of the Church are very rich in material terms; it is also true that if one looks for examples of excess and irresponsibility, one will find them (one will not have to search very hard: a misplaced sense of entitlement bedevils certain areas); but the real wealth of the Church is always the People of God, among whom the poor hold  a very special place. St Lawrence was absolutely right about that.

Unfortunately, such sentiments can be a sop to the rich, reassuring us that we honour (and occasionally help) the poor in ways God would approve. The poor are special. We know that, we say that. Bully for us. We are the do-gooders; the poor are the done-to; and God is tremendously pleased with us for our generosity and kindness. It is, of course, the other way round. We who share material resources with the less fortunate are the people who receive a blessing from the poor. It is they who are the givers, we who are the receivers. That can make us uncomfortable, because we all like to believe that we are a little nobler than we actually are. I fear there can be no grounds for complacency, still less for pride. The treasures of the Church are indeed the poor, and comparatively few living in the west can count themselves among them.

Every evening at Vespers the Church sings Esurientes implevit bonis; et divites dimissit inanes ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty.’ They are words worth pondering. I don’t think any of us will lie on our death-beds fretting that we didn’t acquire more money, but we may be troubled about how we spent it.

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Why Greed is Wrong

No doubt you are expecting some loyal articulation of what the Catholic Catechism has to say about the right relationship between production and consumption or perhaps a whimsical disquisition on bankers’ bonuses or council pay packets. I am sorry to disappoint you, but I think the worst aspect of greed is not its injustice (some having more than others, and wanting more than their ‘fair share’), nor the violence to which it often gives rise (think Congolese diamonds) or even the suffering inflicted by an empty belly, lack of housing and the absence of medical care or access to education, though heaven knows, these are wrongs that cry aloud for vengeance. No, the problem with fat cats is that they are fat: the worst aspect of greed is its ugliness.

I daresay most of my readers are recoiling in horror at such levity of mind and wondering what the heck I mean. I am not saying that greed is not unjust, of course it is. It is all of the things I have enumerated above. But it is also a distortion of something very precious, the image of God each one of us bears within ourselves. That is why I say that the worst aspect of greed is its ugliness. To allow ourselves to corrupt that image is, when you think about it, the most terrible form of destruction, because it is fundamentally self-destruction. For most of us greed is confined to occasional bouts of excess or selfishness but it can become habitual and so blind us to what we are really doing. Price is not a measure of value, but sometimes what we value isn’t worth the price.

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Midnight Musings

Last night I spent rather more hours than I care to admit worrying about money. (If you want to know why, look at the Expansion section of our web site at www.benedictinenuns.org.uk and, as our American cousins say, go figure.) I tried the usual monastic method of beating insomnia, i.e. praying, but when that didn’t work decided to listen to the World Service. There I heard an interesting programme which examined how non-profits measure their performance.

Many of us look at income and expenditure but neglect to ask whether the objects of a Charity are really being attained, and if so, how well — in business terms, how efficiently. It’s possible to show a good financial statement yet be poor at fulfilling the Charity’s objects without actually failing to do so.

Naturally, I started to think about our own Charity. Given the slenderness of our resources, human as well as material, I think we can make a good case for ourselves: monastic life is lived with fervour; we welcome people to the monastery and online, both of which require considerable time and effort; we run Veilaudio as a free service to the blind and visually impaired, etc, etc. but still there is no way in which we can actually measure what we do. Like everyone else we are reduced to an annual Statement of Accounts and Report to the Charity Commission.

Our annual report contains facts and figures, a statement of aims and objectives and our own self-assessment as to how well or otherwise we met them. It gives a good picture of how the year has been spent, but it provides no real indication of what you might call the “efficiency” of our Charity. The question becomes even more interesting when one starts to compare other Charities operating in the same area, for example, all monastic Charities perhaps, or all those active in retreat work.

It would take a much better mathematician than I am to work out a way of comparing the relative efficiency of a big Charity and a small one, but I’m sure the results would be thought-provoking and, in some cases, surprising.

There are some things that cannot be quantified, especially where the work of a Charity is concerned, but amid all the talk of “best practice” and “standards” for this and that, the regulations we are all obliged, with good reason, to observe, I can’t help wondering whether the child’s question is still the one most worth answering. “Why a cow?” asks much more than “what is this cow’s milk yield?” Something to ponder, perhaps, during my next sleepless night.

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