[This piece appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of the Word on Fire Institute’s quarterly journal, Evangelization and Culture, the theme of which was Economics. Evangelization and Culture is available to all members of the Institute. – Ed]

“The love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Tim. 6:10), writes St. Paul. There are many evils, but according to the Apostle, the love of money is that source from which all other evils stem. What did St. Paul mean by this? And what does this assertion mean (indeed, given under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) for the people of God who have been called to bring Christ to the culture? To properly feel the gravity of St. Paul’s words, we might begin by considering the reality of evil in itself. Evil is the deprivation of that which is natural and due to a given thing.[1] It is an absence resulting from corruption and disorder—like a bullet wound.

Flannery O’Connor possessed a sober awareness of the reality of evil and used it to compel her readers toward grace. To instigate a moral reawakening in her readers and to shock them back into reality, she used strange and sobering instances of evil in her stories, understanding that to live in the “real world” is to know one’s Savior—and one’s enemy. O’Connor did not simply want her readers to see the truth of evil and its threat; she wanted them to feel the sting of it. “To the hard of hearing you shout,” she wrote, “and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.[2] In more recent times a surge of exorcism films on the big screen have afforded a similar effect, perhaps unwittingly, as O’Connor’s stories. Beginning with William Friedkin’s landmark film The Exorcist (1979), several notable flicks of this subgenre have emerged, including most notably The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and The Rite (2011). These films—especially The Exorcist, which remains the eighth highest grossing horror film of all time—continue to intrigue ever-widening audiences.

“If there’s one film guaranteed to unnerve the sensibilities of even the most hardened horror film buff,” writes one British journalist, “it’s The Exorcist.”[3] But one might immediately wonder why it is so uniquely impactful. Here’s one possibility: perhaps it is because it portrays a malevolent being whom many believe—even today—is real and active. No one thinks Freddy Krueger, Godzilla, orcs, zombies, or The Thing are real. Many, however (and from a variety of cultural and spiritual traditions), do believe in the reality of evil spirits. Granted, we live in an age marked by skepticism. In Newman’s words, the great mass of men today believe that “revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous.”[4] Nonetheless, belief in the existence of evil spirits still seems far from extinguished in contemporary times. And while exorcism films (perhaps especially The Exorcist) are guilty of distortions and embellishments, they also do the Catholic Church, the Catholic priest, and the exorcist an important service by portraying the reality of supernatural evil in a serious light. In so doing, they oblige the common viewer to take spiritual themes—including the possibility of the demonic—seriously, thus inducing spiritual sobriety, a much-needed virtue today.

Exorcism movies can also move their audiences to consider the gravity of the choice to live as though God does not exist, to live a life of what N.T. Wright calls “practical atheism.”[5] In The Exorcist, for example, the godless life is forcefully exemplified in the excessive cursing and taking of God’s name in vain by Chris MacNeil, the divorced mother of Regan (who eventually becomes the possessed victim). Her sacrilegious language is particularly pronounced in the scenes prior to Regan’s possession. The film implicitly but forcefully shows us how acting as though God does not exist—whether one believes or not—potentially invites dire consequences. I am not saying, of course, that demonic possession is a typical or expected consequence of “practical atheism.” But, as The Exorcist shows in a dramatic and unforgettable way, living as though God and his commandments are just “ideas” without positive ontological status is to make oneself more vulnerable to the influence of evil, which is active and always prowling about “like a roaring lion” (1 Pet. 5:8) ready to devour our goodwill. Films like The Exorcist remind us that evil is not just some static thing up in the Platonic heavens. Rather, it is a force active in our lives—sometimes even a personal force—that wants to ruin us. Reminded of the gravity and objectivity of evil, then, we can read St. Paul’s assertion to Timothy with a heightened seriousness. It becomes immediately clear that when he addresses “the root of all evils,” we had better pay attention.

When St. Paul says that money is the root of evil, does he mean that material wealth per se is bad? Not at all. God wants us to have plenty. But he wants all our desires—including our desire for money—to be tempered by virtue. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the love of money (or covetousness) refers to “the inordinate desire for riches.”[6] Some have thought that St. Paul is making a more general point here that the inordinate desire for any temporal good is a bad thing, a sentiment that is obviously quite true. But according to St. Thomas Aquinas, this generalized interpretation is only secondary to what St. Paul was most literally conveying: “For in that passage,” writes St. Thomas, “he clearly speaks against those who. . . will become rich, fall into temptation, and into the snare of the devil . . . for covetousness is the root of all evils.’ Hence it is evident that he is speaking of covetousness as denoting the inordinate desire for riches.”[7]

The best interpretation, then, is also the plain reading: the love of riches—of money—is the root of all evils. Why not the inordinate desire for pleasure, or power, or honor? Well, for St. Thomas, “every sin grows out of the love of temporal things”; but of all temporal things, money is that which lends man the most power in the material order. “All things obey money” (Eccles. 10:19), says Ecclesiastes. Citing this passage, St. Thomas Aquinas observes that riches not only equip man to commit any and all sins, but they also whet his appetite for any sin whatever given his unlimited power to commit them, for “money helps man to obtain all manner of temporal goods.” They are, he says, like the roots that give the whole tree sustenance. He understood, like us, that in the material order there is “no such thing as a free lunch.” That is to say, the good things of the world often come with a cost. But when cost becomes a nonconcern, discernment of one’s actions and the exercising of prudence too readily also becomes a nonconcern. The excessively rich, it seems, are most easily fooled into thinking they are omnipotent because there is hardly a thing they cannot have, and hardly a thing they cannot do. So they live as though they are radically self-sufficient and godlike—and they fall. Money is good, but not when it tempts us to make ourselves like gods. St. Paul saw this. St. Thomas saw this. We ought to see it.

The remedy is to achieve an ordinate desire for wealth. It is not a bad thing to want money. The question we need to ask ourselves, however, is how much is enough? How much can I possess before my acquisitions inversely and directly draw others down into a lesser state of existence? Perhaps the most important question is this: What sort of life has God called me to? Indeed, it may be the case that God has called you to a life somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between rags and riches. But it may be the case that God has called you to give away more than you want or expect. Or perhaps you have been called to possess much, even to be “rich” in the eyes of the world. What does God want to give you, spiritually and materially speaking? That’s the question. Of course, as Jesus taught us, being wealthy—spiritually or materially—comes with obligation: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). To live as a wealthy Christian is not inherently sinful; to live ungenerously is. The opposite of generosity is greed, and greed can never glorify him who is Infinite Generosity. Indeed, as Robert Sokolowski has rightly written, “God’s benevolence is so great that even though he does not need creation in any sense at all . . . still he has created and, beyond that, has entered into his creation in the person of Jesus.”[8] Our default way of being, then, should be marked by humility, gratitude, and generosity, without which we become incurvatus in se, as St. Augustine put it—curved in upon ourselves—and we become self-obsessed. Humility, gratitude, and generosity prevent this contortion of soul. But the love of money stifles these virtues. So the love of money is the root of all evils.

In closing, consider these words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger: “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints . . . that the faith has generated.”[9] This, I think, gets to the heart of the matter. Every person exists to be a saint; and the more saints there are, the more saints there will be. The heroic love of the saint is the seed of the Church. But none who love money inordinately will become that for which they have been made—a saint—for a saint is someone who loves God above all things and knows the infinite generosity that God has shown him. The saint acknowledges the reality of evil and knows who his enemy is. He knows the dangers of the godless life and rejects it with his whole heart. The saint knows that all things are from God and are ordered towards his glorification. He knows that money has no higher purpose: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).[10]

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[1] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1.49.1.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer & His Country,” in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1961), 34.

[3]Tim Butters, “You’ll Never Watch ‘The Exorcist’ Again After Reading What Happened to This Poor Woman,” Inquisitr, September 12, 2014, https://www.inquisitr.com/1470768/youll-never-watch-the-exorcist-again-after-reading-what-happened-to-this-poor-woman/.

[4] John Henry Newman, “Biglietto Speech,” The National Institute for Newman Studies, May 12, 1879, http://www.newmanreader.org/works/addresses/file2.html.

[5] N.T. Wright, “Jesus and the Identity of God,” Ex Auditu 14 (1998): 42–56.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2.84.1.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2.84.1.

[8] Robert Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 9.

[9] Joseph Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty”: Message of His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to the Communion and Liberation Meeting at Remini, Vatican website, August 24, 2002, http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20020824_ratzinger-cl-rimini_en.html.

[10] Romans 11:36