The Fathers, Wealth, and Pious Opinions
by Thomas Katsampes

New Year's Eve, 2016

I was going to send this to a friend of mine at church, but as his email bounced, I was not able to. So I'm posting it here in hopes that it will edify others.

Well I really wanted to continue our conversation yesterday, but we didn't get a chance. So anyway on the fathers, I just want to understand where we differ and make sure I understand what you're saying. I think you're saying that we follow the fathers regardless of what the fathers actually say. So would you assert that the writings of Chrysostom are on the same level as Holy Scripture? Because it seems to me that's where you're heading...

Way back in 2007, when I was first getting back into Orthodoxy, I read a little Chrysostom and what he had to say about wealth. And I'm just choosing wealth as an example topic. St. Chrysostom is quoted by Bradley Nassif — for whom I have great respect — as saying,

  • "To grow rich without injustice is impossible."
  • "One cannot be rich without keeping others poor."
  • "No private property should exist."
  • "Injustice occurs when some people use material things for profit while others are starving."

    Statements like these, while they may be a do-gooder's dream, do not seem to be supported by Holy Scripture and are inconsistent with maintaining a free and open society. I'm not going to go into detail on why these statements are suspect, because others have done so far more articulately than I. But I will say that there is nothing in Orthodoxy that requires as a condition of salvation or of partaking of the chalice that I personally agree with these statements. The statements are regarded, like many other statements outside of Scripture, as pious opinions. Agreement with these statements is not compulsory for the Orthodox Christian solely because Chrysostom is a church father — there must be more to the story than that, and in this case, there isn't.

    There is much that is laudatory in Chrysostom's and other saints' writings. But I don't go to St. John as an authority on economics, finance, or the inherent justice (or injustice) of political systems, the right to private property, and so on. I go to the Saints when I want to understand the divine: the relationship of the dual natures of Christ, the Persons of the Trinity, as examples. People go to priests, rabbis, pastors, and religious people when they want to understand what does God want from us, what does it mean to lead an ethical life, etc. But when a saint declares that we should simply chuck private property rights because he thinks private property is fundamentally unjust — sorry I don't buy it.

    Upon the bedrock of private property rests all other rights, including the right to free exercise of religion.

    Interestingly, one could make the case that private property is in fact supported by Scripture. Is it not written that one may lawfully do what one wills with his own? (Matthew 20:15). For those who cite Ananias and Saphira as "proof" that God is somehow "against" private property, their sin consisted not in holding wealth or property, but deceiving the Holy Spirit about it. One also can consider St. Paul's truism that he who does not work does not eat, his claim of the right to earn a living as a tentmaker, and so forth. Earning a living is impossible without private property.

    Take away private property, and we become the church of holy grifters, living off the charity of others — that's not something to which Christianity calls the believer, nor is it something to which you or I ought to aspire.

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