April 29, 2014, Tuesday — A Controversial Tweet

“Inequality is the root of social evil.” —The English text of a “tweet” by Pope Francis on Monday, April 28; the text quickly became one of the most commented upon of all of the dozens of “tweets” Francis has sent out since his election last year

“Iniquitas radix malorum” (“Iniquity is the root of evils”) —The Latin text of the same tweet from yesterday

“For the root of all evils is cupidity (greed)” (“Radix enim omnium malorum est cupiditas”) —The English and Latin of St. Paul’s statement to Timothy, from 1 Timothy 6:10; the tweet of Pope Francis seems to be a creative variation based on this Pauline text from 2,000 years ago

“Wherefore a wise man has said, ‘Pride is the beginning of sin’ (Sirach 10:13), that is, its root, its source, its mother… Because nothing so alienates men from the lovingkindness of God, and gives them over to the fire of the pit, as the tyranny of pride. For when this is present with us, our whole life becomes impure, even though we fulfill temperance, chastity, fasting, prayer, almsgiving, anything. For, ‘Every one,’ says the wise man, ‘that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord.’ (Proverbs 16:5)”—St. John Chrysostom, Homily 9 on the Gospel of John

“Take care that you believe in the unsurpassable truth of the saying that the root of all evils is greed (1 Tim. 6:10), that is, wanting to have more than enough. Enough means whatever is necessary to preserve a nature according to its kind. But greed, which in Greek is called philarguria [“a love of silver coins”], does not merely have to do with the silver or coins from which the word is derived (for it used to be that coins were made of silver or had some silver mixed in). Rather, it should be understood to apply to any object of immoderate desire, in any case where someone wills to have more than enough. Such greed is cupidity, and cupidity is a perverse will.” —St. Augustine, De libero arbitrio (“On free will”), Lib. III, #17, p. 104.

“There are two sides to every sin, the turning toward transient satisfaction and the turning away from everlasting good. As regards the turning-toward, the principle of all sins is cupidity in its most general sense, namely, the unbridled desire for one’s own pleasure. As regards the turning-away, the principle is pride in its general sense, which is lack of submission to God: ‘the beginning of pride is man’s revolt from God’ (Ecclesiasticus 10:14). Cupidity and pride in this pervasive sense are not called capital sins, because as such they are not special sins: they are the roots and sprouts of vice, as the desire for happiness is the root of all virtue.” —St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones disputatae De malo (Disputed questions concerning evil), Question 8, Article 1, Ad 1.


Pope’s Tweet Prompts Controversy

The English text of Pope Francis’ controversial April 28 tweet is: “Inequality is the root of social evil.” What did Pope Francis mean by this phrase, which has caused an outpouring of commentary in the blogosphere? (The tweet had nearly 10,000 retweets yesterday afternoon.)

This “tweet,” many say, expresses the Pope’s vision that society ought not to allow a large “gap” between the wealthy and the poor, and that governments and political parties ought to legislate to eliminate such “inequality.”

Because this sounds like one of the principles of socialism, it has irritated those who believe the free market alone should determine wealth and income, even if the outcome is great inequality.

As Religious News Service analyst David Gibson reported today in a piece entitled “Conservatives squawk over pope’s tweet on inequality,” the Pope’s “three-word tweet” (in Latin) “left some conservatives dazed and confused… In the American context, Francis’ statement was like tossing a match onto a field of dry hay… Political conservatives are especially worried that Francis’ frequent blasts at income inequality are playing into the hands of President Obama and the Democrats, who have also made the wealth gap a major talking point.”

Rod Dreher at the American Conservative wrote: “So, if we achieve maximum redistribution of resources, we will have eliminated ‘social evil,’ whatever that is?” He added with sarcasm:  “Yes, and that’s why the Soviet Union was the Garden of Eden.”

Even Catholic liberals such as Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne were surprised. “We are more accustomed to hearing Popes talk about personal virtues and vices as the root of all evil and not to hear someone talk so clearly about structural sins,” Dionne, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said. “Although his tweet in consistent with Catholic social thought, I think it struck people because of the forceful stress on inequality, as opposed to a more general critique of social injustice that they often hear from religious leaders.”

If we do a close reading of the Pope’s “tweet,” we quickly note something interesting and important overlooked by many commentators.

The central phrase Francis uses, “root of evil,” is not his, but rather one of the key “signature” phrases of the Apostle Paul.

In one of his letters to Timothy (1 Timothy 6:10),  St. Paul, speaking about human greed and the great evil it causes (cheating, deceiving, stealing, betraying friends and associates for gain), writes: “For the love of money (i.e., greed) is the root of all evil” (the Latin original is: “Radix enim omnium malorum est cupiditas,” literally “the root, therefore, of all evils is cupidity”).

Some argue that Paul was not saying that the “love of money” is the “root of all evils” but rather that the “excessive” or “inordinate” love of money, that is, the making of money into an idol, the placing of money and its possession above other goods, is the source of “all evils.”

And some have argued that the reference to money is not correct at all, that what St. Paul is saying is that “excessive desire” is what “cupidity” really is, so that what Paul is saying is that the source of all evil is “excessive desire” in general, or perhaps better “excessive self-centeredness.”

Why is Francis replacing Paul’s word “cupidity” with the word “inequality”?

The word “cupidity” refers to a personal passion, a desire of an individual to possess things, especially what belongs to others.

But “inequality” refers to a social reality, a social “given” within which humans must function.

So Francis here is replacing a word describing an inward and personal, selfish passion with a word describing an outward and impersonal social disequilibrium.

Why does Francis do this?

It would seem that he makes this change as part of a general reflection on the sources of evil in society, and that he believes “inequality” is a word that, in this context, can usefully stand in for “cupidity.”

Why does Francis choose this word?

Because, it would seem, he believes “inequality” is a consequence of  “cupidity.”

In other words, in this brief, dense “tweet,” Francis is offering us a glimpse of his understanding of the genesis of social evils.

It is as if he were saying, “Paul tells us that evils originate from selfishness (‘cupidity’); I am saying that selfishness is the cause of inequality, which leads to social strife (social evil) due to feelings of envy, resentment, superiority, bitterness, despair…”

A further observation needs to be made. The Latin of the Pope’s tweet is “Iniquitas radix malorum.”

But the Latin word “iniquitas” is not exaclty the English word “inequality.”

“Iniquitas” may be used to mean “the state of being un-equal” but its usual translation is simply “iniquity,” that is, “evil.”

So the Pope’s tweet in Latin reads “(human) iniquity is the source of evils.”

It’s hard to argue with that!

The tweet in Italian, however, has the word “inequity,” and the tweet in Spanish has the similar word “desigualdad” (inequality). So it appears that the Latin version may be a slight distortion of the Pope’s actual “tweet.”

What can we make of all this?

Pope Francis is telling us that the suffering of the poor, the hunger of those without sufficient food, the nakedness of those without sufficient clothing, the misery of those without clean, warm homes, is the result of an “inequitable” distribution of material goods — and that this reality is an evil Christians ought to work to overcome.

It is a restatement of the traditional social teaching of the Church.

St. Paul concludes his first Epistle to Timothy with the wise counsel (6:17-19): “As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches, but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.”


The Anthropological Question

“You live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual, because, in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.” —Walker Percy (1916-1990), American Catholic convert and writer, author of TheMessage in the Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos

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