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Moments in Time
Pick your vice

By Gary Macy

Many moralists would argue that materialism is the greatest temptation in the United States. Occasionally I have even heard people argue that this form of greed is “natural” and all societies have the same problem. Not so! In the Middle Ages in Western Europe, greed was socially unacceptable. The aristocracy spent lavishly to prove its generosity, noble spirit and indifference to wealth. The church encouraged a similar generosity out of charity to the poor. The two ideals worked together to make avarice the least tempting of medieval vices. To quote historian Bernard Hamilton: “The acquisitive instinct is strong and many medieval people shared it, but medieval society seems to have viewed it rather as Victorian society viewed sex, as something which was unavoidable but distasteful.” In discussing good works in medieval society, Hamilton adds: “Consequently, it was not considered socially acceptable to adopt a patronizing attitude toward the poor and destitute, for that would have been taken as evidence of retarded spiritual growth. This, perhaps, is the best measure of the church’s success in making people understand what the virtuous life, as conceived in Christian terms, was about.” Of course, medieval people had other problems, particularly sex and violence, but they aren’t alone there.

Gary Macy is a theology professor at the University of San Diego. He may be reached at macy@pwa.acusd.edu

National Catholic Reporter, June 4, 1999