The munificent man turns lucre into Magi gold
Sometimes in Catholic circles one can hear a bias against wealth as though it were a crime to be a rich man; however, that bias lacks an understanding of a principle that Aristotle contributes to the Church’s thinking. Our Lord speaks of the danger of riches but St. Luke (16:9-13) subtly points to the virtue that governs them; and Aristotle, when commenting on greatness and wealth, helps to illuminate what Jesus says through St. Luke. The clue to understanding the connection between wealth and the Gospel lies in the virtue of munificence (or magnificence).
As a moral principle it rises from great wealth and generosity, but how does the munificent man turn wealth, be it lucre or honest gain, into Magi gold? Anne Catherine Emmerich in her book The Life of Jesus Christ claims that the Magi traveled not only with gold for the Holy Family but with an extraordinary amount of money in the form of small, thin metal triangles of hammered gold which they generously distributed to poor people along the way to Bethlehem. Although Anne’s visions belong to private revelation, what they describe is not useless in the service of piety and moral principle. And she reveals to us men of high character who in wisdom exercise liberality.
Understanding the principle of proportion in relation to social need, the munificent man takes stock of his resources and judges what he may reasonably give to supply the want of others. In general, there are two categories of need: those that are small and pertain to private individuals and families; and those that are great and pertain to public enterprise, both civil and ecclesiastical. Strictly speaking in Aristotle’s terms, munificence concerns itself with large projects such as building schools, churches, hospitals, radio stations, and funding the needs of social reconstruction, one of the great examples of which can be found in the Holy Land Foundation which supports Christians in the Middle East, particularly young Christian Palestinians in Israel that they might remain in their country and support the needs of poor people and maintain a specifically Christian presence there which is always under threat of diminution, and in the long run, the threat of extinction if no one cares for them. While it is a form of liberality, it differs from generosity in the largeness of its enterprise.
For his 1950 apostolic constitution defining the dogma of the Assumption, Pope Pius XII entitles it with the Latin phrase Munificentissimus Deus, , from munificentia, meaning “munificence,” or “liberality.” No doubt he used the word munificent in Aristotle’s sense, Pius himself regarding Aristotle as probably the most intelligent man in history.
In ancient times, the task of the pagan munificent man was to construct in the city public projects that would imitate the glory of the cosmos thereby bringing public life somewhat closer to the harmony of the cosmos. The point of such construction was to move men’s souls to resonate with cosmic order and, from that inner music, they had a resource for harmonizing the order of public life.
Similarly, Pius quite possibly sensed that God was glorifying the new cosmos of the Mystical Body in the Assumption of Christ’s Mother, God Himself having begun the new order in Mary’s womb. Given Pius’ Aristotelian sense of things, Mary’s Assumption glorifies both the old cosmos, of which she was a part, she also being a daughter of Adam and Eve, and the new one begun in the Body of Christ. Both cosmic structures require the allocation of wealth, but divine munificence moves through the temporal city to the eternal one where the glory of harmony can never end.
FR. ROBERT E. MAGUIRE, O. CIST., is affiliate assistant professor of English at the University of Dallas, where he has taught since 1979. He has been at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas (close to the university) for 47 years, where he was ordained a priest in 1976.