March 6, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

The sin of envy undercuts our life of charity

I continue to encourage us to renew our personal conversion of heart during this Lenten season of special grace.

Last week, I offered a reflection on the power of speech and the need to speak thoughtfully. Avoiding sins of the tongue is a substantial challenge that impacts the common good of our society.

This week, I encourage us to reflect about the impact of envy.

Envy destroys charity. It is a fundamental moral problem because our fundamental vocation as Christians is to love. Few moral faults undercut our life of charity more effectively than envy, and it is more prevalent in any human community than we might want to admit.

Envy is one of the seven deadly capital sins. It is called a capital sin because it leads to other sins and vices. Last week, I cited envy as a major cause of sins of the tongue like slander, calumny and defamation of character.

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (USCCA) defines envy as “the inordinate desire for the possessions of another, even to the point of wishing harm on the other or rejoicing in another’s misfortunes” (p. 511).

The Tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods,” “looks at the interior attitudes of greed and envy that lead us to steal and act unjustly. The positive side of the Tenth Commandment calls us to practice poverty of spirit and generosity of heart. … Sinful inclinations move us to envy what others have and lead to an unrestrained drive to acquire all we can. … The greedy person will stop at nothing to get all the money and possessions possible. We need to remember that envy is the companion of greed; it is an attitude that fills us with sadness at the sight of another’s prosperity. Envious people can be consumed with so much desire for what others have that they will commit crimes to get what they want” (USCCA, p. 449-450).

I think envious persons more commonly fixate on more than the financial goods of other people. Just as frequently, envy fixes on the personality qualities of another; for example, the intellectual giftedness or physical good looks or athletic or artistic prowess.

Some folks envy a colleague who exceeds in professional advancement. Some folks envy their peers who seem to have more friends. Some envy others for their good health.

In other words, envy extends beyond greed for material possessions. Jealousy is an attitude closely related to envy. A jealous person is possessive of what one has or thinks one should have as well as being resentful toward others for what they have (cf. USCCA, p. 516).

There aren’t many faults that cause more divisiveness in a family or any human (even religious) community than envy or jealousy because these sins lead to actions that deny the dignity of other persons.

False insinuations about the good character of those that are objects of envy, or downright lies, are grave sins against justice. Planting the seeds of suspicion of right conduct or alleging or speculating about improper motivations of gifted people who do good are too common.

Envy (or jealousy) sometimes has the effect of intimidating good people, causing them to hesitate to do good things. Envy can cause good works and generous actions to remain undone.

This is an added dimension of the evil of this capital sin. Often, it is gifted people, whether in a family or in a community, who are the object of envy. In those circumstances, they should be protected out of charity and for the common good just as less gifted persons should be encouraged.

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults remarks: “Baptized people should counter envy with humility, thanksgiving to God for his gifts to oneself and to others, goodwill, and surrender to the providence of God. … Poverty of heart is a way to avoid greed and envy. ‘Abandonment to the providence of the Father in heaven frees us from anxiety about tomorrow. Trust in God is a preparation for the blessedness of the poor. They shall see God’ ”(Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2547, citing Mt 6:25-34, p. 450).

During this holy season of Lent, we do well to set aside a little extra time to review our spiritual and moral conduct.

Jealousy and envy can sneak into our everyday life without much notice. An examination of conscience, i.e. listening sincerely to what our heart tells us, is an important daily practice.

If we find that we carry the burden of the capital sin of envy, the gift of God’s generous mercy is as close as the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.

Being freed of the enslaving effect of envy, like other sins, does wonders for us.

God’s Easter gift of forgiveness brings peace. †

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