Today I received a rather late Christmas newsletter from friends in the US who are part of a lay Catholic community. It comprises married couples, single people and a consecrated virgin among others. In the group photograph I noticed one particular person, a single woman, now in her late 60s. I recalled being told that this woman was orphaned when young and was left a million dollars. In the early 1960s this was a large sum. Seeking to follow the Gospel injunction she literally gave the whole lot away to good causes – and then later joined the lay community which, embracing a life of material simplicity, shares all goods and money in common.
I have sometimes thought of her gesture. It came back to me again last week at Mass at the feast of St Anthony, the abbot and Desert Father. The story goes that St Anthony, like this woman, was orphaned and inherited great wealth as a young man. He happened to hear a sermon on the Gospel text, “Go, sell all you have and follow me” and on the spot decided to do just that (after making sure his younger sister was safely deposited in a convent).
I think of these two examples because I wonder what I would do if I acquired a very large sum of money out of the blue. I like to think I would give it all away – but would I? I have children and grandchildren, all with their pressing needs, as well as a large winter gas bill of my own and so on. Still, the advertising slogan, “Live simply so that others may simply live” appeals to me. Given what we all know of global want and poverty, courtesy of the news media, it seems to me that to live otherwise than “simply” is immoral as well as unchristian. But one person’s simplicity can be another person’s extravagance.
I spoke about this to a friend who has started a successful recruitment business from scratch. He slept in his car while he drove round the country when he was getting it off the ground. After only a few years his business now has a healthy turnover of well over a million pounds and it is expanding all the time. Last year this friend became a Catholic and, being of a dramatic disposition, he announced to me that he was going to sell his shiny new BMW, a symbol of wealth, and buy an old banger instead. Not being business-minded, this gesture appealed to me. However, his business partner, who has his feet more firmly on the ground, persuaded him it would be a very bad idea: potential clients needed to think the firm was prosperous; driving an old jalopy when touting for custom wouldn’t help their image or their bank balance – and if the business flopped it wouldn’t help the unskilled young people they recruit.
I also read an article about Bill Gates describing how he has dispensed with his immense wealth. His personal fortune beggars the imagination: some 65 billion dollars at the last count. When I was a child the Irish sweepstake had a top prize of £50,000. For me this represented the riches of Croesus. Now Russian oligarchs and internet entrepreneurs talk carelessly of “billions”. Wealth of this kind has risen to an abstract, stratospheric level, completely beyond the normal scale or imagination.
As is well-known, Bill Gates is conspicuously open-handed with his money, funding schemes through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that hope to eradicate polio and malaria worldwide. The article, by Neil Tweedie, quoted Gates as saying: “I’m certainly well taken care of in terms of food and clothes. Money has no utility to me beyond a certain point. Its utility is entirely in building an organisation and getting the resources out to the poorest in the world.” This sounds commendable – though even billionaires can’t consume more food or wear more clothes than other people. So far the Gates have given away 28 billion dollars to good causes. Tweedie writes that they “are showing generosity on a staggering scale… and they have convinced others that mega-philanthropy is the way of the future”. One might point out that Gates has kept a bit of money for himself and his family; his home is worth about £94 million, including “a swimming pool equipped with an underwater music system” and his children, although “they may not become multibillionaires”, should inherit “a billion or so each”.
This is where I begin to sound mean-minded: how can Gates and his wife be described as very generous when, even if they give away the bulk of their fortune, they will still be billionaires? We can’t all act like St Anthony; businesses have to be run and families have to be housed, clothed, fed and kept warm (not cheap with British Gas). But the Gospel tells us that Jesus, watching people put their money in the treasury, compared the widow and her mite favourably to those who only gave their surplus. Mother Teresa used to say, “Give until it hurts.” Does it actually hurt Bill Gates to give away billions when he is hanging on to even a few billion for himself?
I told you I am mean-minded. Still, there are no pockets in a shroud. If any would-be philanthropist or Russian oligarch should read this blog, they are welcome to send me a large cheque – and test my (at present unswerving) determination to donate it all to charity. I watched a real Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, talk to Jeff Randall on TV last night; he cracked a few jokes and agreed that he used to enjoy reading Conan Doyle. He doesn’t sound that bad after all. Perhaps he needs suggestions as to how to give his immense fortune away to good causes?