Catholic Family News
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Catholicism and Wealth Redistribution


Subsidiarity requires healthy and robust mediating bodies and institutions with important roles to play in preventing and correcting violations of commutative and distributive justice.  Calling simply for redistribution by the State violates the principle articulated by Pius XI: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”

Catholicism and Wealth Redistribution

By Brian McCall, J.D.
In a recent address to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the heads of major U.N. agencies His Holiness Pope Francis is reported to have called for "the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state”  to help curb the "economy of exclusion.”[1]  Unfortunately, the Vatican has not made available the actual text of the speech and all that exists at the time of writing this article is a report by the media in attendance.  Yet, the call for redistribution by the State and general denunciations of inequality are consistent with many passages in His Holiness’ extremely lengthy Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.[2]

Francis’ general denunciations of inequality and calls for wealth redistribution by the State have been hailed with joy by Marxists and others with Socialist leanings.  Although the great popes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were falsely accused of favoring Socialism,[3] these same popes were also accused by Socialists as unduly favoring Classical Liberal Capitalism.  The fact that both of these forms of Liberalism accused the popes of being of the other type indicates the truly independent stance of these popes on Catholic principles. 

As far as I am aware, no one has publicly suggested that Pope Francis favors Liberal Capitalism.  The only accusation seems to be one of Socialist sympathies.  Leo XIII and his successors were unjustly accused of being adherents of both Socialism and Capitalism because they rejected both systems as false philosophies (although acknowledging that the false systems may accidentally contain some elements of truth).  These popes taught neither Classical Liberal Capitalism nor Liberal Socialism but Catholicism which opposes all forms of Liberalism.  The popes avoided the errors of both of these Liberal systems because they refused to limit themselves to the imprecise generalities employed by the polemicists for both of them.  They presented Catholic teaching on economic justice with all its critical distinctions.  Thereby, they avoided the errors of both systems.

At least so far, their successor, Pope Francis, has not followed their sage practice.  He often writes and utters imprecise generalities which can easily be read as supporting Socialist and other Collectivist calls for massive wealth confiscation and redistribution.  Due to the imprecise and general nature of the quoted extracts we cannot say for certain whether Pope Francis personally subscribes to the Socialist philosophy. Yet, based on the Apostolic Exhortation, it is likely that even if the full text of the U.N. speech were available, it is unlikely that the speech contains the critical distinctions and precise definitions that qualified the pre-Counciliar popes’ critiques of Liberal Capitalism.  Regardless of Pope Francis’ personal understanding of the issues (which may for all I know be in accord with perennial Catholic doctrine), his public statements leave themselves open to Socialist interpretations. 

Thus, to avoid falling into confusion it is prudent to review the Church’s doctrine relating to wealth inequality and any attempts to redistribute wealth.

The Error of the Claim that All Men are Created Equal

The Marxist philosophy rests upon several false postulates.  One of which is that the mere fact of inequality in wealth is per se unjust.  The Church has always denied the truth of such a claim.  Thomas Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence that “all Men are created equal” does not adequately correspond to reality.  All men by definition are created with a common human nature; yet it is an obvious fact that all Men are not created equal.  Modern genetic science has further confirmed this fact.  From the moment of conception every person has a unique, unequal genetic code and disposition.  Some are created tall, some short, some physically strong, some physically weak, some prone to serious illness, some possessing a disposition to vigorous health, some with greater intellectual capability and others with greater artistic talents.

 Throughout the ages some men have been conceived into families possessing great wealth and others into families of meager means.  Anyone who claims that all inequalities can and should be abolished contradicts an omniscient and omnipotent Being, Our Lord Jesus Christ, who revealed the truth of reality to us when he told us we would always have the poor with us.[4]  Certain inequalities are decreed by the Will of God for our benefit and anyone who promises to eliminate them promises a false hope.  Leo XIII echoing the words of Our Lord reminded the world: “No matter what changes may occur in forms of government, there will ever be differences and inequalities of condition in the State. Society cannot exist or be conceived of without them.”[5]  One of the reasons that Pope St. Pius X condemned the originally Catholic Sillon movement in France is that the Sillonists taught that all inequalities were evil and must be eliminated.  St. Pius X corrected the false claims of the Sillon: “Thus, to the Sillon, every inequality of condition is an injustice, or at least, a diminution of justice? Here we have a principle that conflicts sharply with the nature of things, a principle conducive to jealously, injustice, and subversive to any social order.”[6]

Just and Unjust Inequalities
Catholic doctrine has thus always held that inequalities in the abstract are neither good nor bad, just nor unjust, but merely a fact of life.  Only those inequalities which result from violations of justice are unjust.  Justly acquired wealth does not result in an unjust inequality.  The Socialist creed, however, makes of all economic inequality an injustice.  Pope Pius XI in his resounding condemnation of Socialism (the last great condemnation before the voice of the Church against this Liberal evil was muzzled by the Second Vatican Council’s refusal to even mention this false philosophy) called the Socialist claim that all inequality is unjust a “pseudo-ideal of justice, of equality and fraternity.”[7]  True justice recognizes that in reality there are just and unjust inequalities. 

Commutative and Distributive Justice
Unjust inequalities result from violations of either commutative or distributive justice.  Commutative justice regulates the dealings between individuals, or commutations.  Commutative justice requires equality in exchange.  Examples of violations of commutative justice resulting in unjust inequality would include theft (involuntary commutation), selling something for more than it is worth, and usury (the latter being voluntary commutations).  A thief violates justice because he takes something of value from someone not only without their consent but without giving equal value in exchange. This creates an unjust inequality because the thief has more than he is justly entitled to and the victim less. 

The same is true for voluntary commutations, sales and loans, when one party receives an unequal value.  One who loans money and demands usury creates an unjust inequality.  It is for this reason that usury and selling and buying at unjust prices are related to theft by Catholic teachers such as Aquinas.[8]  Importantly commutative justice does not require that people possess equal wealth but merely that when people interact they exchange things of equal value.

Yet, inequality can also result from violations of distributive justice.  This form of justice is more misunderstood by the modern world than commutative.  Distributive justice regulates the distribution of common goods among members of a community.  The first important distinction is that it relates not to private but to common goods.  In the context we are considering, common goods refer to wealth produced in common by a community.  Such goods should be distributed not equally but proportionately among those contributing to the production of those goods.  One who contributes more to the common goods in justice should share in a higher proportion of those goods.  Like commutative justice, distributive justice does not require the equality of wealth but rather the proportionate distribution of goods that are common to a community. 

As applied to business ventures, distributive justice requires that those contributing to the production of a business profit should share that profit proportionately to their contribution.  Pope Pius XI made clear that proportionality is not equality and capital and labor must share the common profits proportionately to their contribution to the common enterprise.  Pius XI explained that all the common profit of a business venture cannot be claimed for capital or labor exclusively under distributive justice. “Wherefore it is wholly false to ascribe to property alone or to labor alone whatever has been obtained through the combined effort of both, and it is wholly unjust for either, denying the efficacy of the other, to arrogate to itself whatever has been produced.”[9] 

Pius XI, in continuity with Leo XIII condemned both the Socialist claim that all business profit should be owned collectively and shared equally but also the proposition that all profit belongs to capital.  “Hence the class of the wealthy violates this law no less, when, as if free from care on account of its wealth, it thinks it the right order of things for it to get everything and the worker nothing, than does the non-owning working class when, angered deeply at outraged justice and too ready to assert wrongly”[10]

Thus, Catholic moral philosophy does not condemn inequality in itself but merely inequality that results from a violation of commutative or distributive justice.  The condemnation of the mere fact of inequality by anyone, be he bishop or pope, is not stating accurately moral truth.

Redistribution or Restitution
Likewise, unqualified calls for “redistribution” of wealth are not consistent with Catholic morality.    Since inequality is not itself unjust, a redistribution based simply on the fact of a pre-existing inequality would not be an act of justice: a taking away of that which rightfully belongs to one and giving it to another is theft.  The justification for redistributing property in any case rests on the requirement of restitution.[11]  A transfer of property is justified to correct an inequality committed in violation of either commutative or distributive justice.  Thus, a thief must redistribute to the victim the thing stolen or if he no longer possesses it, an equivalent value.  One who loans at usury must return to the victim the amount of the usury.  One who takes more than his proportionate share of the common goods of a community must make restitution to the community.

Both Leo XIII and Pius XI in their condemnations of Socialism made clear that the collectivization of property and wealth by the State simply on the claim of inequality even if for the purpose of relieving the hardship of the poor was a violation of justice.  Thus, it is perfectly consistent to call for a redistribution that constitutes a restitution of ill-gotten gain, wealth that was acquired in violation of either commutative or distributive justice.  The redistribution of property as part of making restitution does not violate justice but rather promotes it.  Simply redistributing property on the basis of justly established inequality is unjust itself. 

The Impoverishment of Civil Society by Reduction to the State

Yet, even if an individual or class of individuals has a duty in justice to make restitution, it does not follow that the State must in all cases be the agent of the restitution.  One of the significant changes to Catholic Social and Economic Doctrine originating with John XXIII was a tendency to bolster the claims of the State to increase its power and jurisdiction.  From John XXIII (with his encyclical Pacem in Terris) to Benedict XVI’s call for a “global authority with teeth” in his encyclical Veritas in Caritate, post-Counciliar popes have become strong advocates for increased global State power.

In contrast the Church had always claimed that human law cannot, and in fact should not, correct all injustices.  Many must be left to another divine forum.  Traditionally the Church supported a multiplicity of jurisdictions, civil and sacred.  In the sacred realm, jurisdiction is shared among parish, diocese, universal Church. On the civil side it should be shared among national and local governments, guilds and trade associations and the family.  Which jurisdiction should require or encourage various types of restitution is a matter of political prudence.  Simply calling for redistribution by “the State” concedes the field to the Liberals who have been working to impoverish human society for centuries.  They have sought—and largely succeeded—to collapse all these jurisdictions into the atomized individual and the all-powerful State.  Since the power of the State has become bloated by the dismantling of the important mediating jurisdictions, simply calling for general wealth redistribution by the State undermines the key Catholic principles of subsidiarity as outlined by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno.

 Subsidiarity requires healthy and robust mediating bodies and institutions with important roles to play in preventing and correcting violations of commutative and distributive justice.  Calling simply for redistribution by the State violates the principle articulated by Pius XI: “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.” [12] 

One of the errors of Socialism is a desire to collectivize the subsidiary organizations into the State.  Whereas the great Medieval popes, such as Innocent III, and saints, such as Thomas Beckett, used the power of the Church as a bulwark against civil powers seeking to unduly expand their reach, post-Counciliar popes seem to have switched sides, often calling for expansion of State jurisdiction and power. 

Thus, we can hope that the Holy Father has in his mind these important definitional principles of Catholic doctrine and the distinctions that flow from them.  Yet, vague unqualified statements condemning inequality and calling for State compelled redistributions without limiting such to restitution can easily and understandably be aligned with the errors of Socialism. 

Pope Francis may not be a Socialist, but when his predecessors rightly corrected the errors of Liberal Capitalism they prudently did so in the context of condemning the errors of Liberal Socialism.  Both are enemies of the truth as both represent extreme vices with respect to the virtue of justice.  Socialism condemns all inequality no matter how just and Liberal Capitalism blesses all inequality no matter how unjust.  The truth lies in perennial Catholic teaching which our world is much in need of hearing from the clear and precise voice of the Vicar of Christ.  May that day arrive soon.

[1] See New York Daily News, May 9, 2014, available at
[2] See my recent article in Catholic Family News ("Homini Gaudium") considering the economic parts of the exhortation in March, 2014, p. 1.
[3] For an excoriating condemnation of Socialism see Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris.
[4] See (Matt. 26:11, Mark 14:7, and John 12:8.
[5] Rerum Novarum 34 (emphasis added).
[6] Notre Charge Apostolique.
[7] Divini Redemptoris No. 8.
[8] See Summa, II-II, Q. 66, 77, 78.
[9] Quadrogesimo Anno No. 53.
[10] Quadragesimo Anno No. 57.
[11] See Summa Theological II-II, Q. 62 on Restitution.
[12] Quadragesimo Anno No.79.

Posted from June 2014 CFN (just went to press)

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