A Crucial Distinction

decisionIf you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. . . somebody along the line gave you some help.

So said President Obama in a campaign appearance, and his subsequent remarks made clear he was continuing his theme that successful people have a debt to their neighbors and the way to pay it is by having their taxes increased. The oft-repeated catch- phrase is “redistributing the wealth.”

The response of conservatives was quick and forceful. They accused the President of revealing both his bias against hard work and achievement and his misunderstanding of (or contempt for) what has made America great—the initiative of creative, industrious individuals.

The question is, will voters agree with the President despite these rejoinders? The answer, I believe, is not clear, particularly in the case of Catholic voters. I say this because the President’s words on this occasion, as on many others, sound remarkably similar to some of the statements of several Catholic popes, as well as those of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (For a fuller discussion of those statements, see “American Catholics and Social Justice” in the archives.)

For example, in Pacem in Terris Pope John XXIII suggested the state is responsible for citizens’ welfare when he spoke of “[government] superintendence and coordination” of people’s rights, one of which he called “the right to be looked after.” In Laborem Exercens, Pope John Paul II claimed that “the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” [The emphasis is his.] And in Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI argued that wealth creation should be balanced by “wealth redistribution.”

In light of this similarity, it would not be unreasonable for President Obama to believe that Catholics (and other Christians) will embrace his campaign theme as fundamentally Christian. With a little tweaking, it can be made to sound almost biblical: “Woe to you who believe you are responsible for your own success, when in fact your brothers and sisters have made it possible. Blessed are those who pay their fair share and allow their wealth to be redistributed by the all-knowing, all-caring state.”

Although the papal encyclicals noted above unfortunately can be interpreted as supporting the President’s notion that justice demands the redistribution of wealth to achieve equality, an older, clearer, and I believe wiser Catholic tradition takes a very different view. That best expression of that tradition is Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.

Leo affirmed the unchanging Catholic view that God will hold us all responsible for the way we use our material possessions (as well as our talents) and that we are obligated to give to the indigent out of our surplus wealth. But he stressed that the obligation is “not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity.” In other words, we are to help those in need not because we owe it to them, or because they deserve it, or because the State demands it, but instead out of love of God and neighbor. This is a crucial distinction and it reveals, more clearly than any other single point, the profound difference between the Obama administration’s philosophy of redistributing wealth and traditional Catholic teaching.

Pope Leo argued that “private ownership is a natural right of man,” and that the proper role of government is to “[safeguard] private property by legal enactment and protection.” But he cautioned that “neither justice nor the common good allows any individual to seize upon that which belongs to another, or, under the futile and shallow pretext of equality, to lay violent hands on other people’s possessions,” adding that “the State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair.”

Although he acknowledged that “extreme necessity [should] be met by public aid,” Leo claimed that the “first and chief” duty of government is “to act with strict justice . . . toward each and every class alike.” He particularly deplored the fact that  “socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich” try to make personal possessions “the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies.”

A careful reading of Rerum Novarum, written over 120 years ago, reveals how remarkably prescient Leo XIII was. In passage after passage, the observations he offered about the social, economic, and political problems of the late 19th century provide insight into the problems we are struggling with today.

Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved