So how about that new Pope eh?
Oh I think you mean
Whats not to love?
One thing you got to admit about Pope Francis he knows how to make a stir. Even before the thanksgiving holiday he was one of the most hotly debated men of our time. That was before he released Evangelii Gaudium; the apostolic Exhortation that commentators everywhere have agreed is so. . ., newsworthy? I had to sneak away from my family a bit to finish the document over the holiday. For me it was pretty comforting document. I love the Pontiffs theology, style and politics.
But many of my friends especially my Catholic friends struggle with the churches economic views. The exhortation has once again brought to light longstanding divisions within the body. But let us note the main thrust of Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) was not related to economics but about evangelism. This is very much keeps in the common theme of the Pontiffs term. The Pontiff has not brought renewed interest in the church by changing Doctrine but by radically changing the way we talk about it. Specifically the Pontiff seems to be asking us to engage the world in a more open, more relevant Dialogue.
It is best to look upon the divisions that have been brought to light as an opportunity for Dialogue. With that in mind I would like to prayfully and fearfully respond to some of the criticisms I have heard from my fellow Catholics.
I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs”. Evangelii Gaudium 57
These words of antiquity from Saint John Chrysostom, do not always sit well with modern American sensibilities. Perhaps the best way to start pondering these words is to return yourself to a more Christian would view.
Many Catholics myself included like to throw around the term “Social Justice” as if it meant the same thing for everyone. But let us be clear the common accepted definition of Justice and the Christian view of the same topic are worlds apart. At the core of Christian ethics is the example of a God who chose his son, a sinless and all powerful being to take a lessor form so he could be persecuted, prosecuted and killed for the sins of other people. This starting place screams injustice!
To be Christian is to strive to have the heart of Christ. And Christ has declared that “Justice” means that we all should be loved. It is not a love that we earn. It is not a love that can be taken away from us. It is a right that has been bestowed upon us by our creator.
It is in this light that the words of Saint John Chrysostom can be understood. We are all debtors to the Lord and so our treasure must belong to him. To hold our Lords treasure from anyone who was meant to receive it ,anyone whom God Loved, would be an act of stealing. This is the basis of a Christian Economy not that everyone is given according to their due but that everyone is given according to Gods love.
Solidarity is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property. Evangelii Gaudium 189
It should have already noticed Christians have a different view of property than the American legal one. Philosopher John Locke promoted the view that private property is an exclusive right to the people who have labored for it. Many Americans today have taken this view and gone on to conclude that taxation is therefore an unjust breach of this natural right. Many Catholics confuse the churches endorsement of private property as an endorsement of this view.
This is inaccurate. Christ was asked directly about his view on taxation and he answered directly that we should “Render unto Cesar what is Cesar’s”. It is the last part of this line that should be striking. Christ didn’t say Render unto Cesar “…in order to obey the law or, in order to avoid anarchy.” Christ makes an explicit deceleration that the peoples wealth was Cesar’s property?
If we generalize this statement, Jesus is suggesting the wealth of a nation belong to the leaders of said nation. Who is printed on the face of your money? That is a startling proclamation. But if you take the long view this understanding wealth this makes a lot of since. Let us start with land, hasn’t much of our wealth come from the land we inhabit and the resources we have extracted from it. Can anyone claim to be the natural owners over things our creator laid out before we lived? What about Instinctual property? Hasn’t all of society contributed to the expanse of knowledge? How can a singular man claim a deed on Truth? What about the generations of inflation and unpaid debt that makes up every dollar bill. Can you claim to be the just owner of a 200 year old unpaid check?
This “wealth” exists because when we signed the social contract we agreed to attribute certain rights to certain individuals. We also agreed we would assign responsibilities to certain individuals. The deeds you were granted in the social contract came with a permanent lease agreement with the society. Sure you can claim you want out of the social contract, but you cant void the social contract and pretend all your current property rights remain valid. Those never existed in the state of nature. So the reality is closer to Jesus than Locke. We are holding a lease to the nations wealth but the landowner is the whole of society and its manager apparent is our government.
We have heard from Locke, from Jesus and from me. So you ask what is the Catholic view of all this. It is true but often misunderstood that the church believes in private property. But not in the same sense that Locke did. The church has wisely observed that economic systems without private property (communist economy’s) are almost always more harsh on the poor than economic systems with private property. Therefore the church endorses private property for the benefit of the poor.
That is because the church assumes the function of property is to benefit society with preference for benefiting the poor. Property’s ultimate destination is to society universally. Private property is endorsed by the Catholic church to the extent it serves these ends. But if governments could never tax their citizens to promote the common good these ends would not be served. So the church does not endorse private property to the way that Locke does. We agree with Christ taxation isn’t stealing
We need to be convinced that charity “is the principle not only of micro-relationships (with friends, with family members or within small groups) but also of macro-relationships (social, economic and political ones)”. Evangelii Gaudium 205
Another common dividing line in debate is the proper role of government. Many Catholics uphold the view that restoration of the wealth to the poor is a role of charity distinct from government. They surmise Christ called individuals to feed the hungry but it would be coercive for the Government to do so.
But this would conflict with the government explicitly established by God in the old testament. Old testament law is clear it was the the responsibility of the entire Jewish people and their state to collectively care for the poor. At many places in the Jewish Law they pay special consideration for widows, orphans, debtors, immigrants and slaves. Basically the Jewish law paid extra attention to make sure the vulnerable where always cared for. And then there was the Jubilee Year. The Jewish answer to wealth inequality is strikingly absolute and effective. Every 50 years those who had accumulated wealth were legally required to give it all back and redistribute it to those who had none. Essentially every 50 years the one percent and the ninety-nine percent would get together and all start back at zero.
This legal system would allow people to profit from their labors for 50 years (a lifetime in antiquity, unless you happened to be Noah). But this prevented a small group of people from accumulating a permanent store of societies wealth and power to wield over others. This protection could have only been established through the collective agreement of the entire society. In the new testament Jesus did subvert many then coercive Jewish laws but he always hastened to keep with the ‘spirit’ of the law. The spirit of Jewish law was to collectively serve the poor and vulnerable and to prevent oppressive income inequality.
Catholics Social Teaching urges that our own laws keep with this spirit. Please note that the quote within a quote comes from Pope Benedict. Pope Benedict makes it clear charity should be part of our political and economic lives as well as our personal endeavors.
If we are honest many our church today has deep ideological divisions that did not appear overnight, and they will not disappear by morning. I truly believe our best hope to heal the Church Universal is a loving Dialogue in the spirit of Pope Francis. My challenge to you this post is to enter into this Dialogue in a spirit of love and an openness to correction. Let us humbly pray with all the saints that God will cast his light open this discussion so we may see his Wisdom.