Redistribution of Wealth: Good vs. Bad

Pope Francis spoke before a UN delegation on “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.” (Foxnews)

Conservative commentators have been criticizing this comment. Some have said that the Pope should stay out of economics and “stick to doctrine”. But if he had said anything about economics that was in agreement with their own views, they would not have said the same. They think that the Church should stay out of economic policy, except when the Church agrees with them.

There it is again. Most persons, including most Catholics, judge the Pope’s words and teachings by comparison with their own ideas. If the Pope expresses an opinion contrary to their own thinking, they automatically assume that the Pope must be wrong. If the Roman Catholic Magisterium teaches a doctrine contrary to their own understanding, they immediately conclude that the Church must be wrong. If even an Ecumenical Council infallibly teaches a dogma, contrary to their own understanding, they assume that the Council must be wrong. Such is the arrogance of modern times.

The Pope’s comments on economics were his opinion, not an act of the Magisterium. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote, in his book of private theology (Jesus of Nazareth, first volume) — “All are free to disagree”.

However, if you consider your own opinion to be better than the Pope’s opinion, so much so that his opinion is not even worth considering, you have fallen into the sin of arrogance. Even if it turns out that you are right and the Pope’s opinion is mistaken, you have still sinned by pride, but he has not. It is the role of the Pope and the Church to offer guidance to society, including in matters of economics. For every knowingly chosen act, in every sphere of human endeavor, is subject to the eternal moral law of God, including money, politics, sex, and everything else.

Was Pope Francis right? It is easy to understand that some types of “redistribution of wealth” are moral and other types immoral. The Pope implies this distinction by qualifying his assertion with the term “legitimate”. Some types of redistribution of wealth are legitimate, and other types illegitimate.

But then why didn’t Pope Francis mention any of the illegitimate types of redistribution of wealth? He did, in the document Evangelii Gaudium: “Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses. (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 202). He also implies, in that same paragraph, that such social safety net programs fail “to resolve the structural causes of poverty”.

So Pope Francis has already criticized liberal political and economic theory for treating social safety net programs (“welfare projects”) as if these were permanent entitlements, rather than temporary responses. Pope Francis says that we must address the causes of the poverty that requires a social safety net program, and not leave the poor trapped in that state. Conservative commentators have often said much the same thing. But I think the Pope has the greater insight, because he relates it to the Gospel and to our duty to express the love of neighbor by helping them in body as well as in soul, in temporal needs as well as in spiritual needs.

Pope Francis has criticized conservative errors, especially within Catholicism, more so than liberal errors. But he has the role of teaching and correcting all Catholics (even conservatives? how can this be?!!) and of offering guidance to all souls. Conservatives should not assume that the conservative point of view on economics, or any other topic, is necessary correct merely because it is conservative.

By the way, the legitimate redistribution of wealth is doctrine:

[Luke]
{11:41} Yet truly, give what is above as alms, and behold, all things are clean for you.

{12:33} Sell what you possess, and give alms. Make for yourselves purses that will not wear out, a treasure that will not fall short, in heaven, where no thief approaches, and no moth corrupts.
{12:34} For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

And as for taxation, Jesus was well-aware of the misuse of taxes. In His own time, most taxes were paid to the Romans, a power that had conquered and was then occupying Israel. Yet He approved of the payment of taxes, despite some misuse of the money:

[Luke]
{20:21} And they questioned him, saying: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach correctly, and that you do not consider anyone’s status, but you teach the way of God in truth.
{20:22} Is it lawful for us to pay the tribute to Caesar, or not?”
{20:23} But realizing their deceitfulness, he said to them: “Why do you test me?
{20:24} Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?” In response, they said to him, “Caesar’s.”
{20:25} And so, he said to them: “Then repay the things that are Caesar’s, to Caesar, and the things that are God’s, to God.”
{20:26} And they were not able to contradict his word before the people. And being amazed at his answer, they were silent.

And Saint Paul says much the same thing:

[Romans]
{13:7} Therefore, render to all whatever is owed. Taxes, to whom taxes is due; revenue, to whom revenue is due; fear, to whom fear is due; honor, to whom honor is due.
{13:8} You should owe nothing to anyone, except so as to love one another. For whoever loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.

The idea that all charity must come from individuals or at least the private sector is foolish. When a government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people” as a democratic government should be, the use of tax money to help the needy is one way for the people to act with charity toward their neighbor in need. Some large-scale problems are best addressed by government resources. Individuals and even large charities would not have sufficient resources. Also, the government can assist those in need by changing the law, as well as by redistributing wealth.

But of course this redistribution of wealth has its limits. Catholic social doctrine teaches the right of private property. And a government errs gravely when it taxes to excess and when it spends too much money on social welfare programs, rather than addressing the root causes of that need.

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Forgiveness and Salvation for Everyone
available in print (paperback, 510 pp.) and in Kindle format.

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One Response to Redistribution of Wealth: Good vs. Bad

  1. JonDavid says:

    Thanks for putting into context to what Pope Francis stated. Yes, too many were quick to judge what he said. Also, all be careful of how the MSM reports on what Pope Francis says and does. The MSM… The institution is not his friend

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