It’s Not Just Pope Francis — God Wants Wealth Redistributed, Too

Conservative commentators are freaking out about Pope Francis’ views on economic inequality, but the pope is in line with traditional Catholic teaching.

Many conservatives have long scorned traditional Catholic teaching about a just economy. Now that Pope Francis has called for “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits,” a full-blown freak out has commenced.

John Moody, executive editor of Fox News, railed that the pope “grievously exceeded his authority” and is becoming “a robe-wearing politician.” Sean Hannity lectured the pope about the virtues of hard work, reminding us that Jesus’ father was an honest sweat-of-the brow carpenter. Rush Limbaugh nearly swallowed his stogie: “That’s Marxism. That’s socialism!” Rush raged. Father John Zuhlsdorf, a prominent conservative Catholic blogger, accused the pope of being “naïve” and “out of step with history,” echoing Rep. Paul Ryan’s earlier patronizing critique that the pope is simply ignorant of U.S-style capitalism.

Pope Francis has made economic justice, specifically the stark gap between rich and poor, a defining theme of his papacy. In his Apostolic Exhortation the Joy of the Gospel, Francis writes that “trickle down” economic theories — a sacred ideology for many conservatives — express a “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” Framing economic dignity as a “pro-life” issue, the pope insists that we must reject an “economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.” In a recent tweet to his more than 10 million Twitter followers, the pope called inequality “the root of social evil.” When Francis dared to utter the “R” word (redistribution) last week, he crossed into highly charged terrain in this country that brought to mind candidate Obama’s infamous 2008 run-in with “Joe the Plumber.”

But Pope Francis’ understanding of “redistribution” doesn’t come from liberal think tanks or display a knee-jerk aversion to capitalism. It grows from orthodox Catholic teaching that is rooted in biblical values about the shared gift of creation. As the Vatican’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (published during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate) explains:

Goods, even when legitimately owned, always have a universal destination; any type of improper accumulation is immoral, because it openly contradicts the universal destination assigned to all goods by the Creator. . . . Evil is seen in the immoderate attachment to riches and the desire to hoard.

The Compendium is clear that “wealth exists to be shared.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church — you know, that classic left-wing tract — refers to “sinful inequalities” that are “in open contradiction to the Gospel.”

While Rush Limbaugh’s predictable screeds that the pope is preaching “Marxism” are extreme, his argument that the church should simply focus on providing “charity” is not an uncommon view. Many Americans, including more than a few Catholics, forget that the church is not only concerned with charity, but also justice. The frequently ignored Christian concept of “social sin” recognizes that the root causes of poverty are often found in unjust structures, not simply personal behavior.

When the powerful rig the rules of the global economy to reward a few at the expense of the many, injustice is woven into the fabric of political, social and financial institutions. The pope is reading the “signs of the times” — extreme disparities that cause preventable suffering and death — through the lens of traditional church teaching about human dignity and the common good. “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld,” St. Augustine observed long ago.

Pope Francis is not going rogue. The Catholic social tradition endorses a living wage for workers, defends the importance of unions, a positive role for government and the prudent regulation of financial markets. Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on capital and labor positioned the Catholic Church as a formidable moral counterweight to the savage capitalism of the Industrial Era. Pope Benedict XVI decried the “scandal of glaring inequalities.” Pope John Paul II warned against the “idolatry” of the market.

Critics who insist that Pope Francis should “stick to doctrine” and stop talking about inequality conveniently ignore that responding to the cries of the poor is a fundamental doctrine of the church. In a recent speech at Fordham University, Cardinal Walter Kasper said “to care for the poor is church doctrine.” Catholic teaching about abortion, for example, is not an isolated position but rooted in the same respect for the dignity of all life that drives the church’s commitment to the poor, the immigrant, the prisoner on death row and the dying.

In a homily before the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston described poverty as a “dehumanizing force” and insisted that “the Gospel of Life demands that we work for economic justice in our country and in our world.” Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy of San Francisco has argued that Pope Francis’ teachings “demand a transformation of the existing Catholic political conversation in our nation” and point to “the centrality of addressing poverty as an imperative for Catholics in the public order.”

Market fundamentalists who demonize government and defend an economic status quo that leaves billions of people around the globe trapped in poverty should be nervous. The Catholic Church is not on your side, and Pope Francis is just getting warmed up.

The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.

John Gehring
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  • Martin Hughes

    ‘Rerum Novarum’ did not position the Church as a counterweight to capitalism but as a defender of private property, subject to relieving necessity that threatened life, a limitation which is hardly controversial and very, very restricted. The current Pope is ‘getting started’ only on empty words.

    • m8lsem

      Jesus outranks Rerum Novarum, which itself was a truly radical presentation in the days of the Robber Barons that too many well to do seem to wish to return to.

      • Martin Hughes

        I don’t see anything very radical. There’s nothing to match the idea that excessive inequality weakens any state or that it is desirable that everyone receive ‘all the necessities and many of the conveniences’ of life, which was the position taken by the fairly conservative but atheist-tending David Hume 150 years before. The main effect of Rerum N was to give the strongest support to private and corporate property and accumulation, the Catholic Church itself being at all times one of the richest organisations in the world, actively charitable, opposed to gross cruelty, but never radical and indeed the mainstay of conservative politics in the European countries where it was strong. How else could one understand the Dreyfus Affair, even the Spanish Civil War? The politics of Jesus are another matter, I would say.

    • fiscalconsrvtv

      Actually Rerum Novarum masterfully provided a counterweight to both capitalism and socialism. Yes, private property is a human right. And every right, in Catholic Social Teaching, is balanced by responsibility; those with private property are morally obligated to use that property for the common good first – not their personal good. That means paying a living wage – enough to live on and raise a family; that translates to, in San Francisco for example, around $26/hour for a worker with one child. It also means giving plenty of time off, allowing workers to unionize, and coming to the table to discuss workers’ needs with true intent.
      In short, work exists for the good of human beings, not workers existing for the good of a corporation/the market economy.
      Finally, Rerum Novarum issues stern warnings to those with wealth, stating that owning wealth is easily a hindrance to salvation. Money does not buy happiness and its seductive appeal frequently blinds its owners to its true purpose: to be shared for the benefit of all, STARTING with the poor. RN issues a blistering challenge to those who see money, not people, as the bottom line. Radical? Maybe. But so was JC:
      “You cannot have two masters; you will love one and hate the other. You cannot love God and money.”

  • m8lsem

    I seem to recall Jesus’ saying some things about the difficulties the rich might have getting into Heaven, and the kindness he and his showed sharing their comparative wealth with the poor. He served the poor with regard to many of their problems with no more compensation than gratitude. The Holy Father sounds much more like Jesus that do the excuse-makers for the 1%. These radical friendship for the sick and the poor messages became the centerpiece for ‘another Pope or two’ along the way.

  • ElrondPA

    It’s not the market economy that “leaves billions of people around the globe trapped in poverty.” It’s kleptocratic, corrupt, and totalitarian governments that do that, particularly those that claim to be rearranging society to aid the poor. The history of massive wealth transfers to countries that don’t have a solid legal system that protects private property and frees people to choose their own economic path is an almost unbroken series of failures. Development comes from protecting life, liberty, and property from the predations of both government and thugs–who’s going to take risks when everything could be taken away as soon as you have any success?

    The World Bank has reported that the rate of extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25/day) has plummeted over the last two decades, from 43% in 1981 to 22% in 2008 (most recent year with good statistics). Subsaharan Africa is the worst off now, but their problem isn’t a market economy–it’s no economy at all, with billions in aid wasted.

    That said, there is a clear place in Christian teaching (including explicitly in both testaments of the Bible) for support of the poor. Unfortunately, much of the talk about redistribution fails to grapple with the commandment not to covet.

    • R Joseph Owles

      “There is a clear place in Christian teaching…for support of the poor” — yes, Jesus Christ is that clear place and the source of that teaching. How is it that Christians can claim to follow Jesus, or claim that Jesus is Lord, but decide that His teachings are optional?

      • ElrondPA

        Yes, Jesus as well as Paul speak clearly to our moral responsibility to care for the poor. Yet neither of them ever suggests that this responsibility translates into a right of confiscation from others. A few passages that come to mind:

        Luke 12:13-15: Someone in the crowd said to him [Jesus], “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

        2 Corinthians 9:7 Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

        Acts 4:32-5:11–The early Jerusalem church is described as living together, sharing everything. (This is clearly descriptive, not prescriptive–there is no sign that this situation was replicated in other locations, and even in Jerusalem, just a chapter later we read about problems in fair distribution.) Barnabas sells property he has and gives all the proceeds to the apostles to use to care for those in need. Then Ananias & Sapphira decide to sell property and give only part of it. They are struck dead for their actions, but Peter makes it very clear that judgment has come upon them not because they withheld some of the money, but because they lied about it–they wanted the accolades of matching Barnabas’s action, but they didn’t want to actually make the sacrifice.

        None of this negates the call God has on each of us to aid the poor. The point is, answering that call is a decision that each of us is responsible before God for, not responsible before Caesar for. There may be non-religious reasons to support government-directed, tax-funded relief of the poor, but it is fallacious to invoke Biblical warrant for it. And I can’t remember the last time I heard a progressive discuss the danger of greed and envy driving demands for wealth redistribution. Both the rich and the poor are sinners, and are tempted to let sin cloud their thinking about money.

        • geoffrobinson

          Your comments are just spot on. Kudos.

        • joddy

          Is this, then, your theological justification for government and its policies making the rich richer and the poor poorer, which is the government we have today?

          • ElrondPA

            I do not defend crony capitalism, where government rewards its friends and punishes its enemies amid a veneer of capitalism. But that type of action is a result of excessive government involvement in the market, not insufficient involvement. When government starts picking winners and losers, it is inevitable that the decisions are not always made on the merits, but on a political basis. Government-directed wealth redistribution always turns into this type of monstrosity, which offends both Biblical standards of justice and common sense, and ends up making general society poorer at the expense of the favored few (who are favored not because of their intelligence or hard work, but because of their political connections). Solyndra and ethanol mandates are not good for the economy as a whole or those at the bottom.

            That said, it is rare that U.S. government policies actually make the poor poorer. Rather, unwise government policies either 1) do nothing to assist the poor, or 2) actually discourage them from taking steps that would help them to build a healthier life, physically, intellectually, and financially. Much of federal poverty policy for the last 50 years falls into #2 (as do other policies like food subsidies that encourage overconsumption of unhealthy food). Globally, the primary government policies that make the poor poorer are failure to enforce the law impartially (including corruption, which is endemic to much of the developing world) and raising impediments to business development, either internally or externally funded. “Development aid” has done precious little to bring development; private enterprise (including the astonishing explosion of cell phones) has done far more.

            I’m not advocating Social Darwinism. I believe there is a place for governmental funding of the building blocks for a successful life, such as a quality education (not necessarily in public schools). I agree with providing temporary, transitional assistance to those who are in financial difficulties. But my experience is that most of those in financial difficulty need a lot more than just a check to get their life in order and get out of poverty, and soulless, bureaucratic wealth transfer accomplishes little of long-lasting benefit. Relief without reformation is pointless and actually destructive.

            If we as a church really want to bring people out of poverty, we have to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of coming alongside them, helping them recover from the moral deficits that feed the financial deficits–yet at the same time realizing that they are bearers of the image of God, with intrinsic worth and with their own abilities which they can contribute to rebuilding their lives and to the good of the community. I heartily recommend “When Helping Hurts,” by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert.

          • joddy

            Sorry, it is not true that “it is rare that U.S. government policies actually make the poor poorer”, especially since World War II. The Federal Housing Act of 1947 explicitly denied the low-cost housing loans to black veterans that white veterans received. Jim Crow is still with us despite the civil rights and voting acts of the 1960s. As Michelle Alexander notes in her well-documented “The New Jim Crow,” the objective since Reconstruction is to demonize blacks to give poor whites someone to look down upon, thus to reduce or eliminate any incentive poor whites might have to make economic demands upon the economic elite (and imprison as many young black men as possible). Wal-mart (and other discounters) exist to give poor people (most of whom are white) the illusion of material well-being, by being able to buy cheap plastic stuff made by communist slave labor, and thus reduce pressure to pay workers a living wage. The “moral deficit” is not with the working poor (and most of the poor do work) but with those who use the poor’s alleged lack of personal morality and the governments’s alleged “soullessness” as justification for suppressing the poor further. Over the past 30 years we have become an oligarchy funded by the economic elite for its own benefit and no one else’s.

          • ElrondPA

            Racism is a whole separate issue. It’s also a red herring. Our discussion is present tense, not past. The only racial or ethnic distinctions built into U.S. law today are those that are intended to benefit historically disadvantaged groups. (One can argue about whether they provide the benefit intended, but again, that’s a separate issue.) I vehemently disagree with the claim that Jim Crow exists today, and that the “War on Drugs” is really a racist plot to subjugate blacks. “The New Jim Crow” trivializes the actual Jim Crow laws, and associated racist lawlessness, of the first half of the 20th century, in its attempt to compare and link then and now. And anyone who really thinks racial attitudes today are the same as attitudes 60 years ago is in a politically-induced fog.

            Walmart doesn’t exist to “give poor people the illusion of material well-being.” It exists to make a profit by providing goods people want at a price they’re willing to pay, just like any other store from the mom & pop convenience store to Neiman-Marcus. Claims of grand conspiracies to keep the rabble down make good political rallying cries, but display a fundamental ignorance of how economic systems really work.

            “The poor’s alleged lack of morality”–it is not open to debate that rates of childbirth out of wedlock are far higher among the poor (of all races) than among middle and upper classes, and that failure to marry before having children, controlling for all other factors, makes one much more likely to be poor (both parents and children). Living with one parent is strongly correlated with a host of social pathologies, which tend to lead to more poverty. That doesn’t mean that every child of a single mother is condemned to poverty and misbehavior, or that all the poor lack self-control, but there’s clearly a much harder road to success, and problems tend to reproduce through generations. We all learn patterns of behavior from our parents, for better and for worse. And survival tactics in a poverty setting can make it more difficult to move out of poverty. Government’s ability to change such ways of thinking is limited, and wealth redistribution does almost nothing to help that. That’s why a large percentage of big lottery winners and other windfall recipients find themselves within a few years no better off, or even worse off, than they were before they won.

  • Erin MacGeraghty

    So – are they selling their assets to help ???

    • fiscalconsrvtv

      Good point. And that’s part of what Pope Francis is addressing “in-house” by curtailing the lavish lifestyles of the clergy. Selling assets and giving to the poor is a lovely example of direct action.
      But you are missing an important part of Catholic Social Teaching: social action, which recognizes – as Marx did! – that the way the system is set up is bound to create poverty. We are morally obligated to challenge such a system.
      “When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor are poor, they called me a communist.” Archbishop Dom Helder Camara

      • Martin Hughes

        First of all, I’m not claiming, on behalf of myself or of any other group, ‘all the answers’ to social problems. However, I think that the present Pope is being praised for almost nothing. If there is a big programme of divesting his Church from its enormous property holdings and riches, I have not heard of it: perhaps that is just inattention, so I should await more information. Nor have I heard that the pay of the clergy is being cut – I am not saying that it should be.
        To say that we should be seriously concerned about poverty or that we should not let anyone starve is not to say anything very radical or even something with which many would completely disagree. Nor is it to hit on a significant compromise between the claims of capitalism and socialism. When something is hailed both as a compromise and as a radical solution you should wonder if much is really going on.
        Rerum N defends private property robustly and does not set a limit on accumulation (with which the Church itself could scarcely comply). It accepts the idea of a Living Wage, though this was hardly original and had been vigorously claimed by the various social democratic movements for some time, and as I mentioned, had been accepted even by reasonably conservative thinkers, like Hume, more than a century before. It was issued at a time when various social reforms, free education, pensions, even health care and state provision of services were (for good or ill) being canvassed. RN proposes none of these and (as far as I can appreciate – I may not have taken it all in, finding the style difficult – even really hint at them. Social security, not letting people starve, had been around for centuries but it seems to me that RN is at best very cautious on this subject.
        For at least two centuries people had been noticing that a system based on private property, expanded international trade and technological innovation was increasing the prosperity of the human race: Locke had argued that its benefits could spread to nearly everyone everywhere in the social order and worldwide. But this had been questioned. During the century before RN there had been considerable, particularly under the impulse of the 1789 revolution, discussion of whether a system based on advancing technology and/or private property could, whatever the personal moral intentions of employers, ever provide a living wage for everyone. This discussion RN and Catholic Social Teaching generally, seems almost completely to ignore. As for a new system, not based or not so much based on the profit motive, I see little suggestion of it in RN or CST. One fundamental reason for this is the ambivalent attitude of the Church to the State. On this point, I would begin to take ‘concern for the poor’ more seriously if churches were prepared to give up the exceedingly privileged tax position they often possess.
        Perhaps I’m being ungenerous. I think that RN did, for all its deep conservatism, help to popularise an understanding of Living Wage as what it takes for an average ‘frugal’ (!) person to support a family, but there are all sorts of problems with this – what is the presumed context in the way of education and health care? Can the family grow indefinitely? What if you don’t have family responsibilities? The other main suggestion, Catholic trade unions, which divides the working class and perhaps the whole citizen body along religious lines, is also very questionable. There is an interesting hint of wage bargaining based on arbitration systems but again this is a very difficult idea and it has never been satisfactorily (well, at least within my limited sphere of knowledge) worked out.
        I’ve gone on too long. I do think that thoroughly uncritical essays, like Professor Gehring’s, on recent or not so recent pronouncements aren’t too objective.

  • DesDaly

    The message of Jesus Christ concerning wealth is there, in plain site, in his own Holy Gospel as well as it’s interpretation in the social justice teaching of the Catholic Church over the past two hundred years. It is not an anti capitalist teaching, as some so called Christians would have us believe. Nor does it condemn wealth as something evil. It simply says that all economic transactions between human beings should be based on a moral, faith filled response to the teachings of Christ, as in “Do unto others as you would have them do you”. It is the Golden Rule and a rule that has been in existence from time immemorial. Jesus of Nazareth simply passed on to us what he learned from his Father. Why can’t we just get it?

  • norias

    Jesus Himself advised us that “The poor shall always be with
    us.”

    That is the way it is, but we are also told to help those in
    need not just with words but with deeds.

    Helping another person is a voluntary decision that comes
    from the heart, it’s a personal choice.

    Forcing one to help another/give money, is not spiritual at
    all. How/Why does the Church believe it can create Goodwill? Sounds like
    another tax.
    Why is Capitalisms model losing favor among the world authorities
    these days?
    Those authorities loved capitalism when it was able to
    destroy the axis powers in the world wars and now that capitalism has annihilated
    communism they have no use for it.
    The world’s poor do not need forced goodwill; they need Capitalism,
    without Govt. corruption and regulations. Take Africa … with its corrupt
    leaders in place it will always be poor. Those tyrants suck up all the goodwill
    money directed to the citizens. They have the whole continent beat down.

    If the church really wants to help the poor why not move against these despots.
    The church should lead the poor into prosperity, not force the issue.

    • SayBlade

      All the questions in your post are answered in the article.

      Unbridled capitalism has become the axis of power it once destroyed. Its caprice is legend. The despots are the capitalists.

      Another question: Why should we be forced to wage war on small countries, poison God’s creation and deny people their rights through our taxes?

      • norias

        “Unbridled capitalism has become the axis of power it once
        destroyed.”

        In other words you say free enterprise/capitalism is evil.

        Evil like … Hitler’s Gestapo, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, or
        Emperor Hirohito’s attack on Pearl.

        Capitalism is not a perfect model. But to state capitalism
        is and does what that alliance of wicked souls perpetrated on the world, is simply
        an agenda driven ideologues droning. However it’s made worse by hiding it in religion.

        Religious socialism is not spiritual, period. If the church wants
        to ally itself with such an economic model it becomes nothing more than another
        taxing entity.

        I pray the church will lead us spiritually … and not be led
        by hot headed ideologues that attempt to sneak schemes through the churches
        backdoor.

        • SayBlade

          You quoted me exactly and then twist my words. I did not write free enterprise/capitalism is evil. I reiterate: “Unbridled capitalism has become the axis of power it once destroyed.”

          If you look at western models the ideal mix is capitalism kept in check by socialism.

          Now, why don’t you answer my question?: “Why should we be forced to wage war on small countries, poison God’s creation and deny people their rights through our taxes?”

  • Guillermo Rivas

    Jesus led all of his twelve disciples away from their livelihoods/jobs. And even his other followers who came after. He provided them with food, shelter and knowledge. This behavior is quite hippie-like — kind of like living in a commune. Jesus also spoke up against the market exchanges between money and goods inside the Jewish temple. Again, going against those who love money and distort the message of God/Jesus. This is the only time he got mad and caused physical damage. Jesus told the rich man to give away all of his money, give it to the poor and to follow him. And then he said (generally speaking), “it is harder for the rich man to get into heaven than it is to see a camel go through the eye of a needle.” Basically saying, rich people won’t get into heaven unless they give up their worldly possessions to the poor/needy.

    The fact of the matter is the following: Jesus didn’t tell his twelve disciples (and others) to overthrow the government to establish a market economy; Jesus didn’t tell the poor to get jobs; Jesus didn’t welcome the money-lenders into his temple and further encouraged this; he didn’t tell his disciples to work for the rich men and that perhaps they too could be rich if they worked hard and were thrifty with their money.

    lol.

  • Ignatz

    Part of the problem is that Americans think “capitalism” is the same thing “free exchange.” It isn’t. It’s a system of capital and labor in which the property owner – capital – has power over labor. Simply by virtue of “owning” a piece of the land – which he didn’t make.

  • marirae

    When you bless the Poor, you yourself will find blessings.

  • annie

    I’m waiting to see the Vatican “redistribute” all of their wealth…I’ll be interested to know when some of those paintings will come up for sale in order to help the poor and “redistribute” the wealth.. .