“Economic Law” versus Catholic Social Teaching, Part III

Part II) on Tom Woods’ article “The Trouble With Catholic Social Teaching” have generated much discussion, on this site and elsewhere—a healthy sign, it seems to me, that many conservative and traditionalist Catholics are trying to grapple with the Church’s consistent social teaching rather than simply bracketing it and substituting some form of conservative economics.

One writeback that I’ve received on Part II is important enough that I’d like to respond to it here in a post rather than in the writebacks. Al Gunn writes:

A quick question for clarification: On placing the onus for “solidarity” solely on the order of Charity (understood in the scholastic sense), does that properly do justice to what Pius XI following St. Thomas called the “social character of ownership”: “Therefore, public authority, under the guiding light always of the natural and divine law, can determine more accurately upon consideration of the true requirements of the common good, what is permitted and what is not permitted to owners in the use of their property.”(QA, 49) This would seem to be the second aspect of ownership St. Thomas talks about in ST II-II, q. 66, a. 2 and q. 32, a. 5 where he says in the repl to the 2d obj: “The temporal goods which God grants us, are ours as to the ownership, but as to the use of them, they belong not to us alone but also to such others as we are able to succor out of what we have over and above our needs.”

This is a very good point, and it’s something that I haven’t previously addressed, namely, Does the Catholic Church teach that the state has any role to play in a Christian social order? The answer is undoubtedly “yes,” and, once again, this is a teaching that extends back to the New Testament. The essentially anarchist Austrian can only accept this teaching by engaging in some intellectual gymnastics: for instance, by endorsing a sort of free-enterprise monarchy that never really existed and never will. Within any other context, the teaching has to be rejected. Indeed, for Austrian true believers, the modern state can never be legitimate—and yes, despite the claims of many to be true constitutionalists, their belief in the illegitimacy of the modern state extends even to the American republic of 1787.

What role does the Church believe that the state legitimately plays in the social order? There is a certain range of opinion on this, even within Catholic teaching, but, for the most part, the consensus lies somewhere between St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, both of whom saw the state’s role (and, more specifically, the role of the Christian ruler—on which, more in a moment) as primarily one of restraint—not demanding that men develop virtue but preventing men from doing harm, both physical and moral. That’s precisely the type of state action that Pius XI is discussing in the passage quoted by Mr. Gunn (“what is permitted and what is not permitted”—not, say, what is commanded). St. Thomas, however, is not discussing state action in the passage Mr. Gunn quotes; instead, he is discussing the positive duties of charity, which are commanded by the Church but cannot be coerced by the state.

The problem in the modern era is that states are no longer Christian or even presided over by Christian rulers; indeed, they are usually actively anti-Christian. Under those circumstances, Christians may be right to be skeptical even of state actions that are primarily taken in restraint.

It is important, therefore, to understand the historical context in which Christian social teaching developed and, particularly, in which the social encyclicals of the past century and a quarter were written. As Tom Fleming points out:

Quadragesimo anno comes two years after the historic concordat between the Church and the Italian state, granting the Vatican City area virtual statehood and full diplomatic powers to the Vatican state. This is the immediate context of the encyclical—the hope that the Church can once again play an active role in Italian society—while the intellectual background is the teaching of Leo XIII on workers. In Quadragesimo anno (which adheres to the theory of subsidiarity and virtually defines it, as I recall), as in its predecessor statements, the Church understands what an ideal society is and also the reality of the world in which She finds Herself, whether it is anti-Catholic liberalism (the very liberalism embraced today by Tom Woods) or anti-Catholic but pragmatic fascism.

Seen in this light, it is profitable to read the entire paragraph 49 of Quadragesimo anno, of which Mr. Gunn cited but a part:

49. It follows from what We have termed the individual and at the same time social character of ownership, that men must consider in this matter not only their own advantage but also the common good. To define these duties in detail when necessity requires and the natural law has not done so, is the function of those in charge of the State. Therefore, public authority, under the guiding light always of the natural and divine law, can determine more accurately upon consideration of the true requirements of the common good, what is permitted and what is not permitted to owners in the use of their property. Moreover, Leo XIII wisely taught “that God has left the limits of private possessions to be fixed by the industry of men and institutions of peoples.”[32] That history proves ownership, like other elements of social life, to be not absolutely unchanging, We once declared as follows: “What divers forms has property had, from that primitive form among rude and savage peoples, which may be observed in some places even in our time, to the form of possession in the patriarchal age; and so further to the various forms under tyranny (We are using the word tyranny in its classical sense); and then through the feudal and monarchial forms down to the various types which are to be found in more recent times.”[33] That the State is not permitted to discharge its duty arbitrarily is, however, clear. The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away: “For man is older than the State,”[34] and also “domestic living together is prior both in thought and in fact to uniting into a polity.”[35] Wherefore the wise Pontiff declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. “For since the right of possessing goods privately has been conferred not by man’s law, but by nature, public authority cannot abolish it, but can only control its exercise and bring it into conformity with the common weal.”[36] Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them.

This, it seems to me, is—within the context of a Christian society—an outline of both a more just economy and a radically more free one than that under which we suffer today. It’s also important to note that, in the next paragraph, Pius discusses the duty of Christian charity entirely as a voluntary exercise, something which cannot be coerced by the state:

50. Furthermore, a person’s superfluous income, that is, income which he does not need to sustain life fittingly and with dignity, is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.

And, in a passage that ought to warm the heart of any Austrian (right before it makes his blood boil), Pius notes:

51. Expending larger incomes so that opportunity for gainful work may be abundant, provided, however, that this work is applied to producing really useful goods, ought to be considered, as We deduce from the principles of the Angelic Doctor,[37] an outstanding exemplification of the virtue of munificence and one particularly suited to the needs of the times.

In other words, the rich can fulfill one of their three duties of charity (munificence) by reinvesting in their business (heart-warming), provided their business produces something of greater value to society (blood-boiling). The simple fact that someone will purchase your product does not mean that you have met this criterion. And even if you do meet it, you are still obliged, out of your “superfluous income,” to “practice almsgiving [and] beneficence” in addition to this form of munificence.

After reading my two earlier posts, Tom Woods e-mailed me to say (in part) that “It would be hard to put [Quadragesimo anno] down and not think that the public authorities are being called upon.” To which I reply: Indeed, it would be, if you approach it (as he apparently has) with the preconception that “the public authorities are being called upon.” If you simply read it in light of the Church’s tradition of social teaching, it’s not hard at all.

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