Sunday, May 11, 2014


The American secularists who comment on Pope Francis' statement concerning the redistribution of wealth should read Father Martin Fox's post from his blog, Bonfires of the Vanities, which you can access by pressing this sentence. Fr. Fox concelebrated Mass with me a couple of years ago as he was driving to Florida.

Pope...redistribute wealth--what?

The holy father gave some comments recently to a UN agency, in which he uttered this sentence:

"A contribution to this equitable development will also be made both by international activity aimed at the integral human development of all the world’s peoples and by the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society."

And there, in the midst of that is the phrase highlighted.

So I'm getting questions about this.

My answers are brief, because I have to get ready for confessions soon. But here goes:

1. Churchmen, including popes, don't speak the same language we do. I don't just mean in the sense that they speak German or Italian or Spanish; but they talk about these issues in a philosophically dense way that often comes across as rather turgid. Often this is because they're trying to be careful; other times, it's because they don't know how else to talk about it and they choose not to have someone "translate" it into something more engaging. This statement is emblematic of that.

2. Most of the rest of the world presupposes a very different role for "the State" than how Americans do. What's more, I don't think most of the world imagines such things even being subject for debate, because they've lived with the existing understandings of how state, church and civil society interact for so long. And, because they understandably shudder at the notion of revolution, not realizing that we have a constitution that "builds in" revolution.

So they tend to take for granted a deep interpenetration between government, religion and civil society.

3. When the pope says anything about anything, he assumes you know what level of authority to assign to it -- and how to relate it to everything else not just he, but the Church, has said about this.

So for example. Pope Francis says "X" about economics, or social teaching. Here's what he is definitely not saying: "Everything the Church has said on this is now set aside; my statement represents the current 'stance' of the Church."

But that's how people react. "What? We're supposed to believe what now?

The Church is not a political party; and Church teaching is not like a political platform. Too many of us have been too politicized -- in particular, the media, which really doesn't get the Church at all. It would be as if you'd never seen an animal before, only machines. Suddenly you see a horse -- but if your only reference point is machines, what sort of machine is a horse? Your account of the horse will thus be distorted.

So it is with media coverage of papal statements.

Memorize what follows, and repeat it every time you see one of these stories: "The pope is not saying anything new about ___."

Now, I'm not saying he'll never say anything new. But I'll make a bet (I mean, a real bet, if someone wants to work out the details): every time someone thinks there's something new, upon further investigation, it'll prove otherwise. I'll win this bet because...

Popes do not aim to say anything really "new." Instead, they aim to say the same eternal truths in new ways; or apply them to new situations.

Got it? They don't create new sacraments. They don't change what Jesus did. And they don't overturn what the Church has taken ages to understand. Even in the area of social teaching, which is the most fluid of Church teaching; they always seek to build on what went before.

So they assume you have all this in mind.

When Pope Francis says X, he's expecting you to place that, mentally, next to what Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul, Pope Leo (pick 'em), Pope Gregory, Pope Innocent, and all the rest...

Along with the councils, and the fathers, and...

Of course, the Apostles, conveying what the Lord said.

Get that?

OK, so all that goes for anything the pope says on any topic. If he really is going to say something really new, he'll tell you. Otherwise, he's attempting to present the old stuff in a new way. (Remember, for the Church, being old isn't bad. Being old is good.)

So...what about this particular statement?

I wouldn't have recommended the pope go to the UN about this, but he did. The pope has high hopes for the UN. And considering that the Church thinks in centuries, it may be that in another 400-500 years, the UN will prove to be useful.

When he says -- note wording -- "redistribute" "economic benefits," I find that curious choice of words noteworthy. He didn't say, redistribute wealth; and if you read the rest of the statement, he had lots of other qualifiers about freedom and individual initiative and respecting private property etc. And he talks broadly about what we all do, with the state as one element.

So here's the shocker: Father Martin Fox is in favor of "redistributing economic benefits."

But the way I want to do it is to have more jobs, high school diplomas that mean something, more family integrity (because poverty and family instability go hand-in-hand), and all of this making it possible for people to escape poverty and find a decent life.

If we have more of that as a society, more people share the wealth, right? You might even call it a "redistribution" of "economic benefit."

Obviously some people will use the pope's words to endorse their agendas, including more government intervention, more taxation, more confiscation of wealth. But that's not what the pope said. Even if he, himself, believes in that (who knows?), he didn't say you had to believe in that.

I wouldn't have advised him to do it this way, because of the potential for misunderstanding.

And, if indeed the pope's notions of economics and free markets and what the state can do to help us along is not mine, that doesn't particularly trouble me. Because I'm not under the impression that the pope asks me to share his particular political theories.

What he does ask me -- and you and all of us -- to accept is that being a Christian means we don't leave anyone behind. The needs of every human being are everyone's concern. The goods of this world are intended to benefit all humanity; so that private property, a great good, is a relative good, in relationship to God, who is the only real owner of anything in Creation besides our own souls.

So Catholic teaching holds that how the goods of this world are distributed for the benefit of all are a matter of public policy. Those of us who argue for free markets and limited government, argue that these things work better, and are more consistent with Catholic values, than big-government-ism.

And the pope is -- in his own way -- reminding us that the troubles of the poor must always be our concern; and not just that we remedy them with charity, but also with a better social order, with "better" being measured by how well we help people escape poverty.

Does this help? I gotta go...


rcg said...

I saw this only this morning early. Here is where I am with this particular statement of Pope Francis: He was addressing the UN, an group of mostly very bad actors. From their perspective he attacked their place in life, their class systems and privilege. Unless they see it as an excuse to increase their robbery and expand their class system to the more free productive countries. That is my problem. I think the concept of the Crusades is a great idea very badly executed. The chance for a backfire on this is incredibly great. I pray the Holy Spirit guides and protects him.

Anonymous 2 said...

As Father Fox observes, the issue is not one of ends but of means. As to the latter he states:

“Catholic teaching holds that how the goods of this world are distributed for the benefit of all are a matter of public policy. Those of us who argue for free markets and limited government, argue that these things work better, and are more consistent with Catholic values, than big-governmentism.”

So, once again it seems to come down to the principle of subsidiarity and thus making the public policy decision to favor that level of “government” that works better to achieve the agreed upon end -- self-government by individuals and associations of individuals in civil society; or formal government at the local, state, national, and/or international level. Father Fox himself favors “free markets and limited government” as opposed to “big-governmentism.” Pope Francis and earlier Popes, by contrast, seem to leave the matter open and to admit several possibilities, depending on the circumstances.

And are they not right to do so? Is it really an “either-or” choice? Isn’t there, instead, a continuum of possibilities and, moreover, many different issues or aspects that need to be addressed? And isn’t it quite possible that what may be the better method for one issue may not work as well for another issue? If so, doesn’t practical wisdom would again suggest that we should attend to these particularities instead of adopting some Procustean and reductionist ideological approach applicable to all of them?

And in order to exercise wisdom don’t we need other virtues? In particular, don’t we need the virtues of generosity and benevolence so as to avoid, on the “left,” the vices of envy and resentment and, on the “right,” the vices of selfishness and greed?

Anonymous 2 said...

Some further thoughts: Presumably these virtues are necessary so that there is a genuine, and not just a lip service, commitment to the end, and a clear eyed evaluation of means.

And isn’t another virtue also essential – the virtue of justice? In this regard, there is a very provocative sentence in Pope Francis’s address to the United Nations. Thus he says:

“Today, in concrete terms, an awareness of the dignity of each of our brothers and sisters whose life is sacred and inviolable from conception to natural death must lead us to share with complete freedom the goods which God’s providence has placed in our hands, material goods but also intellectual and spiritual ones, and to give back generously and lavishly whatever we may have earlier unjustly refused to others.”

The reference to intellectual and spiritual goods as well as material goods is interesting, of course, but I wonder what is meant by “whatever we may have earlier unjustly refused to others.”

Anonymous said...

Father McDonald,
You need to spend more time with Father Fox. He has a healthy view of how free markets and Catholicism are complementary. My guess is that he is no liturgical showman either. Invite him to say more Masses with you and maybe he’ll rub off a little more.
Remember the gov't view on business: "If it moves tax it, if it keeps moving regulate it and if it stops moving subsidize it". ...Ronald Reagan

Gene said...

This is another example of careless speech by this Pope. He is advocating big government and socialist philosophy. But, being from the Third World and having European ties, he is perfectly comfortable with tyrannical forms of government and socialism. He is not a politician; he needs to stop playing in that arena.

Taxes are wealth distribution. We now have an inverted pyramid in this country where the minority are supporting the majority with their hard-earned money. This is nuts…especially since many of the majority are perfectly capable of working if an administration would get about creating jobs instead of more social programs.

It is also a near cause of sin for many who are sick and tired of hearing the mantra of the Left about the poor. It is breeding uncharitable feelings in many who, previously, were more generous. I give to there Church for the poor because the Church says I should. I certainly do not do so because I believe it improves their condition. The poor in this country, anyway, are a bottomless pit and are being used as a political tool by the Left.

rcg said...

Gene, that is the one hope that I have. Cardinal Bergoglio was no fan of the governments in Laitn America and knows better than we the reason for the oceans of slums in those countries. I have to hope that is his audience, and he would be more than correct. My concern is that our own government will see it as an order of golden goose.

John Nolan said...

Here in the UK the government is attempting to deal with the enormous welfare budget and get people off benefits and into work. To get some perspective on this, central government spends more than three times as much on welfare as it does on defence (and this doesn't include the social services provided by local authorities) and a family of five with neither adult working can claim in benefits the equivalent of a middle-class disposable income.

The fact that this policy has moral as well as economic imperatives, and is supported, in principle at least, by all the major political parties, did not stop Cardinal Vincent Nichols from attacking it recently in forthright terms, calling it 'disgraceful' without, of course, suggesting an alternative solution to what even His Eminence can see is a problem.

I know the difference between Catholic social teaching and misguided and irresponsible forays into politics. It doesn't help that ++Vincent hails from Liverpool, a city which is regarded by the rest of the country as being populated by self-pitying welfare scroungers. This is an unfair caricature but was reinforced by a popular TV sitcom, written by a Liverpudlian (Carla Lane) and featuring a family of sentimental Scouse scroungers. I didn't find it in the least funny.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for the plug!


I enjoyed my one visit with Father several years ago; I hope someday I can visit again, and Father will continue to rub off on me!