This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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4.7. Political Society

The problem of ideology

Ideology is the first problem to address in any contemporary political discussion. Ideology may be defined as the attempt to answer vast, complex problems by means of simplistic, “common sense,” closed systems of thought. Ideologies are always narrow in their approach, promising utopia if only their doctrines can be given full assent and obedience. They provide a false haven from the perennial problems of life, and are in this sense an attempt to escape from the responsibility of real action, choosing instead a vague, abstract, and usually ambiguous solution.[1] The present pope has identified, perhaps more than any of his predecessors, the specific evil of ideology, and has responded by declaring war on this way of thinking.

Pope Francis speaks of ideology as a “distilled faith,” passed through a filter with only the superficialities retained. “In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought.”[2]

Socialism and capitalism are two ideologies with which CST struggles most, although it sometimes refers to the first as Marxism, and the second as economic “liberalism.” Because the latter—capitalism—is the reigning ideology of the present era, we will develop the Church’s teaching on this ideology in particular. It does not matter at all that there is no such thing as pure capitalism in actuality, any more than there is pure socialism. That neither of these extremes can be realized in practice does not prevent them from being entertained in the mind as erroneous ideals, poisoning the thinking of millions. It is in this latter “idealistic” form that ideologies such as capitalism wreak havoc in modern society. It is also as ideologies that Pope Francis condemns them.

[1] OA, 27.


Liberalism and Social Teaching

Paul VI wrote of his period:

…we are witnessing a renewal of the liberal ideology. This current asserts itself both in the name of economic efficiency, and for the defense of the individual against the increasingly overwhelming hold of organizations, and as a reaction against the totalitarian tendencies of political powers. Certainly, personal initiative must be maintained and developed. But do not Christians who take this path tend to idealize liberalism in their turn, making it a proclamation in favor of freedom? They would like a new model, more adapted to present-day conditions, while easily forgetting that at the very root of philosophical liberalism is an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation and the exercise of his liberty.[1]

And so it seems that any contemporary discussion of ideology must give special focus to liberalism, because it represents the operating ideology of the present era. Yet we must be clear about what is meant by the word. As we have already stated above, when the Church refers to “liberalism” she is speaking of that ideology,

which believes it exalts individual freedom by withdrawing it from every limitation, by stimulating it through exclusive seeking of interest and power, and by considering social solidarities as more or less automatic consequences of individual initiatives, not as an aim and a major criterion of the value of the social organization.[2]

In CST, the Church is usually speaking directly of economic liberalism, which, as we remarked above, is also called capitalism. However, capitalism is only one expression of liberalism, and there are two others with which the Church has done battle in the past: religious liberalism and political liberalism. Recalling the definition of liberalism stated above, it should be obvious that just as capitalism represents the precise application of liberalism in the economic sphere, so the Reformation expressed the same principles in the religious sphere, while birth of secular government represents liberalism in the political sphere. We can identify these three liberal movements as personified by their respective thinkers: Adam Smith in the economic domain, Martin Luther in the religious, and John Locke in the political.

In fact, we could go so far as to say that CST in general represents a prolonged response to the errors of liberalism in the economic sphere.

[1] OA, 35.

[2] OA, 26.

Liberalism is not an American political party

Despite the way the term is used in the United States, when the popes speak of liberalism they are not fighting against the American Democratic Party. They have something much larger in mind. No doubt, of course, the American “liberals” are products of the liberal ideology, as evidenced by their preference for secularism in political affairs and their insistence on the absolutism of certain political rights; however, American “conservatives” are just as much children of liberalism as their counterparts, what with their intemperate devotion to the autonomy of markets, combined with their insistence on the absolutism of property rights. The two American parties are both thoroughly liberal—they simply represent two different sides of the coin.

The true purpose of the State

Government is a divinely instituted good. Solomon says that “Where there is no governor, the people shall fall.”[1] And Paul warns that there is no authority except that which God has established.[2] Yet it is also true that the State exists for man, and not man for the State.[3] God established authority, but for man and not for itself.

If we apply the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, we can sum up the purpose of the State by saying that it is to serve the common good by fulfilling those requirements which cannot be met by lower associations. These can be roughly enumerated as keeping the peace between lower social bodies, providing for defense from foreign invaders, and seeing to the maintenance of distributive justice. In a healthy society the role of the State need not be extensive or overly intrusive. The State is, however, completely necessary. Only in society can man fulfill himself, and this means that political life is part of his nature. Social and political activities are justified in their existence because of man, and should not be viewed as something erected over and against him.

It does not follow from this that the government which governs least, governs best.[4] The opposite may just as often prove true. The State has a distinct role to play, and it must be judged, not based on how much or little it governs, but by whether or not it carries out the functions proper to it. It “exists to achieve an end otherwise unobtainable: the full growth of each of its members, called to cooperate steadfastly for the attainment of the common good, under the impulse of their natural inclinations towards what is true and good.”[5]

[1] Eccl 4:9.

[2] Rom 13:1.

[3] CCC, 1881; GS, 25.

[4] Economic Justice for All, 124.

[5] CSDC, 384.

The end of the State must coincide with the end of man

Because the State exists to assist man in realizing the potentialities of his nature, and because his vocation is in its noblest sense a spiritual one, then political society fails automatically if it does not take into consideration anything more than the temporal lives of its citizens.[1] As it has been put by Aquinas:

“[T]he same judgment is to be formed about the end of society as a whole as about the end of one man…If such an ultimate end either of an individual man or a multitude were a corporeal one, namely, life and health of body, to govern would then be a physician’s charge. If that ultimate end were an abundance of wealth, then knowledge of economics would have the last word in the community’s government. If the good of the knowledge of truth were of such a kind that the multitude might attain to it, the king would have to be a teacher. It is, however, clear that the end of a multitude gathered together is to live virtuously. For men form a group for the purpose of living well together, a thing which the individual man living alone could not attain, and good life is virtuous life. Therefore, virtuous life is the end for which men gather together…Yet through virtuous living man is further ordained to a higher end, which consists in the enjoyment of God…Consequently, since society must have the same end as the individual man, it is not the ultimate end of an assembled multitude to live virtuously, but through virtuous living to attain to the possession of God.”[2]

Now these words should not be interpreted as a demand for State-run churches, mandatory attendance of the mass, and the like. Aquinas is merely acknowledging the fact that the State, since it plays the governing role in society, cannot make pretenses at spiritual indifference. Let it try to adopt the stance of indifferentism, and it will end by establishing a practical atheism.

So what might Aquinas’s vision look like in practice? To take but one example, the Church calls on the State to ensure that workers have a sufficient amount of rest, not merely to repair the strain placed on the body during labor, but so that workers can properly devote themselves to their spiritual exercises which can easily fall into neglect. Man must therefore be provided with rest for both soul and body, and not for the body alone.[3] By such simple measures we can see how the State ought to act in favor of the religious life without assuming responsibility for it.

[1] CSDC, 386.

[2] DR, 106-107.

[3] RN, 41-42.

The relations between Church and State

In attempting to reconcile the ends of man with the ends of the State, we are brought to an examination of the proper relationship between the Church and the State. We have already dealt with various aspects of this problem in another section of this manual, but will provide a few remarks and citations here that relate directly to Catholic Social Teaching.

The problem with liberal secularism, which is the governing mentality in most modern States, including the U.S., is that such regimes attempt to take a stance of indifference toward religion. Unfortunately, as we mentioned above, a purely negative stance toward religion is not in reality a neutral one, as is supposed; to stand aloof and refuse to make affirmative statements about religion inevitably leads to a positive exclusion of religion from all public considerations, even if this was not necessarily the intention the founders of such regimes. On this point, Leo XIII is in agreement:

“To hold, therefore, that there is no difference in matters of religion between forms that are unlike each other, and even contrary to each other, most clearly leads in the end to the rejection of all religion in both theory and practice. And this is the same thing as atheism, however it may differ from it in name.”[1]

In short, liberal regimes are based on the absurd idea that a man can have freedom of religion while his neighbor has an equal share of freedom from religion, as if the two ought never to come into conflict. For this to be true, the two men would essentially have to live entirely in isolation from one another, which is to say they would have to cease to live in the same community.

The expression of one’s religion will always come into direct conflict with the freedom from religion. It is of its very nature to find social expression. There is no such thing as “private religion.” Thus, to create a society that exists free for, and at the same time free from, religion is impossible. For the State to choose not to choose is for it to adopt a negative position against all positive positions, and this negative position is atheism. Even agnosticism, for the State, is not a possibility.

[1] ID, 31.

Leo XIII on the separation of Church and State

It is for this reason that the Church has always insisted that the State absolutely cannot make pretenses at neutrality. The State must not only acknowledge God, but must acknowledge the Christian God. There can be no separation between church and state in the modern sense, as the following excerpts from Leo XIII’s Libertas clearly show:

“There are others, somewhat more moderate though not more consistent, who affirm that the morality of individuals is to be guided by the divine law, but not the morality of the State, for that in public affairs the commands of God may be passed over, and may be entirely disregarded in the framing of laws. Hence follows the fatal theory of the need of separation between Church and State. But the absurdity of such a position is manifest. Nature herself proclaims the necessity of the State providing means and opportunities whereby the community may be enabled to live properly, that is to say, according to the laws of God. For, since God is the source of all goodness and justice, it is absolutely ridiculous that the State should pay no attention to these laws or render them abortive by contrary enact menu. Besides, those who are in authority owe it to the commonwealth not only to provide for its external well-being and the conveniences of life, but still more to consult the welfare of men’s souls in the wisdom of their legislation. But, for the increase of such benefits, nothing more suitable can be conceived than the laws which have God for their author; and, therefore, they who in their government of the State take no account of these laws abuse political power by causing it to deviate from its proper end and from what nature itself prescribes. And, what is still more important, and what We have more than once pointed out, although the civil authority has not the same proximate end as the spiritual, nor proceeds on the same lines, nevertheless in the exercise of their separate powers they must occasionally meet. For their subjects are the same, and not infrequently they deal with the same objects, though in different ways. Whenever this occurs, since a state of conflict is absurd and manifestly repugnant to the most wise ordinance of God, there must necessarily exist some order or mode of procedure to remove the occasions of difference and contention, and to secure harmony in all things. This harmony has been not inaptly compared to that which exists between the body and the soul for the well-being of both one and the other, the separation of which brings irremediable harm to the body, since it extinguishes its very life.”[1]

“For, to reject the supreme authority to God, and to cast off all obedience to Him in public matters, or even in private and domestic affairs, is the greatest perversion of liberty and the worst kind of liberalism…From this teaching, as from its source and principle, flows that fatal principle of the separation of Church and State; whereas it is, on the contrary, clear that the two powers, though dissimilar in functions and unequal in degree, ought nevertheless to live in concord, by harmony in their action and the faithful discharge of their respective duties.”[2]

“Many wish the State to be separated from the Church wholly and entirely, so that with regard to every right of human society, in institutions, customs, and laws, the offices of State, and the education of youth, they would pay no more regard to the Church than if she did not exist; and, at most, would allow the citizens individually to attend to their religion in private if so minded. Against such as these, all the arguments by which We disprove the principle of separation of Church and State are conclusive; with this super-added, that it is absurd the citizen should respect the Church, while the State may hold her in contempt.[3]

[1] LP, 18.

[2] LP, 37-38.

[3] LP, 39. Emphasis added.

Martin Luther on the separation of Church and State

The notion of a beneficial “wall of separation between church and state” has its roots in liberal philosophy, and in fact this idea follows very naturally from its basic premises. So inevitable was this conclusion that we find it rearing its head not only in the political philosophies of John Locke and J.S. Mill, but even from religious reformers such as Martin Luther, who advised princes as follows:

“…you have people under you and you wish to know what to do. It is not Christ you are to question concerning the matter but the law of your country…Between the Christian and the ruler, a profound separation must be made…Assuredly, a prince can be a Christian, but it is not as a Christian that he ought to govern. As a ruler, he is not called a Christian, but a prince. The man is a Christian, but his function does not concern his religion…Though they are found in the man, the two states or functions are perfectly marked off, one from the other, and really opposed.”[1]

And while the Catholic Church had warned kings that “through this crown, you become a sharer in our ministry,”[2] the secularism of Luther was to become the unconscious status quo in all the later liberal-democratic regimes with which Protestantism would form an unhealthy union. In nations built on this philosophy, even those Catholics who wished to participate in public life would have to sacrifice their principles to the liberal altar. Consider the following statements of the Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, and consider how perfectly they mirror the thinking of Luther, while at the same time flatly contradicting the teachings of Kennedy’s own Church:

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute… I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me…Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision…in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”[3]

[1] Luther’s Works (Wiemar Edition) XXXII, pp. 391, 439, 440.

[2] Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power (Indianapolis, 1976), p. 33.

[3] Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association delivered Sept. 12, 1960.

Confession versus coercion

Now it seems wise to remind the reader of that document which we mentioned early on in our discussion, namely Dignitatis Humanae. There is a very distinct difference between confession of faith on the part of the State, and acts of coercion by it. The confession of faith by a public authority need not entail—and in fact must not entail—coercion of the citizen with respect to religion, for the conscience of the individual is a thing that cannot be coerced. Dignitatis Humanae therefore affirms the Church’s traditional condemnation of the latter, while at the same time it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”[1]

As an example of this arrangement working in a healthy manner, which is also proof that Dignitatis Humanae was not revolutionary in its nature, we might remind the reader of the role of the Church in combating popular oppressions in the past, such as those against the Jews and against women accused of witchcraft. Churchmen of the Inquisition itself were some of the most determined voices in attempts to curb the persecution of “witches” and “sorcerers” in Europe. Pope Alexander IV even declared a canon prohibiting even the investigation of alleged witches.

As a counterexample to show what happens when popular movements are allowed to go unchecked by an active spiritual authority, the Salem witch trials in the United States can teach us a great deal.

Returning again to the issue of conscience, we must remember that Leo XIII, that towering warrior against the political errors of liberalism who is himself cited in Dignitatis Humanae, vigorously stated his agreement with Vatican II’s position, saying that “the Church is wont to take earnest heed that no one shall be forced to embrace the Catholic faith against his will, for, as St. Augustine wisely reminds us, ‘Man cannot believe otherwise than of his own will.’ ”[2]

[1] DH, 1.

[2] ID, 36.

Peace or strife?

Now we come to an issue of competition in political affairs, which is closely related to our discussion of capitalist societies. Earlier it was addressed in its economic form. Here we address it as a much broader mentality, because our economic attitudes never remain in the purely economic sphere, but expand and invade every area of life.

After the fashion of capitalism and the theory of evolution, modern society believes that strife is an intrinsic good. It is the mechanism for progress. In science, for example, it is believed that human life itself is the result of a perpetual struggle for existence, a “survival of the fittest” through which progress is brought about. This same attitude appears in economic ideologies which hold competition to be the engine of social welfare and human creativity. Likewise, in political institutions there is a sort of “institutionalized conflict” represented by the separate branches of government and the parties competing for control of those branches. Such a system is designed for conflict.

In every case, then, it seems that the underlying assumption is that peace follows from chaos, and that strife is the mother of harmony. Because this has become so engrained as to seem natural, it may surprise the reader to find that the Church—and indeed most other traditions outside of modern systems—taught the opposite: that peace is the supreme value to be sought and strife avoided;[1] and that this is in fact a duty which must be acted upon and not left as if it would occur as a result of automatic processes.[2]

[1] John Paull II, Message for the 1982 World Day of Peace, 4.

[2] Ibid.

True peace is harmony of wills

The peace in question is not the peace which follows combat, which is simply the peace of death and defeat. The peace sought by the Christian is not merely the absence of war, pain, or the precarious tension of “balanced powers.” True peace is a harmonious union of wills through which those involved not only cease to fight, but actually agree in their desires. Such persons are “unified” in their efforts. Peaceful unity requires the courageousness of trust, the seeking of justice, the practice of love, and the realization of human brotherhood.[1] In fact, we can say that peace is more the fruit of love than of justice, since justice removes obstacles to peace, while it is the part of love to bring it to fruition.[2]

It goes without saying that if strife is considered the ideal and peace simply a consequence of the mechanism of strife, then true peace will be perpetually undermined. War and threat of war cannot be escaped so long as sin persists, but this does not in any way transform them into goods to be sought after as if they were the engines of peace, for this would only bring about the peace of death.

[1] GS, 78.

[2] UA, 35; ST II-II, q. 29, a. 3, ad. 3.

On obedience and revolution

We are sometimes led to believe that the philosophers and theologians of old demanded an unconditional submission to social authorities. We also imagine that this was motivated by the naïve assumption that social authorities were divinely instituted and therefore unconditionally legitimate. In truth, however, men like Aquinas always acknowledged the existence of legitimate causes for the removal of unjust rulers. The difference between the traditional thinking and the modern has more to do with the circumstances that each accepts as “unjust.”

For example, while moderns tend to view revolution as legitimate virtually any time the governed become dissatisfied with their government. So long as it can be clearly demonstrated that the people are unhappy—a majority vote, for example—a leader can be removed. All that is required is proof that it was the will of the people. The justification for removal of leaders in democratic regimes, then, boils down to a question, not of some objective standard of justice, but of public opinion plain and simple.

It is on this point that the thinkers of the Middle Ages beg to differ. For them, because governmental authority was instituted, not personally but universally and by God, its operation had to be judged by a standard of justice that was objective, like God. If a ruler was to be removed, he had to be removed by proving that he was governing unjustly. If he was carrying out his functions well, it would not matter if 99% of the population wanted him removed, it would be unjust to do so.

To simplify the problem, we can make the distinction between the ruler himself, as an individual, and the office that he is holding. Respect is due to a ruler because he is holding an office. Thus, the respect he is given is less due to him personally as it is due to the divinely ordained authority, which is to say, to God as represented by him. Even if he behaves ignobly, he holds a noble office. So when is it appropriate to remove an ignoble noble? Taking into account this separation between the man (who may be good or evil) and the office (which, being divinely instituted, is in itself good), we can say with the theorists of the Middle Ages that it is legitimate to remove even a good man who is a bad ruler, but it is not legitimate to remove a bad man who is a good ruler.

Such is the meaning of Christ’s words to the apostles: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”[1] Thus, when it comes to bad men who are good leaders, we are told to do what they say but not what they do. The most obvious implication here is that, although Christ bluntly acknowledged hypocrisy, he also commanded obedience.

[1] Mt, 23:2-3.

State as protector of rights

Since the rise of Lockean liberalism, it has become common to imagine that the purpose of the State is nothing more than to act as “mediator of rights” between individuals, and that it should not concern itself in the promotion of any particular good beyond this simple role of safeguarding individual liberties. Unfortunately, this has never been the Catholic view of the purpose of political authority—or, more accurately, the Catholic view includes the protection of rights as a purpose of the State,[1] but it refuses to limit the State to this alone, as if it had no other duty.

Moreover, when the Church speaks of the maintenance of the “rights” of citizens, it usually has other things in mind than those mentioned in political conversation today. The right to meaningful work, the right to education, and the right to food and water, are all notions which the Church has in view when it asks to State to guarantee certain fundamental rights.

The role of the State is an active one—not merely mediating between individuals who exercise their liberties in opposition. It is called to play a positive role in creating an environment where rights and duties can be exercised in their fullness.[2]

[1] PT, 273.

[2] PT, 274-275.

Free of speech and the press

The Church teaches that rights, while valid, not necessarily absolute. Each must be held to the standard of truth and limited according to the common good, particularly when it comes to its exercise in the public sphere. Apart from truth and the common good, rights tend to undermine themselves and will virtually cease to exist through their own excess. The right of free speech serves as a good example here, as enunciated by Leo XIII:

We must now consider briefly liberty of speech, and liberty of the press. It is hardly necessary to say that there can be no such right as this, if it be not used in moderation, and if it pass beyond the bounds and end of all true liberty. For right is a moral power which — as We have before said and must again and again repeat — it is absurd to suppose that nature has accorded indifferently to truth and falsehood, to justice and injustice. Men have a right freely and prudently to propagate throughout the State what things soever are true and honorable, so that as many as possible may possess them; but lying opinions, than which no mental plague is greater, and vices which corrupt the heart and moral life should be diligently repressed by public authority, lest they insidiously work the ruin of the State. The excesses of an unbridled intellect, which unfailingly end in the oppression of the untutored multitude, are no less rightly controlled by the authority of the law than are the injuries inflicted by violence upon the weak. And this all the more surely, because by far the greater part of the community is either absolutely unable, or able only with great difficulty, to escape from illusions and deceitful subtleties, especially such as flatter the passions. If unbridled license of speech and of writing be granted to all, nothing will remain sacred and inviolate; even the highest and truest mandates of natures, justly held to be the common and noblest heritage of the human race, will not be spared. Thus, truth being gradually obscured by darkness, pernicious and manifold error, as too often happens, will easily prevail. Thus, too, license will gain what liberty loses; for liberty will ever be more free and secure in proportion as license is kept in fuller restraint. In regard, however, to all matter of opinion which God leaves to man’s free discussion, full liberty of thought and of speech is naturally within the right of everyone; for such liberty never leads men to suppress the truth, but often to discover it and make it known.[1]

[1] LP, 23.


Modern man imagines his body and his “self” as yet one more piece of his private property. The popes, however, suggest otherwise:

Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed.[1]

We have already discussed in-depth the proper understanding of private property,[2] explaining how and why it can never be considered absolute but is itself only one good in a hierarchy of goods, and he who denies the hierarchy destroys its component goods. However, at this point it might be beneficial to refute another modern error which considers the human person, particularly the physical body, as the legal property of the person to whom it belongs. Self-ownership, while true from a particular point of view, is really only a half-truth, and is therefore misleading if adopted blindly as a guiding principle of law. For example, if we adopt this view unquestioningly, we run the risk of having to mediate between the rights of the unborn and the rights of mothers, and we are led down a very dark road. Much of this misunderstanding stems from our deeply engrained individualism which tells each man that he is completely responsible for what he is and what he becomes. He therefore ought to consider his own “self” his property. But Benedict XVI puts forth another view:

The human person by nature is actively involved in his own development. The development in question is not simply the result of natural mechanisms, since as everybody knows, we are all capable of making free and responsible choices. Nor is it merely at the mercy of our caprice, since we all know that we are a gift, not something self-generated. Our freedom is profoundly shaped by our being, and by its limits. No one shapes his own conscience arbitrarily, but we all build our own “I” on the basis of a “self” which is given to us. Not only are other persons outside our control, but each one of us is outside his or her own control. A person’s development is compromised, if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes.[3]

Pope Francis combats the same mentality, encouraging instead a willing participation in the natural body we have received as a gift from the Creator:

“…thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment.”[4]

We cannot own ourselves because we are a gift, and the closest a man can come to owning himself is by making a gift of himself to another. Or, in other words, whosoever wishes to save his life must lose it.[5] Only by acknowledging this principle of the gift and its primordial role in our very existence can we properly understand the nature of our “ownership” of ourselves. It turns out to be a humbler notion than contemporary political discourse would lead us to believe.

[1] CA, 38.

[2] Section III, parts 2 and 3a-c.

[3] CV, 68.

[4] LS, 155.

[5] Mt 16:25.

The rights of God

Finally, it would not be appropriate to pass over a discussion of rights without acknowledging an unwelcome truth about the tradition of the Church—one that will not sit well with those who have learned to accept without question the separation of church and state, along with the humanistic notions of popular sovereignty and secularism. This unwelcome truth is that society itself, if its notions of freedom are to remain legitimate, must never deny its duty to God, for the rights of God precede the rights of man, and the rights of man cannot persist without this foundation. As Leo XIII stated it: “The world has heard enough of the so-called ‘rights of man.’ Let it hear something of the rights of God.”[1]

And in his encyclical on human liberty, the same pontiff expounded further on the traditional idea of the State and its relationship with religion:

God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic States, because the marks of truth are, as it were, engravers upon it. This religion, therefore, the rulers of the State must preserve and protect, if they would provide – as they should do – with prudence and usefulness for the good of the community. For public authority exists for the welfare of those whom it governs; and, although its proximate end is to lead men to the prosperity found in this life, yet, in so doing, it ought not to diminish, but rather to increase, man’s capability of attaining to the supreme good in which his everlasting happiness consists: which never can be attained if religion be disregarded.[2]

Here we feel it appropriate to remember the response of the apostles, who, in the face of Christ’s words, exclaimed: “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”[3] We may experience this same discomfort at the mention of an acknowledged relationship between the State and the Church. And yet there it remains, comfortable or not.

[1] TFP, 13.

[2] LP, 21.

[3] Jn 6:60.

Wealth as a ‘necessary occasion of sin’

Leo XIII warned that “those whom fortune favors are warned that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles.”[1] In saying this, he expressed the traditional attitude of Christianity toward wealth, which is that it represents a “necessary occasion of sin.”

Occasions of sin are “external circumstances—whether of things or persons—which either because of their special nature or because of the frailty common to humanity or peculiar to some individual, incite or entice one to sin.”[2] By calling wealth a “necessary occasion,” it is acknowledged that wealth has a valid role to play and that to be wealthy is not, in itself, sinful. Yet wealth does confer a degree of responsibility. It is best to return here to Leo XIII and quote him at length on this aspect of the problem:

Therefore, those whom fortune favors are warned that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles; that the rich should tremble at the threatenings of Jesus Christ—threatenings so unwonted in the mouth of our Lord—and that a most strict account must be given to the Supreme Judge for all we possess.[3]

[1] RN, 22.

[2] Delany, Joseph. “Occasions of Sin.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 19 Dec. 2014.

[3] RN, 22.

The distinction between ownership and use

Implied in the words of Christ is an important point about wealth: the right to private property does not confer the right to use one’s property however one sees fit (or refuse to use it, as the case may be). This is the classical distinction between ownership and use. To continue Leo’s words:

The chief and most excellent rule for the right use of money is one the heathen philosophers hinted at, but which the Church has traced out clearly, and has not only made known to men’s minds, but has impressed upon their lives. It rests on the principle that it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have a right to use money as one wills. Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. ‘It is lawful,’ says St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.’ But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? – the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: ‘Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, ‘Command the rich of this world… to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.’ True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, ‘for no one ought to live other than becomingly.’ But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. ‘Of that which remaineth, give alms.’[1]

[1] RN, 22.

Private charity vs. government action

Leo’s distinction between ownership and use comes to our aid in many contemporary debates. For example, much is made today of the role of “private charity” when it comes to succoring the poor and needy. Some go so far as to say that, if we would only cut government programs and leave the taxes which support them to be used at the discretion of the taxpayer, then the problem of poverty would be alleviated more efficiently. Let us, then, put forward the Catholic understanding, first of charity itself, and then of the State’s role in the task of relieving poverty.

Justice before charity

First, although charity is normally considered something of a “private virtue,” to be cultivated by the individual rather than coerced by the State, we must also recognize that it still operates in relation to justice, and justice itself has the prior claim. What this means is that if the requirements of justice are not met, then charity has not yet entered the picture, and so what the State extracts from the rich in terms of taxes is not necessarily a matter of coerced charity, but of coerced justice. Coerced charity would be inappropriate, but coerced justice is not. In the words of Benedict XVI, charity goes beyond justice:

Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is ‘his’, what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI’s words, ‘the minimum measure’ of it.[1]

The Catechism echoes in agreement, citing various authorities on the subject: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”[2] “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity.”[3] “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”[4]

Those who try to place charity in opposition to justice, and to use the one to escape the other, are trying to divide two sides of one coin:

There is no gap between love of neighbour and desire for justice. To contrast the two is to distort both love and justice. Indeed, the meaning of mercy completes the meaning of justice by preventing justice from shutting itself up within the circle of revenge.[5]

[1] CV, 6; PP, 22; GS, 69; Pope Paul IV, Address for the Day of Development (23 August 1968).

[2] St. John Chrysostom, Hom. In Lazaro 2, 5: PG 48, 992.

[3] Apostolicam Actuositatem, 8, 5.

[4] St. Gregory the Great, Regula Pastoralis. 3, 21: PL 77, 87.

[5] Libertatis Conscientia, 57.

“You didn’t build that.”

Perhaps it is the attitude of the “meritocracy” which leads to the perceived opposition between charity and justice. It is imagined that nothing is due in justice to anyone who did not “earn” whatever is given to them, and it is suggested that whatever I legally possess is mine purely and simply because I earned it, and it is therefore unjust to suggest that I part from it. But here Scripture gives a warning:

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God…You may say to yourself, ‘My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…[1]

In an absolute sense, all that we have is a gift from God. In a more immediate sense, all that we have is a product of the society in which we live, and in which we’ve been able to participate, live, learn, labor, and reap fruit. No man is an island, or so the saying goes.

While it is legitimate to lay claim to ownership, and to take credit for the labor one has contributed, it is purely illusory to imagine that we produced everything we have in a vacuum and we owe it to nothing else but our own individual merits. Precisely the same actions, aptitudes, and ideas that can earn a man a fortune in a developed nation, for example, would have very different results in the third world, so preponderant is the role of providence in our accomplishments. St. Ambrose speaks to this:

‘My own’, you say? What is your own? When you came from your mother’s womb, what wealth did you bring with you? That which is taken by you, beyond what suffices you, is taken by violence. Is it that God is unjust in not distributing the means of life to us equally, so that you should have in abundance while others are in want? Or is it not rather that He wished to confer upon you marks of His kindness, while He crowned your fellow man with the virtue of patience? You, then, who have received the gift of God, think you that you commit no injustice by keeping to yourself alone what would be the means of life to many? It is the bread of the hungry you cling to, it is the clothing of the naked you lock up; the money you bury is the redemption of the poor.[2]

[1] Deut 8:10-18.

[2] Will Durant, The Age of Faith (New York, 1950), p. 630.

The velocity of money

St. Basil likened wealth to a great spring: if the water is drawn frequently, all the purer it will remain; yet if it is left unused it becomes foul and stagnant.[1] Now this is of interest to us because of its economic parallel, which is the concept of the velocity of money. This concept says that money, if it falls into the hands of a poor man, will almost immediately leave his hands, either for rent or for lunch or for some other pressing need. If it goes into the hands of a very wealthy man, it may go into a bank account to draw interest, or it may go nowhere at all for a very long time. Now, economically speaking, the first is best, at least from the standpoint of a healthy, vibrant, functioning economy, while the latter is poisonous and leads to stagnation. The point is that even if the rich man spends and invests with frequency, he cannot possibly equal the velocity of the poor man. And so, at least from a particular point of view, great wealth is very literally a “drag” on the economy, while the more money enters the hands of the needy, the better.

[1] Cf. Saint Basil the Great, Homilia in Illud Lucae, Destruam Horrea Mea, 5

Proper attitudes toward poverty

While wealth, properly viewed and handled as a necessary occasion of sin, can be reconciled to the common good, poverty cannot, and therefore it ought to be minimized even if it cannot be eliminated, being one of the ever-present consequences of sin. “The poor you will always have with you,” said Christ[1]—but this should never be construed as the “normalization” of poverty, especially since the statement refers to the preciousness of Christ’s presence, and not about the tolerability of suffering.[2] What, then, is the appropriate attitude of the Christian toward the issue of poverty?

[1] Mt 26:11.

[2] For a more lengthy delineation of what follows, as well as for a presentation of principles for action in regard to poverty, see Economic Justice for All, 186-214.

Both the individual and the State have roles to play

First and foremost we need to put behind us the most typical objection to public action on the part of the poor, which says that the public authority ought to leave such things to “private charity,” on the assumption that the State has no legitimate interest in the problem—a patently absurd notion, to be sure, but common nonetheless. To this the United States bishops have answered rightly that:

“The responsibility for alleviating the plight of the poor falls upon all members of society. As individuals, all citizens have a duty to assist the poor through acts of charity and personal commitment. But private charity and voluntary action are not sufficient. We also carry out our moral responsibility to assist and empower the poor by working collectively through government to establish just and effective public policies.”[1]

[1] Economic Justice for All, 189.

Against stigmatizing the poor with stereotypes

Next we must also fight the often vindictive attitude directed toward the poor, as if they were a class to be openly chastised. It would not be difficult to cite numerous passages of scripture that respect, rather than resent, the poor for their poverty—that show pity rather than patronization and condescension. In fact we get the impression from any survey of Christian teaching that the traditional sentiment was precisely the opposite of today: in the past it was the poverty which carried signs of holiness along with it, and which seemed to symbolize, even if it did not realize in the individual, the life of Christ. Now, judging by the words and actions of a significant number of individuals, it seems that to be poor is to be automatically guilty of vice, and, as a natural correlative, it is the wealthiest in society who are automatically considered virtuous, and this in proportion to the amount of wealth they accumulate. It is necessary, then, to do away with a few of the common stereotypes that have grown up alongside this reversal of esteem in the Christian attitude toward poverty.[1]

[1] Economic Justice for All, 193.

Poverty does not imply laziness or disdain for work

It is often insinuated that those on government programs are there as a means of avoiding work, and that these same persons stay on welfare for years even though they could work if they wished. Statistically, none of these assumptions are justified.[1] Many welfare recipients are mothers who must, or have laudably chosen to, remain home to raise their children. Many are elderly. Others are children. Yet mothers are attacked and it is implied that they must have given birth for no other reason than to maintain eligibility for government hand-outs—as if any clear-thinking person would not realize that it would be much easier to work a conventional job than it is to raise children at home. Moreover, research has shown that the poor show the same desire to work as any other social class. We ought to plead with the American bishops against these misguided opinions:

“We ask everyone to refrain from actions, words or attitudes that stigmatize the poor, that exaggerate the benefits received by the poor, and that inflate the amount of fraud in welfare payments. These are symptoms of a punitive attitude toward the poor.”[2]

The bishops have duly noted the hypocrisy in this attitude by observing that the most substantial subsidies “handed out” by the government go, not to the lower class, but to individuals and corporations who are by no means in poverty. Yet criticism directed at hand-outs to the already-rich is hardly ever mentioned. Through this selective outrage it becomes obvious that the aforementioned opinions do not stem from any real knowledge of foul play on the part of the poor, but rather from negative attitudes—especially fear—in the hearts of those who do not belong to the lowly class.

[1] Ibid.

[2] Economic Justice for All, 194.

“Hunger is a great motivator.”

We have all heard it suggested, either on the radio or by some person on the street, that it is good for the poor and the unemployed to be under threat of hunger or some other tribulation. This is because, we are told, the threat of suffering is what motivates these slothful creatures to engage in productive labor, and if this threat were removed then the problem of poverty would only become worse. But again, common experience and reflection show clearly that this attitude is false. Very few people limit their productive labor to those hours for which they are remunerated. Most men, when arriving home from “work,” simply transition to work on some other project. As was said above, the healthy individual strives to work. Those who would claim that “hunger is a great motivator” would rarely admit that they need this motivation themselves. What’s worse, the saying implies that poverty is a problem of motivation, and through this implication it allows the speaker to avoid altogether the moral demands which the problem of poverty makes on him and his society. It is an escape from responsibility to the poor by absurdly presenting poverty itself as the best cure for poverty.

“He who will not work, neither shall he eat.”

It has been said that the devil himself is happy to quote the Scriptures, so long as he can quote them in such a way as to further his own designs. Given the post-Reformation obsession with private interpretation, this is not a difficult strategy for him to accomplish. This kind of infernal manipulation seems to be the only explanation for the immense popularity of Paul’s statement to the Thessalonians: “He who will not work, neither shall he eat.”[1]

All that need be said of this matter is that there are countless Scriptures which instruct us on the attitude we are to have toward the poor, and this is not one of them. In fact, when taken in context, it has nothing at all to do with the poor. Paul is speaking to men who quite obviously are in no danger of starvation. Therefore, while his warning certainly speaks against sloth, it would be a malicious error to treat all Scriptures against sloth as if they pertained directly to the poor, as if the poor are the only beings capable of committing this sin.

[1] 2 Thess 3:10.


It would be naïve to act as if there were a time when men were happy to pay their taxes. However, the collection of taxes, in itself, has never been questioned by the Church as a just procedure—and Christ himself, moreover, did not give us much reason to suspect that Caesar ought not to receive his due.[1] And so, although there are too many factors at play for us to dictate what is and is not a just tax rate, we can at least mention a couple of the guidelines insisted upon by the Church in this matter.

[1] Mk 12:17; Mt 22:15-22.

The justice of a progressive tax system

The first principle, certainly not popular in contemporary ideological schools, concerns the idea that tax revenues ought to be drawn only from those who can afford it, and in greater quantities from those who reap the greatest benefits from the economic system in which they live. In the words of Pius XI’s encyclical, Divini Redemptoris:

It must likewise be the special care of the State to create those material conditions of life without which an orderly society cannot exist…To achieve this end demanded by the pressing needs of the common welfare, the wealthy classes must be induced to assume those burdens without which human society cannot be saved nor they themselves remain secure. However, measures taken by the State with this end in view ought to be of such a nature that they will really affect those who actually possess more than their share of capital resources, and who continue to accumulate them to the grievous detriment of others.[1]

Needless to say, the exact application of this principle could take various forms, but one can say without much risk of error that the system known as the “progressive tax” is a fairly straightforward and appropriate means of realizing this goal. And this was precisely the interpretation of the USCCB when it said,

the tax system should be structured according to the principle of progressivity, so that those with relatively greater financial resources pay a higher rate of taxation. The inclusion of such a principle in tax policies is an important means of reducing the severe inequalities of income and wealth in the nation. Action should be taken to reduce or offset the fact that most sales taxes and payroll taxes place a disproportionate burden on those with lower incomes.[2]

[1] DR, 75.

[2] Economic Justice for All, 202.

The poor should not pay income tax

A second guideline, related to the first, is that the government ought to exempt those below the poverty line from any income taxes whatsoever, because such families are, “by definition, without sufficient resources to purchase the basic necessities of life. They should not be forced to bear the additional burden of paying income taxes.”[1]

[1] Ibid.

Inequality and redistribution

Central to the Biblical concept of the Jubilee is the redistribution of property to alleviate accumulations and dispossession. Such concentration occurs very naturally in many economies, since none are perfect, but it becomes greatly exaggerated in industrialized nations: “The development model of industrialized societies is capable of producing huge quantities of wealth, but also has serious shortcomings when it comes to the equitable redistribution of its fruits and the promotion of growth in less developed areas.”[1]

There is an overwhelming amount of time spent in CST exhorting authorities and private persons to act against rising social inequality.[2] Pope Francis has gone so far as calling inequality “the root of all social evil.”[3] And if we grant the interdependence of political and economic power, which implies that inequality of property necessarily implies imbalances in political power, then it is not difficult to see why this is so.

[1] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Towards a better distribution of land, 1.

[2] EG, 52-53, 59-60, 202; RN, 3; PP, 9; CV, 22, 32, 42; SRS, 14; CSDC 94, 145, 192, 297, 362, 363, 374, 389, 561.

[3] This comment appeared on the Pope’s twitter account on April 28, 2014.

A problem of distributive justice

We discussed above the differences between commutative and distributive justice. Commutative justice is the most personal, practical, and obvious, but it is also the imprecise. Considering every day transactions, even if both parties aim with good will toward the just price of the goods or services being exchanged, they will rarely hit the mark. When someone under- or over-pays, the amount of the deviation begins to accumulate, introducing disequilibrium into the system. On a social level, when these accumulations reach a certain point, an offense against distributive justice becomes apparent and, because distributive justice is the role of the State, and because it is obvious that at this point only the State could possibly remedy the injustice, it falls to political action to propose a solution. Note that we have only mentioned transactions in which men sincerely aimed at the just price. Even here we must admit that deviations must occur and accumulate. What would we expect, then, in a society in which men are taught to use every means at their disposal to pay least and charge the most in economic transactions?—and in which some are in a position to exploit and some are in a position to be exploited? A society which has forgotten the Just Price in favor of self-interest and the profit-motive will necessitate the action of the State far more than a society which seeks justice of its own accord, because it will be actively seeking disequilibrium in every transaction. The need for distributive justice in the case of large-scale inequality is great indeed.

Removing structural causes of inequality

Benedict XVI called for the “structural causes of economic dysfunction.”[1] He was joined later by Pope Francis who said:

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.”[2]

On this point, Francis went so far as to issue a challenge by invoking the words of Christ: “You yourselves give them something to eat!”[3]

But what does this mean?—and what did these popes have in mind? We can begin by remarking that many of the modern world’s problems are self-inflicted and are rooted in the imperfection of human planning and problem of selfishness:

“Having become his own centre, sinful man tends to assert himself and to satisfy his desire for the infinite by the use of things: wealth, power and pleasure, despising other people and robbing them unjustly and treating them as objects or instruments. Thus he makes his own contribution to the creation of those very structures of exploitation and slavery which he claims to condemn.”[4]

Yet, even if we allow that this diagnosis is accurate, we still need a more specific analysis if we hope to arrive at practical solutions. For this purpose, a cursory survey of CST will produce quite a few more specific causes of inequality: land concentration and the need for agrarian reform, particular for undeveloped nations[5]; unemployment and underemployment; insurmountable barriers to market entry; barriers to education[6]; media preference and prohibitive advertising costs which inevitably favor the few and exclude the majority.[7] With respect to this last point, we can speak of a population of “information rich” which corresponds to an “information poor,”[8] a problem which stems from the unequal availability of technology. Lastly, all of these possibilities involve or encourage large-scale indebtedness, which can be attributed in part to personal choice, but also in part to necessity.[9]

But perhaps the most recurring problem is one we’ve already mentioned, and which has proven most difficult to remedy. The evil in question is the concentration of property, and the solution proposed is the redistribution of property.

[1] Benedict XVI, Address to the Diplomatic Corps, 8 January 2007.

[2] EG, 188.

[3] Mk 6:37.

[4] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation (22 March 1986), 42.

[5] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Towards a Better Distribution of Land. The Challenge of Agrarian Reform (23 November 1997), 13.

[6] CSDC, 314.

[7] CSDC, 416.

[8] Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Ethics in Communications (4 June 2000), 20.

[9] CSDC, 450.


As unwelcome as the phrase “redistribution of wealth” may be in certain contemporary circles, it is a common theme in CST. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI said that:

“Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.”[1]

Throughout this encyclical he uses the term “redistribution” a total of eight times,[2] even mentioning joyfully the “unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale.”[3]

Although it should be abundantly clear by now that the Church takes this stance in favor of private property rather than against, the popes are constantly met with accusations of socialism, as if a call to redistribution was equivalent to the abolition of property altogether. But Benedict XVI is defending nothing other than the doctrine of diffused property which we mentioned earlier and which has its roots in Rerum Novarum itself. To quote again, for the sake of convenience, the relevant passage, we see that Leo XIII concurs with Benedict XVI:

“The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”[4]

[1] CV, 36.

[2] CV, 32, 36, 37, 39, 42, 49.

[3] CV, 42.

[4] RN, 46.