A common argument from those who try to worship both God and Mammon is that if any checks are put on unbridled capitalism, whether from a Distributist, Keynesian or Socialist model, “Why would anyone work hard if he can’t make a fortune?”
This past weekend’s reading from the letter of St. James (which, of course, the heretic Luther wanted to excise from Scripture) hit on two key points of Catholic Social Teaching:
Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.
Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,
your gold and silver have corroded,
and that corrosion will be a testimony against you;
it will devour your flesh like a fire.
You have stored up treasure for the last days.
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance (James 5:1-6).
I have bolded what I think are the key points. As always, there can be just as much “cafeteria Catholicism” on the political Right as on the political Left. Our society insists on everyone participating in its false dichotomy of two parties, and it refuses to allow a position that is nuanced or, in the case of Catholic Social Teaching, completely different. Dietrich von Hildebrand explains in _Trojan Horse in the City of God_ that Catholic social teachings cannot be explained in any way that conforms with modern political ideologies, because all modern political ideologies are based upon false conceptions of the human person and his relation to society. Further, it must be noted of course that no political or economic system will ever be “perfect”: the Church condemns all utopian political systems as the spirit of the Anti-Christ (Catechism 676), offering on earth a kind of perfection that can only be achieved in Heaven.
Lastly, it is clear, as I have noted many times on this blog, that the “social encyclicals”–which, prior to B16’s Caritas et Veritate, were compiled in the _Compendium of Social Doctrine_ promulgated by Bl. John Paul II as the political equivalent of the Catechism and as doctrinally binding as the Catechism—primarily list principles Catholics must consider. We are given freedom in how best to apply these principles to our own societies, but we must consider *all* of them, and we must above all be charitable in dealing with other Catholics.
At issue the past few days was the term “redistribution,” and I pointed out several passages in the _Compendium_ which mention “redistribution”. The Church expresses preference for *voluntary* redistribution of wealth but also commends governments for engaging in “redistribution.” The Church then prefers redistribution of *land* (distributism), since land is the source of true wealth and independence (180, 300). Yet the Church also calls for income redistribution, including involuntary wealth redistribution by governments in cases of severe need (302-303).
This is, fundamentally, the case I was making, and I was being told, as others have said, that the Church does not support this, even though the documents clearly refer to government redistribution. People try to say that charity must be voluntary, but that gets to the difference between justice and charity.
Again, because “social justice” is a charged buzzword that used to raise my rankles as well, people got hotheaded about “justice.” I explained Plato’s definition of justice, and one interlocutor charged that since we are Christians, we don’t need to listen to Plato (a position I’ve been known to volley in the heat of an argument). Yet again, the Compendium states:
Justice is a value that accompanies the exercise of the corresponding cardinal moral virtue. According to its most classic formulation, it “consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour”. From a subjective point of view, justice is translated into behaviour that is based on the will to recognize the other as a person, while, from an objective point of view, it constitutes the decisive criteria of morality in the intersubjective and social sphere.
The Church’s social Magisterium constantly calls for the most classical forms of justice to be respected: commutative, distributive and legal justice. Ever greater importancyee has been given to social justice, which represents a real development in general justice, the justice that regulates social relationships according to the criterion of observance of the law. Social justice, a requirement related to the social question which today is worldwide in scope, concerns the social, political and economic aspects and, above all, the structural dimension of problems and their respective solutions.(201)
So, my simple point was, to begin with: many Republicans and “economic conservatives” (and American “economic conservatism” is really just a form of liberalism from the original definition of “liberal”) complain about “redistribution” and complain that “taxation is stealing” and complain about people who receive various welfare programs, and whether they’re just exaggerating for rhetorical sake or actually believe it, it sure sounds a lot like they’re worshipping Mammon.
Another common charge when I raise these issues is that I’m envying the rich–yet when I talk about abortion, the same people don’t accuse me of envying women who have abortions!
One of the key verses in the passage of Luke, though, pertains to the concept of “Just Wage,” which is addressed in the Compendium quite extensively (302). A just and living wage means that a worker should be paid with consideration for the cost of living in his society *and* the amount of people he has to support. A married father of 8 who’s caring for his elderly parents objectively needs and deserves more money than someone who is single. The Compendium even addresses the right to strike (304). Certainly, I’d agree that many of today’s unions are too powerful and corrupt and get away from what the Church means by a “union.” I’d also agree that striking because they envy someone else’s raise is wrong.
What I don’t agree with my conservative allies about is that I think it’s overly greedy for workers to strike simply because the bosses get a raise, but I also think it’s greedy for the bosses to get themselves a raise, unless in either case the raise is to address some huge change in cost of living.
Again, one of my interlocutors insisted that workers should accept the wages they “agree to.” I tried to explain that most workers do not “agree” to their wages but merely accept what they can get because they’re happy just to work. I know someone who had recently started a job, and a colleague of equal rank but who had been with the employer 1 more year mentioned his salary. This person mentioned her salary, which was considerably lower–and she had ten years more overall experience than her colleague. He said, “Didn’t you negotiate?” She said, “I didn’t know I *could* negotiate.”
One of the principles of CST and Distributism is that if a worker is paid a just wage, other forms of redistribution are unnecessary. Logically, if a worker is paid so his dependents are provided for and don’t have to work, and if dependents can include disabled or elderly family members, then they won’t need any other assistance. In Chesterton’s teaching, the comcomitant position is that no one should work more than he or she needs to to support the family, so that there are jobs available for other people.
In the 1960s, two documents inspired the revolution that became the “Spirit of Vatican II”: _Mater et Magistra_ and _Humanae Vitae_. Many trace Vatican II “cafeteria Catholicism” to the response to _Mater et Magistra_ published in _National Review_: “Mater Si, Magistra No.” Since these words were uncredited in the magazine, they have traditionally been attributed to its editor and founder, William F. Buckley, Jr. In his spiritual autobiography, Buckley says that the words were actually spoken by Garry Wills, who would later go on to dissent against _Humanae Vitae_ as well, and to be one of the calumniators of Pius XII.
Other than a lot of particulars about different fields (such as observations that contraception was a grave threat to economic order), one of the main general principles that M&M introduces to the tradition of “social encyclicals” started by _Rerum Novarum_ (but not to Biblical or Saintly teaching) is that there is a *limit* to the right to property. Yes, the Church affirms the right to property, but much as with what Chesterton says about jobs, the right to property ends with the amount necessary to provide for one’s family. This is expressed biblically in the teaching of John the Baptist: “Let he who has two cloaks give away one.”
“You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” My problem with both sides of the secular political debate are that they both seem to worship Mammon. So the objection is raised with which I started this piece: “Why should anyone work if he’s just going to get his money taken away?” The answer is “To feed his family, to serve other people, and to do ‘something beautiful for God.'” The whole problem with our system is that “success” is defined by money, not by love of a profession. Our whole system presumes people work for greed and not for success.
This is proven wrong by various studies that indicate workers work harder for non-monetary rewards. For example, much was made a few years back of a study that showed men performed better at their jobs when shown pictures of beautiful women as a reward: certainly an indication of the link between both work and sex and endorphines, but also demonstrating that other motives are stronger than money. The only reason a person should be working for money is knowing that the money supports his or her family.
Of course, more money *can* be a motivator, because we must remember that all Catholic moral teaching is a consistent whole. As John Paul II says, “love that does not grow decays,” or something like that. It’s been a while since I read that. Love must multiply, and families must always be growing, so certainly the Head of Household would have motive to make more money if he is biologically fathering more children, adopting more children, or bringing in other disabled adults to care for.
This, by the way, answers another objection: “Who would give to charity if wealth were limited?” Well, the answer is another favorite adage of economic conservatives: “charity begins at home.”
But perhaps most ghastly and naive is the notion that corporate executives “work.”
Yes, there are some great entrepreneurs who build their companies from scratch and work hard, and there are “American dream” stories like Speaker John Boehner who was born in poverty, the only member of his family to go to college, started off as a janitor and worked his way up to president of his company, retired & ran for the House. But for every Boehner or Tom Monaghan there are dozens of Bill Gateses and Warren Buffets.
“Well, Bill Gates works hard.” How, exactly? Or how, exactly, did Steve Jobs “work hard”? Both of them happened to pioneer some aspects of personal computing, of which others at the time were also doing similar things. They just happened to be the ones who were most business-oriented. The guy who actually invented the personal computer and hired Gates & Allen to program it sold his patents and went to med school. On the one hand, people complain about Bill Gates not really innovating anything but just buying other people’s patents and intimidating competitors out of business. On the other hand, they say he’s an example of a hard working CEO. What about all his employees? They use him as an icon of capitalism even though he’s a registered Democrat.
Jobs is pretty much the same thing only he was also a cultish motivator who created brand loyalty by mass brainwashing techniques and then charged way more for his products than was necessary by making everything proprietary (another part of economic justice in Catholic teaching is not overcharging, see again _Mater et Magistra_).
Or Warren Buffett: I won’t say he hasn’t worked a day in his life. He came from a middle-class background and saved his money made from kid-type jobs instead of spending it. Then he began investing once he had enough saved up to invest with. Buffet has been nothing but an investor for 7 decades, making money off other people’s labor and not adding any value to the economy.
The passage from James raises a few other issues, I think, as well, but I just really cannot understand Christians who promote a money motive for anything. “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” “Why do you toil for the bread you eat when He pours gifts on His beloved while they slumber?” “You fool! Don’t you know this very night, your life will be demanded of you?!”