Auxiliary Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Francisco had an eye-opening essay in America magazine last November. Noting the resistance of some American Catholics to Pope Francis’s frequent criticisms of world capitalism, he challenged some of our more basic assumptions about the economic system that has acquired an inexplicable sanctity, as though it could not be reformed. While it has accomplishments admitted by Pope John Paul II in his 1991 Centesimus annus, without regulation it has come to strangle the poor bit by bit, with the tacit approval of its practitioners who do not realize they are in the same kettle as the frog unaware that the water is getting hotter imperceptibly. For as the middle class slowly shrinks, its members do not automatically rise into the upper class. Perhaps you’ve noticed.
The solution to the great problem of poverty is not more charitable giving. May this continue, and with us Catholics staying in the forefront. Without it even more will perish. The church is the world’s largest source of charity, providing more than any government or agency, and not just to member Catholics but to all. In the U.S., the church is second only to the U.S. government which, however, is tax supported. The church is not. I say this with pride, but also for those who have abandoned membership, saying the church does nothing meaningful. But again, more charity will not solve poverty. Only social justice will. This is why some on the far left, with whom I disagree, want to shut down all charity so that the resultant social collapse will force government to provide a far more effective safety net or risk revolution in the streets.
The solution is not charity but social justice, and in church doctrine it is because every person is made in God’s image and likeness, with a dignity no government or economic system can deny. While this may sound harmless and uncontroversial, the consequence hits us between the eyes: the inequity and mal-distribution of goods meant by the Creator for all creatures cannot be allowed to marginalize those less successful. The nerve ending this touches is like that of a non-anesthetized root canal. We long have taken as gospel that the rich are rich because they work hard for their just reward and the poor are poor because they do not work as hard, or at least have not gotten the breaks. Is it not our experience that the advantaged child in school next to a disadvantaged child is born into an economic lead that takes superhuman effort for the latter just to maintain parity?
We are aghast at the idea that the human worth of anyone outranks his or her economic worth. The temptation is to cry “socialism,” the way critics of popes for the last century have done. Their gospel is more loyal to money than to the Master who called for sharing with the poor such basic things as cloaks. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus condemns to hell the well meaning plutocrat who did nothing more than let the miserable beggar starve at his gate, and who now wants to return from the dead to warn his delinquent brothers. In his hair-raising parable in Matthew 25, he damns (“Out of my sight, you condemned. . . .”) to the same perdition whoever neglected the hungry, the thirsty, the ill and the imprisoned.
Can we naively expect whole races of people to prosper and flourish whom the advantaged race refuses to hire? Can we chide them that their mere arrival in our neighborhood will reduce everyone’s real estate value when we know they cannot find work, partially thanks to us?
In Catholic social teaching, this is why we have governments in the first place. They are not to solidify the superiority of the wealthy but to assure basic — and I mean basic — living conditions for all. Pope John XXIII and the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights spelled these out decades ago if you want details. Pope Francis in his 2013 Evangelii gaudium taught, “As long as the problems of the poor are not resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequity, no solution will be found for the world’s problems, or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social evil.”