In continuing our examination of how Catholic concepts of social justice mesh (or conflict) with typical free market ideas, I thought it might be worthwhile to examine the Early Church Fathers for their ideas on the subject. You hear a lot from both sides of the fence on how the Fathers viewed these things. Guys like Mr. Woods, whose article gave birth to this series, mentions at one point that there were no mass demonstrations against poverty in the Middle Ages as an example of how the Church has not historically supported interventionist policies for assisting the poor. While I suppose this may be true, you don’t see much talk of cloning back then either. Economic conditions, like bioethics, have changed more than a bit since then. I get what Mr. Woods is trying to say. It’s sort of a “the poor you will always have with ye” argument. I don’t think it takes into account the historical lineage of both solidarity and subsidiarity that we have been talking about in this series of posts.
Disclaimer: I know that it’s tough to give a blanket version of what “the Fathers” thought on most topics. My goal here is just to show that both solidarity and subsidiarity have a foundation in the early centuries of Christianity, making it a difficult thing to ignore either of them.
Let’s begin with this notion of solidarity. A few of the Fathers really do look on wealth with the eyes of St. Peter and “the love of money being the root of all evil” (something we have to view as hyperbole, unless we wish to figure that the Richard Specks of the world kill for money). Here, for example, is St. Cyprian of Carthage writing in the mid-third century:
Wealth must be avoided as an enemy; must be fled from as a robber; must be dreaded by its possessors as a sword and as poison.
But how can they follow Christ, who are held back by the chain of their wealth? Or how can they seek heaven, and climb to sublime and lofty heights, who are weighed down by earthly desires? They think that they possess, when they are rather possessed; as slaves of their profit, and not lords with respect to their own money, but rather the bond-slaves of their money.
On the Lapsed
Pretty strong words here from Cyprian. He’s pretty clear that wealth is not necessarily a bad thing, but why burden your soul with something that may serve as an occasion of sin? Seems like being a rich guy ain’t easy either. To paraphrase Spider-Man, with great wealth, comes great responsibility. One might ask how great a responsibility it is.
Feed him that dies of hunger; for whenever thou canst save a man by feeding him, if thou hast not fed him, thou hast slain him.
St. Ambrose De Offic. (Quoted in Canon Pasce, dist. 86).
Aquinas also quotes this bit from Ambrose in the Summa when discussing the use and merits of leisure.
Anyways, Ambrose’s point is perhaps as succinct a definition of solidarity as you are liable to find. If all really are responsible for all as John Paul II has stated, then the idea of having slain the hungry man by withholding food that you could have provided logically follows. As to the why solidarity is the case:
When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of charity, we are paying a debt of justice.
Pope St. Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule
Here we see that the needs of the poor are not something that we are obliged to give merely out of charity or humanistic altruism. There is actually a debt of justice, which means that they are due these things regardless of our desire to be charitable, as justice does not demand an exercise of charity but rather of prudence in recognizing the existence and limits of the obligation due to the other. And for what it’s worth, your excuses really don’t matter all that much, according to St. John Chrysostom:
And what is the specious plea of the many? I have children, one says, and I am afraid lest I myself be reduced to the extremity of hunger and want, lest I should stand in need of others. I am ashamed to beg. For that reason therefore do you cause others to beg? I cannot, you say, endure hunger. For that reason do you expose others to hunger? Do you know what a dreadful thing it is to beg, how dreadful to be perishing by hunger? Spare also your brethren! Are you ashamed, tell me, to be hungry, and are you not ashamed to rob? Are you afraid to perish by hunger, and not afraid to destroy others? And yet to be hungry is neither a disgrace nor a crime; but to cast others into such a state brings not only disgrace, but extreme punishment.
10th Homily on 1 Thessalonians
St. John Chrysostom actually provides a lot of material on this point. This first bit is from a small book called "On Living Simply: The Golden Voice of John Chrysostom” which is a compilation of his sermons addressing this topic. On page 43:
Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich man's gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone?
I wish the editor of this book would have provided a specific reference to this quote, as it is very striking and says much of what Pius XI was arguing in Quadragesimo Anno. Basically, the Tony Montanas of the world are going to be rich and screw over the poor regardless of the government or the legalities of a situation. The well-meaning rich will wind up bitter. The poor run the risk of ingratitude. This is a marvelous recipe for class warfare and Marxist cultivation. This idea of the participation of the poor in this who process is something that many pushing massive governmental intervention for the alleviation of poverty often neglect. It’s not just warnings about the rise of the welfare state. It’s the idea that the poor may forget their own obligations in this matter. Chrysostom also addresses this in the same homily on 1 Thessalonians:
Let us therefore, both poor and rich, cease from taking the property of others. For my present discourse is not only to the rich, but to the poor also. For they too rob those who are poorer than themselves. And artisans who are better off, and more powerful, outsell the poorer and more distressed, tradesmen outsell tradesmen, and so all who are engaged in the market-place. So that I wish from every side to take away injustice.
A joyful sharing of wealth would be the heart of subsidiarity. That sounds good. How can it be accomplished? You don’t see a whole lot of folks being responsible for their neighbor out there. For Chrysostom, it’s the change of hearts that’s needed, which I think almost necessarily means the preaching of the Gospel so as to head-off any feelings of “poor people are inferior and must be dictated to” paternalism.
Consider also Chrysostom’s 32nd Homily on 1 Corinthians:
There would be no poverty, no unbounded wealth if there were love, but only the good parts that come from each. From the one we should reap its abundance, and from the other its freedom from care and should neither have to undergo the anxieties of riches nor the dread of poverty.
Again, from St. John Chrysostom:
It is not as absolutely bringing an accusation against those who are wealthy that I say all this; nor as praising the poor without reference to circumstances: for neither is wealth an evil, but the having made a bad use of wealth; nor is poverty a virtue, but the having made a virtuous use of poverty. That rich man who was in the time of Lazarus was punished, not because he was rich, but because he was cruel and inhuman. And that poor man who rested in the bosom of Abraham was praised, not because he was poor, but because he had borne his poverty with thankfulness.
Homily Against Publishing the Errors of the Brethren
Nutshelling all this, we’ve got the idea that property is Ok, something that I think Mr. Woods and I both agree on. However, this responsibility to use property in the correct way is not something that will be especially nourished by a totally unfettered free market. This is borne out from QA and the above quotes I think. Without that change of hearts, people will continue to be fine with treating other people as commodities. Is the proper method of alleviating this some sort of government intervention? Certainly not at a high level, this would be both temporally and spiritually harmful for poor and rich alike. Subsidiarity must be respected if the problems Chrysostom envisioned are to be minimized.