"The Christian must discover in contemplation, and in the giving of his life, those symbolic actions which will ignite the people's faith to resist injustice with their whole lives, lives coming together as a united force of truth and thus releasing the liberating power of the God within them." - James Douglass, Contemplation and Resistance.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Original Gift

As a Catholic, there are two sources of basic Christian doctrine, the Bible first of all and then the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, especially Saint Thomas Aquinas. So I'll use these sources to try and define what I think the basics of Christian economics are.

The foundation, I believe, is the Golden Rule: "You shall not oppress your neighbor...but you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Lev. 19:13, 18) And the Bible actually has much to say about how to implement the Golden Rule in economic life. But before I get to that, a more fundamental assumption is that our goal as Christians is communion with God. Economic life should therefore promote communion with God by creating conditions that allow us to produce the goods we need for life in a way that promotes solidarity, sharing and compassion for the poor and weak.

St. Ambrose, one of the Fathers of the Church, and mentor to St. Augustine, stated, "God has ordered all things to be produced so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be the common possession of all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for few." (St. Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy, 1. 132). The implications of this teaching which is echoed in the most recent Catholic Catechism are very rich. "The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise." Catechism 2403.

Notice that the emphasis is on production for sharing rather than survival and security. Of course, these are very important values, but the teaching implies that if we produce in order to share, then survival, security and many other such goods will be ours in abundance.

The inspiration behind this teaching are manifold, but let me cite one passage from Isaiah that anticipates the liberating words of Jesus, "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh. Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not." (Isa. 58: 6 - 11)

I cite this magnificent passage because it epitomizes the "economics" of the prophets which Jesus brings to fulfillment. This passage, which informs so much of the teachings of the Fathers, proclaims that love of God can only be granted to us when we practice justice, especially to the poor and weak. What Isaiah is saying is not simply that we must be "charitable" to the poor, as if this were one of the many more or less equivalent duties we have as Christians, but that the love of God is inseparable from sharing the goods of this world with the poor, that communion with God cannot exist outside of solidarity with the oppressed.

The word that is normally translated as "charity to the poor" in the Old Testament is sedakah, which is literally translated as "justice". However, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek, the word was translated as "eleemosyne", or "almsgiving". This shifted the emphasis from what was originally a central command of Yahweh, that loving our neighbor as ourselves means freeing the poor from oppression, or more generally promoting an economics of sharing, to something extra, a work that is not really required for salvation, something that saints do, but not central to the faith.

Why is generosity to the poor and sharing of superfluous goods part of justice and not merely a good deed to be done or omitted according to the degree of our sanctity? For the answer to this, we must turn to St. Thomas Aquinas, who identifies well-being as follows: "For the well-being of the individual two things are necessary: the first and most essential is to act virtuously (it is through virtue, in fact, that we live a good life); the other, and secondary, requirement is rather a means, and lies in a sufficiency of material goods, such as are necessary to virtuous action." St. Thomas Aquinas, De Regimine Principum, chap. XV.

So the primary goal of an economic system should be to lead us to virtue which one day will be crowned by total communion with God. Secondarily, justice requires that all have a sufficiency of material goods so that all are materially capable of virtuous action. "...according to natural law goods that are held in superabundance by some people should be used for the maintenance of the poor. This is the principle enunciated by Ambrose..., "It is the bread of the poor that you are holding back; it is the clothes of the naked that you are hoarding; it is the relief and liberation of the wretched that you are thwarting by burying your money away..." St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, 66, 7

This leads directly to the principle that property rights are not absolute. Cardinal Tommaso Cajetan is considered one of the greatest commentators on St. Thomas Aquinas, and he commented on the Thomistic philosophy of property as follows, "Now what a ruler can do in virtue of his office, so that justice may be served in the matter of riches, is to take from someone who is unwilling to dispense from what is superfluous for life or state, and to distribute it to the poor. In this way he just takes away the dispensation power of the rich man to whom the wealth has been entrusted because he is not worthy. For according to the teaching of the saints, the riches that are superfluous do not belong to the rich man as his own but rather to the one appointed by God as dispenser, so that he can have the merit of a good dispensation." Catejan, Summa Theologica cum commentariis Thomae de Vio Cajetani, t. 6, II-II, 118, 3.

Note carefully that the reason the ruler has the God-given right to take superfluous wealth from the unjust rich person is to ensure "merit" for the wealthy person and thereby bring him or her closer to God.

I apologize for the length of this post, but I thought it might be useful to establish what I believe are the fundamental principles of economics according the Bible and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Obviously, many books can and have been written on this topic and I would recommend in particular Christian Socialism by John C. Cort. For an ongoing commentary on current issues informed by the principles here enunciated, go to Nonviolent Jesus.

I close with Matthew 25: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?' And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.' Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?' He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."


Ramsey said...

I have a question. Why don't we call the ruler's act of taking away the superfluous goods of the rich man to redistribute them to the poor "theft"? Isn't theft when one person takes something that isn't their....which is outlawed in the 10 commandments. Even if the ruler is acting for the common good, someone is still forcefully taking from someone else....you could even call that a form of violence.

Now I am 110% in favor of loving my neighbor, sharing my possessions, breaking bread with the poor, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the homeless, but I practice these virtues because my heart has been transformed by the Spirit of God. What merit or transformation can your "Christian economics" offer a rich man by forceful aggression upon his possessions? Indeed, can any economic system flourish if it is based on theft? (Our current system is certainly included!)

Jesus instructed the rich man to
"sell what you own and give", he didn't forcefully take from him and say "I'm only doing what's best for you, and now you have merit!"

Keep up the thought provoking blogging brother, I enjoy reading.



Boyd Collins said...

Excellent questions, Rob. If you carefully follow the logic of this and the related posts, you can see that just like most of the Fathers of the Church, such as St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and many of the other great Christian thinkers, I don't regard property rights as absolute. In other words, there are circumstances in which it is morally good to take away possessions from someone. If one person is starving to death and another person owns more food than they need or could consume, then the rich person's refusal to share the extra food is a moral injustice that negates their right to that property. Property rights don't overrule the duties of charity and justice. This has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church for two thousand years. Just to take one example out of hundreds that could be given, St. Basil said, "When someone steals a man's clothes we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor." St. Basil, Homily on Luke. This is not theft, but fundamental Christian justice. What you seem to object to is that force might be involved, but if force is necessary that the obligations of justice can be met, this is not violence, but charity.