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The Rich, Not States, are Called to Help Others

by Anthony Esolen

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  • Description:
    The tenth in a series on Catholic Social Teaching by Anthony Esolen in which he discusses who are the rich and what is their obligation toward the poor.
  • Larger Work:
    Crisis Magazine Online
  • Publisher & Date:
    Sophia Institute, February 6, 2013

At the end of part eight in this series, I observed that Pope Leo XIII lays a heavy obligation upon the rich. What is that obligation? Who are the rich?

Like Thomas Aquinas, whom he admired so well, Leo is quite practical. It is right for a man to provide for his family so that they may live in a “becoming” way, worthy of their high calling. That implies more than bare necessities. Think of the life of the Church. She is not Puritan. She does not follow the worldly pseudo-asceticism of Judas, who complains that the adulteress has lavished too much on the ointment for Jesus’ feet. The Church is not drab, nor does she enjoin dreariness upon her children. Our calendar is filled with feasts, and common people, over all these centuries, have delighted in adorning their places of worship with art and music and colorful celebrations.

Most people in America now have the means to live becomingly. But we spend inordinate—I use the word advisedly—resources on things that are neither necessary nor becoming; on things that hinder us on our pilgrimage to the celestial homeland, and that make our villages and towns and cities, or what’s left of them, less like comfortable way-stations than like moral tarpits or bogs of quicksand. I’m not speaking here only of material superfluity. Teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, advertisers, actors, athletes, journalists, social workers, and politicians possess a superfluity of influence far beyond what a landed gentleman in Leo’s day possessed. And just as an unscrupulous merchant can corner a market to rifle the capital of the poor man, so too now the foolish and selfish who are rich in influence can, and do, rifle the metaphysical and moral capital of the poor—and gain materially and politically from the rifling. That theft is by far the wickeder, because eternal life is at stake.

The Church, says Leo, warns us that “abundance of earthly riches are no warrant for the bliss that shall never end, 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.” The Church does not deny a man’s right to possess what is his. The merchant’s money belongs to him; so too, I’ll add, do non-monetary riches belong to those who are blessed with them. But “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.”

If we set aside our eternal destiny and Our Lord’s commandments of charity, Pope Leo will seem to be contradicting himself. For he quotes Thomas, again: “Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.” This sharing is not a duty required by justice, says Leo, except “in extreme cases.” Secular man knows no other duty, if even that one. But this is the duty of love—which human law cannot reach. To sum up: “Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and corporeal, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others.”

What is that benefit? We must not lose sight of this. A becoming life here, directed toward eternal life with God. People should not want for food and drink; that is unbecoming a creature made in the image of the bountiful Father. But food and drink are not enough. When we observe the life of Jesus, says the Pope, we see that He has blessed forever the life of manual labor; we needn’t be ashamed of it. And “from contemplation of this divine exemplar, it is more easy to understand that the true worth and nobility of man lies in his moral qualities, that is, in virtue.” This treasure is “the common inheritance of men, equally within the reach of high and low, rich and poor.” Leo has chosen his words with great deliberation. One person may inherit a great estate; another may attend one of our prestigious colleges; but virtue is the true common inheritance of everyone. Consider what a sin it would be to snatch that inheritance away! But if instead we heeded the example and the teaching of Jesus, it would not be difficult “to make rich and poor join hands in friendly concord” and common sharing of that inheritance.

The concord isn’t a mere abstraction. Leo has in mind a society wherein the rich man and the poor man are friends; they live near one another; they celebrate at the same festivals; they kneel beside one another in church; they know one another’s children; they are for one another. Obviously, that cannot be produced by the mechanics of legislation, no more than love can be compelled. It is not enough, that one pay high taxes, some smallish portion of which will filter to some unknown “poor” far away from one’s sight and smell. Worse still, when concomitant laws make it exceedingly unlikely that those poor people will have any clear way to recover that “common inheritance” of moral virtue that should be theirs—laws that, as I’ve suggested, discourage the formation and preservation of families, and facilitate their dissolution, and rule out the Church, the only institution on earth that can assist the poor against those long odds.

For the Church, Leo notes, assists the temporal welfare of the poor directly, through alms, and indirectly, though more effectively, by promoting Christian morality. We do not follow God’s commandments so as to gain comfort in this life. But those commandments restrain “the greed of possession” and “the thirst for pleasure”—twin engines of a diseased soul and a dying society. They destroy us even amidst abundance. Christian morality, by contrast, can supply much of our want by means of—note the word Leo uses—“economy,” that is, the right governance of a household. It teaches us to be content with “frugal living”—again, note the word. The frugal person makes full use of the fruits nearby; thus is frugality a part of temperance and of gratitude to God, lest we tread His gifts underfoot.

Now, if people are meant for one another, and if they generally prosper by the natural virtues, then they should be free to form associations to promote their temporal and moral welfare. The Church has formed such associations from the beginning; she has invented the hospital, the orphanage, the home for pensioners, schools for the indigent, and so forth—“deposits of piety,” says Leo, quoting Tertullian; and again the financial metaphor is apt. She begs on behalf of the beggars! She “has established congregations of religious and many other useful institutions for help and mercy, so that hardly any kind of suffering could exist which was not afforded relief.” But the secularists of Leo’s day were working to force the Church out of her right role, seeking to supplant charity with secular mechanisms. Nothing has changed. We have seen, in the United States and Canada, an aggressive attempt to squeeze the Church out of her schools, hospitals, colleges, adoption agencies, and other social services, unless she agree to become what she is not, an appendage to the State, truckling to her false master, ashamed of the True. One cannot serve both God and Mammon.

Catholic Social Teaching demands full freedom for the Church and for free associations of Christians to do the only real work that can unite rich and poor—and to do so without interference by the State, and without reducing “welfare” to the mathematical and mechanical definition which is the only one the secular State can give. What is happening to Catholic schools in Ontario, what happened to the Catholic adoption agency in Massachusetts, what is going to happen to Catholic employers throughout the United States, is a monumental betrayal of everything that Pope Leo XIII ever stood for.

Leo’s Guilds a Far Cry from Today’s Unions - Part 11


Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ironies of Faith (ISI Press, 2007); and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010). Professor Esolen is the translator of Dante.

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