A column by Anthony M. Stevens- Arroyo, a Catholic writer for The Washington Post, makes the claim that "Catholic social justice demands a redistribution of wealth." He went on to say that "there can be no disagreement" that unions, the government and private charities should all have a role in fighting a trend that has "concentrated" money into the hands of the few. In this conjecture, Stevens-Arroyo confused the ends with potential means.
What Stevens-Arroyo is promoting is an attenuated and truncated vision of "social justice" that has fostered a great deal of injustice throughout the world. This path, he should know, has been decisively repudiated by the Church.
He also betrays a strange split in thinking common to those on the religious left, who are quick to denounce the profit motive and commercialism. Yet, they seem to think that the key to happiness is giving people more stuff — by enlisting the coercive power of government. This perverse way of thinking holds that "social justice" demands that we take money from those who have earned it and give it to those who have less of it. That's not social justice; that's materialism.
A friend and colleague, Arthur Brooks, a social researcher who is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, has shown that what makes people truly happy is a system that "facilitates earned success among its citizens and does not create disincentives to achieve or squash ambition." That's the market economy.
The incredible growth of economies in places like China and India isn't happening because wealth was being shifted around, but because wealth is being created.
What happens when wealth is "redistributed" is obvious now. We're seeing the train wreck of the "social assistance state" in Europe.
In his 1991 social encyclical "Centesimus Annus," Pope John Paul II warned that a bloated state "leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concerns for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending." I call that prophetic.
Let's also be clear that the Church's teaching condemns the idolatry of money and material goods.
The Church finds another way, neither condemning market activities nor exalting them beyond their rightful place in the grand scheme of things. It asks us to work for the highest good and to contribute as we can our time, talents and wealth that we have earned for the betterment of the world. The Church also demands that we build just systems of trade that enable the poor to be the agents of their own betterment.
So let's drop these false notions about what constitutes the Church's understanding of social justice.
A system that pits the haves against the have-nots, with politicians and bureaucrats acting as referees, should be rejected by anyone sincerely interested in building a just social order.
This article originally appeared in the Detroit News.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.