The Catholic Thing
On a Sermon of Saint Basil Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Tuesday, 06 August 2013

Thoughts on poverty abound: Why it exists? What can be done? Other thoughts about it we see less often: “The willingness to give should accord with one’s means, nor to go beyond them,” Paul writes to the Corinthians; “the relief of others ought not to impoverish you; there should be a certain equality.” (2 Cor. 8:13)

St. Basil the Great (d. 379), in his third sermon on Charity, writes: “Man should be like the earth and bear fruit; he should not let inanimate matter surpass him.” Inanimate matter does not produce much unless man adds his intelligence and labor. The earth is designed to have man with his purpose within it, to perfect it.

Basil, following Genesis, tells us: “The earth bears crops for your benefit, not for its own.” He adds: “When we give to the poor, we are bearing fruit.” We are to be concerned with our eternal well-being: “You are going to leave your money behind you here whether you wish or not.”  But what we do take with us is “what we have won through good works.” Basil even appeals to our vanity: “In the presence of the universal judge, all people will surround you, acclaim you as a public benefactor.” Thus, the Platonic and Christian notion of a last judgment arises out of how we use our goods.

What do people do with their riches? Basil lived no cloistered life: “Do you not see how people throw away their wealth on theatrical performances, boxing contests, mimes, and fights between men and wild beasts, which are sickening to see, and all for the sake of fleeting honor and popular applause?” I will resist the temptation to ask here: “But, granted the abuse, are not the theater and the sports arena also places of human worth indicated by ever-fleeting honor and applause?”

“Your reward for the right use of things of this world will be everlasting glory.” It is quite possible that our reward for the “right use of things” will not be in this world, even though we like to think that our making useful things will support us in this world. Basil forges on: “Come, distribute your wealth freely; give generously to those who are in need.”

Others have benefited us by their wealth-giving. We tell the poor: “I have nothing to give; I am only a poor man.” Basil rejects this excuse: “A poor man you certainly are, and destitute of all real riches; you are poor in love, generosity, faith in God, and hope of eternal happiness.”

We noticed above that Paul insisted on a certain cautious prudence. We are not supposed to give everything away. We are not to “impoverish” ourselves. That would just make us poor, objects of someone else’s charity.

Basil told us not to spend our money on frivolous things like circuses and gladiator shows. Neither Paul nor Basil speaks much of how wealth comes about in the first place. In fact, we rarely see discussion of this aspect of human life in ecclesiastical documents. As with Basil, we speak of “distribution,” but little of how we acquire something to distribute.

Sometimes, we have the impression that anyone who has adequate or a surplus of worldly goods must have acquired them by some unjust means. We can thus justly take away what is unjustly gained. In modern times, civil powers are the “we” entitled to “take away.”

In Basil’s sense, we can talk of giving to the poor only if some who are not poor exist. Moreover, the acquiring of wealth, its production, is not necessarily a taking-away from somebody. It is possible that we can add wealth to the general weal without taking it away from someone else.

We live in a society in which immigration is a major issue. Why is this? Mostly it is because others live in societies in which policies of government or religion makes wealth producing locally impossible. The poor make every effort to go where other conditions exist in which they may be not poor.

But does everyone have a “right” to be “not poor” by not working to acquire the means to produce wealth? Is everyone to be an object of a social justice that assumes that what is necessary is the responsibility of someone else to give him? The logic of simply distributing wealth to give to the poor is to make everybody poor so that no one will have anything to give.

This is why, I suspect, Paul said that “the willingness to give should be in accordance with one’s means.” The complaint of Basil’s poor man that he has nothing to give will soon be a fact in a society that does not learn how to produce and, through intelligence and work, to distribute its wealth to everyone.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic and The Modern Age.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own. 

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (20)Add Comment
written by John McCarthy, August 06, 2013
Dear Fr. Schall,

Thank you for writing this essay for - in my opinion - it touches upon a major 'missing link' in Catholic social thought...

That missing link is 'self reliance.' Seldom, if ever, does the virtue of self reliance figure anywhere in Catholic social thought....And, yet, if able-bodied people are not as self-reliant as they possibly can be, our entire society would collapse...

Is there any significant strain or any significant Catholic social thinker who emphasizes the all-important virtue of self-reliance?

written by Jack,CT, August 06, 2013
Beatiful Article till you
got all neo politacal on us!
You would have been better
served to just let the Saints
words speak for themself!
Sadly like many men of the cloth
I can easily predict your views on
"societal" issues.....
written by stanley, August 06, 2013
He touches on a good point. Most have compassion for immigrants coming to seek a better life. However, the justification soon becomes that America "exploits" immigrants when the exploitation is more rightly placed in the country of origin and not America.
written by Ernest Miller, August 06, 2013

Where do you take exception from Father? Father gives us both the Saints and their fit into current events in the U.S.

When he states, "The logic of simply distributing wealth to give to the poor is to make everybody poor so that no one will have anything to give.", it seems to me he is pointing out the flaw in the liberal position, which may be the opposite of what you would likely predict.

What did we miss?
written by ken tremendous, August 06, 2013
Once again more abstractions that dodge many of the central questions of political economy in the modern world.

Most all agree, Father Schall, that the production of wealth is a good and important thing. Yet there are two issues with this. First, the production of wealth takes place in a context in which there will be both winners and losers even as society grows wealthier in aggregate. Second, following the first, distributive issues do matter--at least somewhat as societies in which increased wealth is captured only by a relative few are usually unstable and unsustainable.

One way to deal with this issue is to tax the winners of at least some of their winnings and distribute this to the losers, so as to ensure that gains are broadly shared and that everyone can enjoy some minimal standard of existence.

Yes, one can go too far with this as well--societies can redistribute too much as well as too little. But every society redistributes to some extent and successful ones have figured a way to do it far better and in a more balanced way than failed ones.

What's your problem with this exactly? More importantly, it's very unclear what you would do differently.
written by beddoo, August 06, 2013
Well I don't speak for Jack...but I imagine that he finds annoying Fr. Schall's tendency to write briefs for plutocracy by tendentiously invoking the saints to support it.

Why do the plutocrats need to pay for propaganda on their behalf when Father Schall will do it for free and unwittingly?

Who but Schall could be concerned in an age of soaring wealth and income inequality that we are in danger of impoverishing the wealthy by giving too much to the poor?

Who knew that Sts. Paul and Basil were concerned about the same thing?
written by senex, August 06, 2013

It is tiresome to read as well as uncharitable to you that there are so many naysayers. Their complaint bespeaks of envy. Yet I suspect that they are not among the ‘poor’, except in spirit. Their self righteousness shines like fool’s gold.
written by Achilles, August 06, 2013
Jack, Ken, Beddoo,

Might I suggest that your issues spring from an insidious form of illiteracy that escapes your attention? How do you read the Christian idea of man? The Christological Anthropology requires and understanding of 'economy' that corresponds to the properly ordered person. These time are not conducive to the easy acquisition of this understanding of the grammar of the human person.

I suppose you are products of the public education system? If not, demand a refund!
written by Layman Tom, August 06, 2013
What a great quote! “Who but Schall could be concerned in an age of soaring wealth and income inequality that we are in danger of impoverishing the wealthy by giving too much to the poor?”

Now, I like good sarcasm as much as the next guy, but in the case of your last sentence I would have applied it differently. You see, sarcasm relies on irony. The comically ironic part isn’t that Schall would be so dim to want to hurt poor people at the expense of fat cats. It’s that you accept that some folks, if they be rich enough, should be FORCED to “give” their money to others. Another one is that there is that this “We” you speak of are the ones “giving” to the poor. In that light, I would have said it thus: “Schall is an idiot! (Sarcasm) Who should ever be concerned about giving too much of other people’s money to the poor?! (Sarcasm) ‘We’ are smart enough, and care enough about everyone’s welfare to decide how much we should compel others to ‘give’. (Sarcasm) See how much better that sounds? (I added the sarcasm prompts for those who might not see it at first).

The point’s those venerable saints were trying to make do not apply to the current discussion anyway. They were talking about how much or little each individual should give of his/her own volition, not about how much society should steal from the creators of wealth and give to the poor. The benefits to one’s soul come only when the giving is done out of love and compassion. They do not accrue to those who give because greedy, envious, snickering people compel it at the end of a gun. Which is something, sadly, the left will never understand because too many of them have never experienced it.
written by Seanachie, August 06, 2013
Timely and insightful piece, Father, when one considers the dire economic and social conditions extant in many of our major cities...most recently Detroit. It shouldn't require a PhD in econ to understand the economic illogic (worse social damage) you suggest. As a farmer colleague of mine used to comment, "why work to buy a cow when the milk is free"?

written by Ken Tremendous, August 06, 2013

I'm glad you said it explicitly...compulsory taxation amounts to the unjust theft from the rich of their rightful property. Rich people should only voluntarily give their surplus to charity...or alternatively just build up big assets...

This is sadly probably pretty close to what Father Schall thinks too. And with this we see how far some of our friends on the Catholic right have come....out with Catholic social teaching and its continual insistence on a just distribution of productive property and in with Ludwig von Mises, Hayek, Ayn Rand and all the rest, along with their right-wing utopian visions.

Yes, I may not be all that poor..but my interpretation of the Catholic faith tells me to identify with the poor both in how I handle my own money and in terms of what public policies I support.

But are you rich, Layman? Why do you so strongly identify with the self-interest of those who are? Rich people are not all "wealth creators" you know, and historically throughout the world they, at times, know how to exercise power unjustly too! One is very foolish to assume that the personal interest of rich people holding onto their every cent of their money perfectly aligns with the public interest.
written by Sir Mark, August 06, 2013
Ken says: "First, the production of wealth takes place in a context in which there will be both winners and losers even as society grows wealthier in aggregate."

True wealth is created; it is not taken. All modern conveniences were created. Are you really sorry that the slide rule manufacturers lost? Maybe you don't even know what a slide rule is. Come on, Ken. Do you really want to go back? Fine, give up all your modern conveniences because every time that you use one, you are supporting the winners.
written by Ken Tremendous, August 06, 2013
Sir Mark,

Yes Sir Mark...I like my cell phone camera and appreciate its convenience...which is a product made by the winners whom I have no problem supporting...but it's only fair to point out also that I would not like to be a 55 year old Kodak worker (loser) in upstate New York who staked his family's future to a dead industry destroyed by digital cell phone cameras.

Let's just not pretend that people like the Kodak worker don't exist because much of America is full of such people. Capitalist progress is not like the disappearing table cloth trick...alot of plates and glasses get broken in the process.

Father Schall seems to want to treat these social problems as abstractions to be dealt with by gestures toward private charity. But seriously...when a large employer declines amidst a community heavily dependent on its continued existence with an older workforce of people with relatively non-transferable skills...there's no amount of charity that can solve this problem. This is a task for UI, Medicaid, soc sec etc. all of which are funded by people who are working--and disproportionately of higher other words redistribution.

If Father Schall or anyone else has something better in mind, let's hear it.

written by John McCarthy, August 07, 2013
To Sir Mark, and Ken and Others in this fine dialogue..

Luck is a part of life...good luck and bad luck...and our philosophies need to embrace that fact.

But so is grit, determination, resilience, self-reliance..which also need to be espoused, treasured, valued.

Both facts - first, the fact of good luck and bad luck, and second, the fact of the crucial importance of resilience and self-reliance - need to be embraced.

One without the other can stand for long..

Was Jesus a victim? Yes, he died as a victim...Was he also a warrior? Yes, he lived as warrior, not as a victim.

Our Catholic faith needs to both facts: the fact that bad luck happens...all day and every day, and the fact that without the strivers and the warriors there won't be much help for those whom bad luck fells.

For whom doth the bell toll?
written by stanley, August 07, 2013
I worked for three years in the Soviet Union. Trite comparisons are not worth anyone's time. But I say "bring on the real comparisons" with other countries and political and economic systems. Where people flee from and where they flee to are pretty good indicators. They flee to places that are "better" (not perfect). The reward in dedicating yourself to anything (a discipline, a job, a company) is in the enriching of your life (which you will lose). It is a lack of understanding or lack of perspective to expect more.

written by Jack,CT, August 07, 2013
beddo,you words speak to exactly how i feel
and what i was attempting to say,thx!
written by stanley, August 07, 2013
And one last idea: During the 2008 economic crash, America was blamed worldwide. Just for laughs, let's imagine that large countries like China and Russia didn't waste 70 years treating their citizens and economies like dirt..and acted like decent actors in the world. They would have been a balance to any problems we had and vice versa.
written by Layman Tom, August 08, 2013

Thank you for the civil way you argue. I do say those things explicitly. I would go on to say that some compulsory taxation is necessary and just. That taxation which is just in my mind is that which is necessary to provide the basic structures of society. We cannot defend our nation, or provide policing and basic civil services individually. I cannot build my own roads, or employ judges and the like. We should all, as members enjoying the fruits of civil society, be compelled to fund these things. But when I say all, I truly mean all. There should be a simple flat tax. What is unjust, is 47% of society paying absolutely nothing while the other 53% are lambasted for being greedy. Particularly the 5% who earn the highest wages and who commit, from their “surplus”, over 54% of the total income tax revenues to the federal Govt.

As for the rich storing up riches for themselves here on Earth, we heard the answer about that last weekend. Those who do so will get their reward for being greedy. But will taxing them more absolve them? Either way, their fate is in God’s hands. It’s not for us to condemn them for their actions. I think scripture has some lessons about that as well. I think it is commendable (and smart, in light of scripture) that you handle your treasure the way you do. I think that was the point of the original article. It is the way most conservatives approach this as well I think. Most studies show that Conservatives’ levels of charitable giving are far greater than that of Liberals. Perhaps, the issue isn’t one of the 53% vs the 47%, but of the difference between those who want to spend their own money doing good for those in need vs those who want to steal money from others to do “supposed” good for the needy. I say supposed because their efforts are not truly destined to help people escape their lot in life but rather to keep them entrenched in their subjugation. Is it utopian to expect some form of effectiveness when we attempt to help the poor?

I am not rich by any means KT. I have been flat broke many times. But I worked hard all along to better myself. I am comfortable. Comfortable enough to be able to send my kids to catholic schools, but not comfortable enough yet to have ever bought a new car. I have a cracked 6-yr-old cell phone that still works and thus, doesn’t need to be replaced. I have almost no savings, but I have a decent house which will someday see all the necessary repairs that are needed. I have a good job, which I worked hard to achieve. However, I am currently furloughed one day a week because congress, who has a constitutional mandate to pass a budget, hasn’t been able to agree on how much of my paycheck to take away from me and “give” to all manner of people and causes that they’ve decided need it more than I do. So my sons and I are eating lots of hot dogs and spaghetti, but we’ll get by. If the furlough extends into next year, I will have to get a second job, which I will do gladly for the opportunity to continue getting by. I still tithe. I still volunteer my time.
I do strongly identify with the rich. Because they are the ones who are not complaining and are out there making everything work. Most of them are the types of people who, when faced with adversity, roll up their sleeves and find a way to make things happen in spite of it. They are not standing around at rallies whining about their victimhood because there is work to be done. They work hard and make sacrifices. They employ people, which provides REAL help to people who need in the form of paychecks. They most certainly do create wealth! In so doing, they also create opportunity for those less fortunate to better themselves by working. I absolutely agree with you that it is definitely not in the public interest to encourage the wealthy to hold onto every cent of their money. The thing to understand is that it’s not in their self-interest either. They will lose the ability to make more money if they don’t reinvest their money in sustaining and growing their business. There are far fewer trust-fund babies than you think there are. Most rich folks got there by hard work and risk-taking.

One day, I would like to be a rich guy. And maybe in a lot of ways I already am. Like a rich guy, I believe in working hard and being self-sufficient. I sacrifice greatly for my “self-interests”. I don’t sit around complaining about my crummy life and hard luck. Instead I figure out a way to overcome and work hard to get there. And like most rich guys I know, I give to others of my time talents AND treasure.

One more thing: before you chastise me for judging the poor too harshly, I want to confess that it is something I struggle with. I actually pray about it. I am guilty of the same thing I’m chiding you about, only in reverse. I find it hard not to generalize and stereotype the poor, just as you do the rich. I was a mailman for 8 years. I delivered in a mostly poor community and personally delivered tens of thousands of govt. assistance checks of all stripes. I have seen first-hand and know that true poverty exists. But many, many people are abusing the system. I chaffed at being a young man starting out with a young wife and broiling in the sun all day delivering welfare checks and food stamps to healthy, folks the same age as me who just sat around all day. Often, they had nicer cars, cell phones and cable tv while I couldn’t afford those luxuries because I didn’t make enough money working for it. Why didn’t I? Because at the time, I was putting my lovely bride through grad school, so she could better herself. Why can’t I now? Because I’m putting two boys through Catholic school so they can have a good life (and not be indoctrinated by the secular humanist school system). It’s called sacrifice and there are a great many “poor” people who have never learned that that is the way to properly make their lives better.
written by Layman Tom, August 08, 2013

That is a tremendous point! America was blamed and deservedly so! We were truly at fault. 2008 was the year that supposed “compassion” almost destroyed the global economic system. By forcing banks to loan money to people for houses they could never afford, the U.S. Govt, out of liberal compassion, created a monster. Many blame the banks for finding sneaky ways to off-load the bad notes, but they aren’t stupid. They had operated forever under rules that ensured that they would usually get their money back. When the govt. forced them to relax those rules, they knew they would be destroyed in short order if they didn’t get rid of the bad paper. Survival is a pretty strong instinct.

Why? Why did it happen? It happened because liberal sensibilities about where money comes from and intransience about the fate of the evil rich bankers was behind the “regulatory changes” in the mid-90’s. It’s just so unfair, said the nice people in the Clinton administration, that wealthy folks can afford to buy houses, but folks who don’t have any income cannot. So they decided that anyone should be able to buy a house whether they could afford to make the payments or not. Who cares if they all default? The fat cat bankers can suffer a little. They have plenty.
written by Ken Tremendous, August 08, 2013
Thanks for your thoughtful rejoinder Layman Tom.

I'm not contending that the wealthy are all trust fund babies. Many of them are hard working and spent many years getting to be where they are.

What bothers me is the immense self-regard that many of them as well as their defenders have, and the ungenerous public spirit they (often!) have when the subject of taxes and redistribution comes up.

Despite the stories they tell themselves, wealthy people do not succeed on their own. They cannot! Put Bill Gates on an island or in Bangladesh and see how rich he becomes. They depend for their success on the existence of an economic and social ecosystem of suppliers, distributors, other firms, employees, and most of all paying customers who can afford to purchase their products. And whether you want to acknowledge it or not, this ecosystem would not exist at the deepest substratum without the support of the state--to maintain public infrastructure, to provide a stable currency, to support the financial system, to protect from foreign invasion and environmental destruction. So when it comes time to pay for the maintenance of the society from which they have profited so much, why do wealthy people and their defenders complain? It's annoying to say the least. They act as though they are supporting society when the exact opposite is most nearly the case.

Second, and to your main point, not every wealthy person creates much wealth for other people. And no I'm not talking about trust fund babies who at least spend their money in a way that others can benefit from. When you look at a guy like Romney who made his fortune downsizing and spinning off companies after dumping much of their labor force onto the social scrap heap, you're puzzled. Here's a guy who completely exploited the system of easy corporate bankruptcy, limited liability rules and other financial gimmickry to make a fortune for himself and his firm primarily, and secondarily his investors all the while sloughing the social costs of the closed firms onto society. It's the taxpayers who underwrite the cost of health care, pension guaranties, unemployment insurance, not Romney.

You look at the vast asset base he's acquired and there are few if any jobs that this creates and many that it ends. His money is now derived almost entirely from rents, interest and dividends--not investments in productive business assets. And this sort of a fortune made from financialization is pretty typical nowadays. I won't go as far to call him a parasite...but its far from clear that guys like this really benefit American society much at all.

Oh and did I leave out that Romney is paying far less in effective taxes on unearned income than, say, a manager at McDonald's is making less than .1 of 1% of what Romney makes.

But I'm sure Father Schall with his abstractions about the evils of redistribution and his bromides about "wealth creation" is just fine with all this.

But why do you defend it? The reality of how the political economy in the US works bears little resemblance to your description of it.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author