A Rich Church for the Poor?

Editor’s Note: We received a couple of larger and unexpected gifts over the weekend (a special one from someone I met by “chance” on the Camino a few weeks back), and are now very close to our Spring fundraising goal. I’m back in the office today from my time abroad and expect to find checks from those of you who don’t like giving online. But I’m not presuming. We won’t be passing around the tin cup again until the end of 2014, so if you can do something to support our work and bring this drive to a close, please, do so today. – Robert Royal

Pope Francis gave one of those speeches on Friday that the world press loves to stoke into an instant ideological auto-da-fé. Speaking to the “U.N. System Chief Executives Board for Co-ordination” – a dull dog of a bureaucratic confab, if there ever was one – he urged the global “coordinators,” gathered in grave council, to do some extra special coordination, which, as we know, they do so well, and include the excluded and marginalized in a more equitable world system.

In short, the kind of thing you expect a pope to say and not exactly front-page news.

But Francis used the phrase “legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State,” which in the hopeful eyes of certain journalists, means he must hate businessmen and at least sympathize with the Democratic Party, if not be some species of Socialist, and maybe even a liberation theologian.

Several conservative journalists, too, seemed to believe the pope’s mere mention that the state might play a role in economics was an indictment of the whole market system and the prelude to ever-greater statism.

News moves so fast on the Internet now – faster than real thought – that I recommend a calm look at the English as well as Spanish and Italian versions (we’ve heard that Francis has been ill-served by bad translation). I myself would frankly have preferred that he not use the word “redistribution,” which lends itself to several misunderstandings. But the controversial phrase appears in this context:

A contribution to this equitable development will also be made both by international activity aimed at the integral human development of all the world’s peoples and by the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.

Note what comes immediately after “legitimate redistribution”: the “indispensable” cooperation between the private sector – which is to say markets operating within the rule of law – and even more significantly, “civil society,” which is to say the subsidiary human institutions – persons, families, communities, not least churches, etc. – that by definition are not the State.

Now, to know what to make of this, you’d need more details about how Pope Francis envisions the three elements and expects them to interact. But clearly, he’s no mere statist.

          Pope Francis greets U.N. Scretary General Ban Ki-moon

As in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (you can look it up), he allows that there’s a legitimate role for businesses and non-State actors. He may not have a very clear idea of what precisely those roles are – and who does, the U.N.? But that’s not really a pope’s job. In Centesimus Annus (nos. 42 ff), St. John Paul II gave about as detailed an account of the benefits and dangers of markets, majorities, business activity, civil society, welfare systems, statism, and related questions as any pope can give. But even he says the Church proposes no “models.” It’s worth rereading those paragraphs every now and then.

Now, anyone familiar with how “international activity” actually works will doubt whether it can be much better or even different. Still, there are times “co-ordination” may bring modest benefits (much more modest than how markets have lifted up the poor, by the way). There’s no great harm in a pope encouraging that, so long as we understand its limits and the tendency of international bodies these days to push ideological agendas, as the Vatican has experienced twice recently. (Remember: this is a pope who looks at things through the perspective of Benson’s dystopian Lord of the World.)

But here’s an alternative idea: could the Church re-assert itself, precisely as a civil society institution, and not rely as much on states to do jobs the Church once did in education, healthcare, social services, and much more? In education alone, for example, the virtual state monopoly from K through college has meant not only a shallow focus on jobs and economics, but a loss of a non-government perspective without which most kids are merely indoctrinated in some current nostrum.

For these and other crucial tasks, the Church could not be a “poor Church in service of the poor,” the way Pope Francis has been saying. It would be a Church practicing the spirit of poverty, to be sure. But with richer material, intellectual, and spiritual resources to meet needs.

Many of us are old enough to remember a Church, especially here in America, which did precisely that. One of the things that divide Catholics today is the relation of Church and State. Liberals tend to believe that only the State can perform certain functions in the modern world. That may be, but we want to look very carefully at such things before we remove them from the sphere of civil society and non-state action.

Human beings have delicate and complex moral natures. By the 1990s, it was clear in America, even under a Democratic president, that a mistaken view of even so necessary a thing as a welfare safety net might in fact harm the very people it intended to help. If we really want a renewed conversation on how to get the poor and marginalized into a better position, we need to look at political, economic, and social structures. One way or another, the State surely plays a role in those, conservative fears notwithstanding. But we also need to look at families, education, and moral principles that are an indispensable counterweight to the State.

It may be that Pope Francis’ voice will help stimulate fresh discussion. It certainly would help if the Synod of the Family in the Fall didn’t get bogged down in divorce and remarriage, gay unions, abortion, contraception, and the other secular shibboleths. The family – not the radical, freestanding individual – is the fundamental cell of society. Economies need to place them at the center of their concerns. It’s no surprise that as families and the kinds of people sound families produce have shrunk, the State has grown.

Maybe that’s something for the U.N. System Chief Executives Board for Coordination to contemplate.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

  • Trust - Monday, August 13, 2018
  • Jack,CT

    Mr Royal,Great way to summarize and i agree that
    word the “R” word is toxic in this country.

  • Manfred

    “He may not have a very clear idea of what precisely those roles are…” “It would certainly help if the Synod of the Family in the Fall did not get bogged down in divorce and remarriage, gay unions,abortion,contraception and the other secular shibboleths.” Your column today tells the entire story. Unfortunately for you and the Pope, Francis is neither the president of the UN nor of Rotary International. Unfortunately for the Catholic faithful, he has been elected to serve as the Vicar of Christ on earth, a role for which he is inadequately qualified. If there is a fear of getting “bogged down” in “secular shibboleths”, why call the Synod of the Family at all? Paul VI is going to be beatified (????) on October 17th, the last day of the Synod? Francis lurches from one gaffe to the next.
    Thank you for bringing these items to our attention.

  • grump

    Did Francis mention anything about redistributing the proceeds from the sale of Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s $2.2 million mansion?

  • Schm0e

    I find myself enjoying the Pope’s verbal curveballs. Actually, they’re fastballs; it’s the public mind that is curved.

    I attempted to clarify the quote for someone thusly:

    If I may suggest this, the key to understanding – as opposed to misunderstanding – the Pope’s soundbyte is his use of the term “legitimate” when describing the state’s redistribution power.

    For a state has the authority to redistribute wealth – even a staunch conservative — even an atheist one (if there could be such a thing) — would acknowledge that a certain amount of taxation is necessary for the operations of any government.

    That being understood by all reasonable people, the Holy Father used his opportunity to address representatives of various states to use that power in a “legitimate” fashion.

    His use of the word “legitimate” reminds them that illegitimate uses of the power to tax are unacceptable and counterproductive to the well being of the people and by extension, the state.

    While we can only speculate what he meant by “legitimate” uses of that power, we don’t have to exert too much effort to think of “illegitimate” ones: the contraception mandate and taxpayer sponsored abortion come readily to mind. Gun-running, too.

    I do not blame the media for spinning the Pope’s words; he said what he did. But for the loading of such words with polarizing political connotations that encourage knee-jerk reactions, and for failing to diffuse such reactions, the media is culpable.

  • JFB

    Part of the Pope’s problems do come from language issues, much like the use of “plunder” in the translations of Bastiat’s great essay “The Law”. All should read that and realize it rightly teaches that the government can do nothing LEGITIMATELY which is prohibited, immoral or criminal if done by an individual, who is nothing more that the smallest piece of the collective, and whose delegation of some authority is what actually empowers the government.
    The entrance to the expressway to Hell is the fallacy that the governmental entitles are exempted from morality. There remain prohibitions from stealing, killing and coveting applicable to everyone and everything. There is no parens containing “except government” in my translation of the Bible.

  • Paul

    this is the second time that I have heard Pope Francis make a comment that raises a big question mark about his understanding of the free market system. He scares me. Greed is not the thing that underlies capitalism or the free market. On the contrary, greed is a human thing and is not unique to any one economic system. It is also present in socialism and comunism. Charity belongs to the people in a community. It is not duty or the role of any government to perform charitable acts, such as redistribution of income. That is a thing that people do by themselves and they do it voluntarily, not by compulsion. I wish Pope Francis would clarify his position on this matter, because I truly do not know where he stands.

  • John II

    The trouble with constantly trying to second-guess and parse and quibble over the Holy Father’s intermittently awkward public remarks is that, however inadvertently, the effort makes him look careless and foolish–rather the way I can recall the American bishops making themselves look when they were expatiating illiterately on economic issues in the 1980s.

    So here’s the emerging pattern: the Pope says something in wording that’s vague and ill-considered; his defenders then weave tapestries of creative interpretation assuring their audiences of nothing more than what he has said can be interpreted any way you please.

    I assume the Holy Father is warm to the Christian notion of being a “fool for Christ.” With all the help he’s getting from his enemies and friends alike, though, I’m not so confident that the consequent waste of Catholic moral authority is something he thinks about very much.

  • TruthSeeker

    If there is even a remote chance that the whole “Peter upon this rock” thing (or was it a pebble?) was developed in such a way to leverage power within the embattled Roman system of the day, my advice is to put your faith in the one true Savior and forget about the “one true church.” Take the Roman out of Roman catholic and then (and only then) we will begin to approach something that resembles the universal catholic church as admonished by Christ himself.

  • john phelps

    It is the job of the church to donate to poverty situations.
    For this wealth is necessary. A poor church is worthless.
    No one will care what they do; which won’t be much.Other church leaders must have money to have an effect on the society. That is why they have financial drives.
    If the government does all the poverty redistribution; there is no need for the church

  • Myshkin

    I agree with Schm0e that the word “legitimate” is the critical word, but I’m not as sanguine about the Pope’s use of it. It is what could be called an equivocal word (some might say a “weasel” word), which will mean different things to different people, all Catholics-with-agendas. Once again, Pope Francis sows unclear messages that rely on the spin of whoever is commenting on them to take on concrete meaning. This is not the same as St. John Paul II’s reticence in prescribing particular economic solutions. Why? Simple, even without such prescriptions, everyone knew where St. JPII stood on State control of human matters: he was by-and-large against it. He showed that in his decades long struggle against communism.

    Now what of Pope Francis? Where does he stand? He welcomes Gustavo Guiterrez, O.P. with approbation, warns of the evils of “trickle-down” market schemes, opines for the seizure of capital in order to reduce income inequality, … I’d say he idealizes the State as a force for the common good, valorizing its coercive role in the economy, as any Christian/Social Democrat does. This is a marked change from St. JPII, but something of a return to St. John XXIII. Oh, BTW, does anyone think that if the Pope Emeritus were still on the Papal Chair there would have even been a St. John XXIII at this point? Hmmm …

  • Myshkin

    To the moderator of these comments: the word “vaporizing” in my recent comment should be “valorizing”. Thank you very much for correcting that … Gotta love the auto spell correction … NOT!

  • David Dickey

    Pope Francis is truly the “Sloppy Pope”. He is sloppy in with speech as well as with attire. He tries very hard to sound profound, but he lacks a felicitous grasp of language. He is in dire need of a speech writer. What did he mean by “redistribution of economic benefits”? Did he really mean redistribution of wealth by way of confiscatory taxation? Or, did he mean a wider distribution of the fruits of production by way of tax credits and reductions in tax rates? Both are “State” actions, but one trends towards Socialism, the other towards the Market.

  • p.stockdale

    A lot of misstatements coming from Pope Francis! Very unsettling.

  • Benedict Augustine

    At its heart, government ensures stability, both political and economic. Francis’s words serve as a injunction to world governments to use their resources to prevent economic injustice in their respective countries. This does not necessarily mean that he endorses socialism, but that governments should endeavor to help those who need it most. The sluggish economic growth and growing debt in most Western countries, including the U.S., demonstrate the lack of sustainability and prosperity in bloated governments as well as bloated businesses. In the case of the U.S., the government has the power to keep a capitalist economy fair and competitive, or they can play favorites and subsidize certain companies while overtaxing others. Certainly a different exists, even if politicians say otherwise.

    Pope Francis understands that the poor need an advocate in any economic system, in developed countries as well as undeveloped ones. The people who suffer under the socialist system, with unemployment, rationed livelihoods, and generally less economic freedom are the same people who suffer under a crony-capitalist system with big businesses crushing them instead of big government. The pope should have Catholics’ support for encouraging fairer structures that keeps the interest of the common people in mind.

    As for the Church’s role in reviving the ideal of the family, Royal is certainly right, at least with protecting the family. Education starts at home, and the best way to ensure a strong vibrant Church with an informed laity is to safeguard the family and its special role. The world can decline in debauchery and immorality, but the Church and her families must stand for something noble and pure. Only then can Catholic leaders consider reviving the Church’s role in formal education, which has suffered horribly in the past decades with Catholic universities forsaking their evangelical mission and giving into the foolish honors of secularism.

  • Robert Royal

    A priest friend has pointed out privately that the language of the three elements – legitimate redistribution, the private sector, and civil society is drawn from the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching- and so has long been part of CST. Though we know what the modern state usually does with the powers it assumes, even under the guise of doing good, it seems we shouldn’t overreact to these sorts of things the way the secularists love to. They’re interested in creating a false myth about Francis. The truth may lie elsewhere.

  • PeteBrown


    The piece raises many interesting questions. I think however I will focus on this one:

    You suggest:

    “could the Church re-assert itself, precisely as a civil society institution, and not rely as much on states to do jobs the Church once did in education, healthcare, social services, and much more?”

    What do you have in mind though that is different than the existing arrangements, where in the US Church institutions exist side by side, sometimes in competition with, sometimes in coexistence with, and sometimes in collaboration with, the state? I don’t think you mean replace the state, do you? The task of educating and treating the sick in a country of 330 million is a really big one. It is possible to imagine a world in which the Church provided the whole thing–but only if one also imagines that the Church also had the ability to tax and spend, compel participation and corral resources on a scale that the modern state does. For a variety of reasons, I’m not sure that that world would be desirable especially given the realities on early 21st century life in the US.

    It is also undesirable for the state to do the whole thing as well. Education and health care after all began as Church activities..and lose something of their integral whole when governments directly provide them.

    SO this leaves us with some variation on the compromise: with health care the Catholic Church in the form of her hospitals get a large share while the government pays much of the bill. It’s not likely that too many hospitals could run without taking medicare or medicaid, and even private insurance receives a great deal of indirect government support. The is similar to education where government already helps Catholic schools by subsiding the training of the teachers and providing the textbooks and other supplies. Many Catholics would like the government to help with Catholic school tuition also though I am not sure this is a good idea.

    I circle around to where we are now. I guess its nice to ponder a world where the Church did more and government did less, but how does such a world actually work in practical terms. It is no accident that our society evolved along the lines that it did.

  • Gloriosa4

    My family has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars, and
    lifetimes of service to the Church. Yet in a time of need financially because of severe health issues, I had no help from the Church. The least the Church could do is provide need based health insurance to it’s members. Instead, Church leaders lobby the Government to take care of people, then they throw a hissy fit when the Government dictates policy. Where is our leadership and vision?

  • John F. Caruana

    People we are being led by the news media to have us believe that Pope Francis believes the distribution of wealth as President Obama does. Please use the brains God gave you to think with. Pope Francis is saying as the Bible tells us that the poor will always be with us and we should not forget to help them when we can. Do you know that with the money we waste in the U.S. We could help the poor and house our homeless people. The government wants to spend over a billion dollars to buy new furniture for their offices. A desk is a desk and that there are creative ways too make furniture look like new. We have time to critique what we think our Pope is saying when we should be looking at the lies our government is trying to get away with with the help of our news media who is too blind to see the truth.

  • Gerald V. Todd

    IMO, the Catholic Church brought forth many principles the Protestant Founders applied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. There was a largely ignored closeness between George Washington and the Catholic Carroll’s of Maryland. Two old Catholic principles are subsidiarity and solidarity she never quite learned how to apply on a broad scale – thus minimizing the hope of the absolutely essential development of a middle class. Great art, architecture and music – even development of the Scientific Method, were well proven through the Middle Ages, but until the American ideals defined in the DOI brought it all together for the Glory of God completed the circle. Maybe the negative tensions between Protestantism and Catholicism stirred some latent thoughts that benefited all. I call it “Chaos Theory” – of unintended consequences and opportunities in human endeavor
    I don’t know Christopher Manion, but his work on Humanae Vitae reminds me that our wonderful family friend and mentor, the late Bishop John R. Sheets, SJ was one of 2 faculty at Marquette University that refused to sign a petition against Humanae Vitae. (What is it about Academia – religious or not?) I finally had enough from both public and religious institutions and wrote the piece on WJ “The Dirty Job Mike Rowe Missed.” http://www.westernjournalism.com/dirty-job-mike-rowe-missed/2/

    Read more at http://www.westernjournalism.com/catholics-war-unintended-consequences/#bRZ6JzalyY1cxTvd.99
    I apologize for not addressing the issue directly – the above was more to establish some relativity.
    I’m not so kind about who did what in the Middle East. Bishop – then Father John Sheets, SJ gave me a paper in 1978 that I used in my Islam and Mary chapters in my 2007 book, “God’s Prophetic Zodiac” http://www.lulu,com download 335 pages. It seems Manion is obsessed with George Bush’s errors – even as Saddam’s forces were invading Kuwait where a friend of mine was birthing twins by flashlight at the Kuwait City Hospital and later setting afire all Kuwait’s oil wells (Saddam, not my friend!). Yes, “progressive” energy and unconstitutional social policies from Wilson to Obama have had their destructive effect. Drawing on Sheets’ 1978 paper (largely based on Fulton Sheen’s observation), I wrote the paper “Frying Islam’s 100th Egg” which proposes that the USA is Islam’s coveted “100th Egg ” http://www.webcommentary.com/php/ShowArticle.php?id=toddgv&date= More astute observers would call it “spiritual warfare” in the political arena. The sooner we figure it out, the better. Just ask your local bomb-vested jihadist or anti-life “progressive.”
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    Read more at http://www.westernjournalism.com/catholics-war-unintended-consequences/#bRZ6JzalyY1cxTvd.99

  • Myshkin

    God bless you, Gloriosa4. Suffering united with Christ is of great spiritual merit. I will pray for you.

  • Jack Flynn

    The “state” should never have the primary role in providing charity to the truly needy. In the USA under our Constitution the Federal government has a legitimate role in providing a safety net under the charge to keep order. In our republic the state and local governments have a greater role providing aid to citizens because they are closer to the need. However charity is the responsibility of the Church and individual as it must be freely given and is a moral requirement. Expecting and or encouraging the state to be the conduit of charity via income redistribution is a very dangerous suggestion. The opportunity for corruption and tyranny is a certainty. Just look at history. The left is not the least bit hesitant about using such comments as propaganda to advance their agenda and they are very successful at it. As a result much caution and clarity needs to be present when making these statements.

  • freddie stewart

    Given the author’s concessions of the compounded ambiguities in the Holy Father’s language, what if anything at all is “clear” about his views concerning the scope and depth of the economic role of the State? It is insufficient to point verbal “bones” which may be thrown to give the appearance of “nuance.” Also, while the Holy Father is not nor is required to be an economist, he should demonstrate that his grasp of the topic exceeds cliched anti-capitalist slogans thinly veiled in the language of the Social Magisterium. This body of documents is specific in its criticism of the excesses of capitalism, crystal clear in its overt condemnation of socialism as a violation of natural law), and helpful in its definition of subsidiarity as a bulwark against overreach by the State.