Society

The Redistribution of Wealth Is Justice Not Charity

Justice by itself is not love, though. And love, not mere justice, is our goal. A look at wealth and its obligations.

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April 30, 2014
for the poor charity Steven Depolo
This is part five of a six part series on economics and Catholic social teaching.​ (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)


Justice is not charity—it is a prerequisite to charity and must come first before charity is even a moral possibility. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained the distinction well:
 
“Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other…I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity…‘the minimum measure’ of it.” ( Caritas in Veritate, 6)

These words are echoed in the Catechism: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.” (CCC, 2446) Therefore, to voluntarily surrender one’s legally acquired goods is not necessarily a charitable act. It may well be a simple act of justice, perhaps long overdue.

This concept is as old as Christ, who, upon seeing an old widow place two copper coins in the offering, said of her: “All these have of their abundance cast into the offerings of God: but she of her want, hath cast in all the living that she had.” (Luke 21:4) Many fulfilled the requirements of justice, offering of their abundance to the Lord; the widow, however, gave all that she had, and so her offering alone qualified as charity.

It is frequently flouted in the political world that this or that party, candidate, church, or group, is most “charitable.” And no one will deny that many of these groups donate great sums to worthy causes. But how many of them, like the widow, give “of their want”? Even when a political candidate donates half of his millionaire income to a particular “charity,” what of his want has he given? Absolutely nothing, in most cases—and if we factor in the tax cuts and the political clout he gained from the act, it could likely be said that his wealth increased from this sort of pseudo-charity.

Now it is important to acknowledge that what we have just said is not meant to humiliate those who donate wealth—for their actions are the actions of justice, and justice is commendable in itself, whenever and wherever it is fulfilled. The point is merely this: that justice is not charity. Therefore, while we must not devalue anyone’s justice, we must work to return the word charity to its proper place, for it belongs on a high throne indeed, and few climb to that celestial seat!

Few indeed. There is a reason that all Christian tradition has looked upon wealth as, if not a stark barrier to charity, at least a burden on the path to attaining it. When Christ said that the Kingdom of Heaven posed a serious difficulty to the rich, he was simply acknowledging that the wealthy—by the weighty load of abundance they carry—must go to far greater lengths to scrape the surface of charity, whereas the poor need only cast forth two copper coins.

The distinction between justice and charity, once lost, confuses everything. For example, most people know that acts of charity are spiritual matters, and are therefore not appropriately enforced through secular legislation. (Although a non-secular social authority, such as the Church, could, and in the Middle Ages did, socialize charity.) Charity, then, has little place in secular law.

Justice is a different story: human law has every business enforcing justice to the best of its ability. Justice does not have to be left to work itself out in the heart of each individual.
This is part five of a six part series on economics and Catholic social teaching.​ (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)


Justice is not charity—it is a prerequisite to charity and must come first before charity is even a moral possibility. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained the distinction well:
 
“Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other…I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity…‘the minimum measure’ of it.” ( Caritas in Veritate, 6)

These words are echoed in the Catechism: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.” (CCC, 2446) Therefore, to voluntarily surrender one’s legally acquired goods is not necessarily a charitable act. It may well be a simple act of justice, perhaps long overdue.

This concept is as old as Christ, who, upon seeing an old widow place two copper coins in the offering, said of her: “All these have of their abundance cast into the offerings of God: but she of her want, hath cast in all the living that she had.” (Luke 21:4) Many fulfilled the requirements of justice, offering of their abundance to the Lord; the widow, however, gave all that she had, and so her offering alone qualified as charity.

It is frequently flouted in the political world that this or that party, candidate, church, or group, is most “charitable.” And no one will deny that many of these groups donate great sums to worthy causes. But how many of them, like the widow, give “of their want”? Even when a political candidate donates half of his millionaire income to a particular “charity,” what of his want has he given? Absolutely nothing, in most cases—and if we factor in the tax cuts and the political clout he gained from the act, it could likely be said that his wealth increased from this sort of pseudo-charity.

Now it is important to acknowledge that what we have just said is not meant to humiliate those who donate wealth—for their actions are the actions of justice, and justice is commendable in itself, whenever and wherever it is fulfilled. The point is merely this: that justice is not charity. Therefore, while we must not devalue anyone’s justice, we must work to return the word charity to its proper place, for it belongs on a high throne indeed, and few climb to that celestial seat!

Few indeed. There is a reason that all Christian tradition has looked upon wealth as, if not a stark barrier to charity, at least a burden on the path to attaining it. When Christ said that the Kingdom of Heaven posed a serious difficulty to the rich, he was simply acknowledging that the wealthy—by the weighty load of abundance they carry—must go to far greater lengths to scrape the surface of charity, whereas the poor need only cast forth two copper coins.

The distinction between justice and charity, once lost, confuses everything. For example, most people know that acts of charity are spiritual matters, and are therefore not appropriately enforced through secular legislation. (Although a non-secular social authority, such as the Church, could, and in the Middle Ages did, socialize charity.) Charity, then, has little place in secular law.

Justice is a different story: human law has every business enforcing justice to the best of its ability. Justice does not have to be left to work itself out in the heart of each individual.


Can we not see, then, why men so ardently seek to have their acts of justice called by the noble name of charity? If all transfers of wealth away from the owner and to the poor are called “charity” rather than justice, then no legislation can compel me to surrender one red cent. It is all “charity,” and so it is completely up to me. And if I do decide to part with a few of my dollars, I can go on television and boast about it my pseudo-charity, win elections, and pay fewer taxes—all while patting myself and my political party on the back for our charitableness.

But Pope Pius XI condemned just this when he said that “no vicarious charity can substitute for justice which is due as an obligation and is wrongfully denied.” (Quadragesimo Anno, 137)

Once we return to a proper understanding of charity, returning it to its elevated position, we begin to see how much of what typically masquerades as charity is, at best, justice; and, at worst, an attempt to escape justice altogether. We see that much of what we call charity is actually “vicarious charity,” used not to go beyond justice, but to avoid seeking it in the first place, and this simply compounds the offense.

If we are not “working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty,” (Evangelii Gaudium, 188) or if we complacently condone and profit from a systemically unjust economy, then it matters little how much or how often we give of our abundance.

If charity can once again become transfigured, the problem of justice becomes much simpler: popular concerns such as the distribution—and redistribution—of wealth now fall well under the purview of temporal legislation. Charity has nothing to do with it.

This is why the popes have no qualms using the term “redistribution,” which is treated as profanity in some circles. Benedict XVI used it no less than eight times in Caritas in Veritate. This is, again, merely because the popes regard private property with such esteem that they cannot condone its concentration away from the family and the common man. They believe property carries dignity and independence, and so they wish as many to have these things as possible. They do not preach uniformity and leveling—they preach justice. And justice tells us that we must give to each man his due.

So what is left for the Christian? What can I truly call my own? St. Ambrose offers a powerful response:
 
“‘My own’, you say? What is your own? When you came from your mother’s womb, what wealth did you bring with you? That which is taken by you, beyond what suffices you, is taken by violence. Is it that God is unjust in not distributing the means of life to us equally, so that you should have in abundance while others are in want? Or is it not rather that He wished to confer upon you marks of His kindness, while He crowned your fellow man with the virtue of patience? You, then, who have received the gift of God, think you that you commit no injustice by keeping to yourself alone what would be the means of life to many? It is the bread of the hungry you cling to, it is the clothing of the naked you lock up; the money you bury is the redemption of the poor.”

No one will deny the difficulty of this teaching which, while not denying our capacity for ownership, certainly minimizes it beyond our normal levels of comfort. But perhaps, in the age ruled by what Pope Francis calls the “idolatry of money,” where the “universal destination of goods” sounds to many ears like “pure Marxism,” these precepts are the healing corrective we now require.

The Church does not ask men to abolish the concept of ownership, and neither does it condemn me for calling what I have “my own.” The Church merely offers the same caution which God himself offered to the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’” (Deut 8:17)


Daniel Schwindt is a member of the Solidarity Hall thinker-space, and the author of several books including Holocaust of the Childlike and The Pursuit of Sanity.
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