The Rich, Not States, are Called to Help Others

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.

Catholic Social Thought pt 10The 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.

Editor’s note: The image of Pope Leo XIII above was painted by Franz von Lenbach in 1885.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    In his 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI allows a considerable, albeit limited rôle to the public authorities

    “24. If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to peoples or are detrimental to the interests of the country, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation.

    33. Individual initiative alone and the interplay of competition will not ensure satisfactory development. We cannot proceed to increase the wealth and power of the rich while we entrench the needy in their poverty and add to the woes of the oppressed. Organized programs are necessary for “directing, stimulating, coordinating, supplying and integrating” the work of individuals and intermediary organizations.

    It is for the public authorities to establish and lay down the desired goals, the plans to be followed, and the methods to be used in fulfilling them; and it is also their task to stimulate the efforts of those involved in this common activity. But they must also see to it that private initiative and intermediary organizations are involved in this work. In this way they will avoid total collectivization and the dangers of a planned economy which might threaten human liberty and obstruct the exercise of man’s basic human rights.”

    • givelifeachance2

      I would think in para 24 he may be referring to the monies of the likes of George Soros or the Rockefeller Foundation – basically the ill-spent goods of the corrupt crony monopolistic plutocrats.

      I will have to read the whole thing to see what is the context to para. 33.

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  • hombre111

    I wait for your discussion on the social justice thought of subsequent popes.

  • msmischief

    One notes that the very poorest people in the United States live at the 70th percentile worldwide, so the actual poor do not live near people in the United States.

    • vitto

      You should understand that poverty is always a relative concept, and it means different things in different parts of the world. While for the vast majority of families worldwide it is absolutely normal not to be able to afford a car, that would definitely be poverty for a US or West European citizen. Although in may not be poverty in Afghanistan not to be able to buy basic medial services and medications, it is definitely not acceptable for a western citizen. I lived in my childhood in the Soviet Union, when 2/3 of families did not own a car. That was a norm. Not poverty. Not a humiliation of any kind. That would not be true now. Poverty should always be interpreted in relation to the environment, to the standards enjoyed by a particular society in a particular time. We always view our economic standing in relation to that of those around us. Maybe, one day, not being able to afford a private jet will be a norm. Who knows. Poverty never meant and should never mean only a situation of near death from hunger or cold.

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  • briongloidfidoir

    I agree with givelifeachance2 that the pope was most likely referring to the likes of Soros or Warren Buffet or huge corporations that pay little or no tax such as GE. Our current tax system instead goes after honest small and medium business owners who are trying to create jobs but cant due to taxes and regulations. Also,many of our priests and bishops seem to go right along with this type of ‘social justice’ and have no problem with a huge secular government in charge of caring for the poor. Also the biggest root cause of poverty in the U.S is often not taught about enough in our Catholic schools and parishes and that is personal morality especially in regards to the importance of marriage and chastity. Many priests and bishops as well as social ministries do not want to speak of these matters for fear of offending or hurting someone’s feelings.

  • NormChouinard

    I don’t disagree with much of this but I am troubled by the title. I believe that Leo understood that caritas was not something that the rich owed to the poor, but rather that everybody owes to everybody else to express our love for our fellow man. The notion that charity is something that the rich owe to the poor is ultimately degrading to both.

  • Terry

    It concerns me greatly that the heading of this piece is not merely misleading but flat out contrary to what Leo XIII actually says. Rerum Novarum, #37, states:

    “37. … The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.”

    Leo XIII even speaks of “distributive justice” in #33 of Rerum Novarum: “Among the many and grave duties of rulers who would do their best for the people, the first and chief is to act with strict justice — with that justice which is called distributive — toward each and every class alike.”

    In Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II demonstrates the Church’s continuity of teaching by quoting Leo XIII on the above.

    I don’t know if the author simply misunderstood the article of whether he is deliberately misrepresenting Church teaching in order to promulgate a conservative economic position at odds with the Catholic position, but this article is so misleading that I honestly think it needs to be removed.

    • Nathanael Peter

      I’m hope you took that quote out of context only by accident. The first part of that paragraphs addresses “rights,” not wealth redistribution.

  • Marie Dean

    Thanks so much for this series. And, this particular article. When I was teaching, I tried to communicate this truth. Too many people think like socialists instead of Catholics and it is worse here in Europe, where the brain-washing is complete. Keep up this good work.

  • Robert Ormsbee

    This (I feel) is rational understanding of current doings and goings on…presented succinctly, rationally and interestingly. I pray that mindful souls the world over would read and heed such wisdom.

  • crakpot

    I take my direction on the distribution of resources from the Parable of the Talents. To each, from God, according to his abilities, to be used to create, in the service of God. That service includes charity, as Jesus made clear to the young rich man, but certainly not forced redistribution (Jesus did not have the Apostles hold the rich man down while he rifled through his pockets).

    The left likes to substitute the state for God. George Washington described what the state is best:
    “Government is not reason; it is not eloquence – it is force. Like fire, it makes a dangerous servant, and a fearful master.”

  • Absolutely not. Warren Buffet, Turner or Gates are just poor people and can’t help anyone but fill some stomachs. YOU who are rich are called to help others.

  • I’ve just been in touch with a woman who lives in an old steel town in the Rust Belt. What she describes as common on her street is simply astonishing — the gunfire, the drug dealing, the squalor, the complete moral breakdown. Her neighbor, recently moved away, had 11 children by 8 or 9 different men. The boys think it’s “manly” to get as many girls pregnant as possible. They suffer no consequences from it. Hardly anybody grows up with a married mother and father. I would like the people who put the policies in place that made for this, just live there for one month, one month. Our policies destroy the poor by corrupting them, and then we keep them far away from us, and pretend to have done our duty by them.
    For the record, I don’t write the titles. But though the state does have a responsiblity to assist the poor “in extreme cases,” as Leo says, it is not the state’s responsibility in general to do so. For it CANNOT do the job — because the job is not mechanical but human.

    • Steve Sperra

      What government policies, specifically, are the sole source of the modern destruction of the family? This seems a common undercurrent in many of the responses on this article, which I find troubling, because it seeks a convenient ‘boogieman’ to blame for a very complex issue. The government didn’t cause the breakdown in families – not alone. We did through the society we created by our actions, goals and heroes we’ve passed down to our children. No I do not blame parents alone – I don’t hold any single person, institution or organization responsible – it’s impossible.

      The talk of ‘wealth redistribution’ is absurd – the very rich already engage in this practice, but that, apparently, is a noble and blessed pursuit.

      “Our policies destroy the poor by corrupting them, and then we keep them far away from us, and pretend to have done our duty by them.”

      Do you have any idea how arrogant that sounds? Corrupt them – how? Do you mean to imply there was a golden age where the middle class and wealthy in our society kept the noble poor close and held them tight to to their bosom? The general state of the poor has greatly improved over time as society as a whole progressed, but poor is still poor. There is nothing ‘noble’ about it.

      Does this mean government is responsible to bring them up? Not directly and certainly not alone. Having people live off of the government as a sole means of income is destructive – I doubt you’ll find many sane advocates of that path, or data to back it up. However, the government has a role and responsibility to the society that creates it to help ensure everyone has an opportunity to improve his or her situation. I believe this should equate to more and better education, infrastructure and safety. These are the areas government can help. Just shifting money around is a fool’s errand, no matter what you think of the politics.

      But the government can’t solve even those problems without us as a society doing our part to help our fellow man. Beyond what scripture says, it makes perfect logical sense. The better off everyone around me is, the better off I can be. The more educated, employed and productive people are, the better off we all are by their industry.

      We as a nation have moved into a strangely divisive mindset where winning the argument is far more important than joining to find solutions. We are an ever complex body of people, and our problems cannot be solved simply. We have to get over being correct, and work on being right.

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