Poverty And Other Values

What does the Church have to teach about economic systems? From one perspective its storehouse of wisdom is great. It knows much about the moral order and its roots in the natural law. From its foundation the Church has been sensitive to the requirements of the common good. Heir to intellectual traditions symbolized by the cities of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, the medieval church following the lead of the Fathers developed systematic metaphysics, anthropologies and ethics which enabled it to create sophisticated social and political philosophies.

In spite of its biblical legacy, the Church, from the time of the Fathers, has been influenced by Greek perceptions of methodology. Early on, its moral theorists realized that that revelation notwithstanding, principles are to be discovered, not deduced. A Catholic moral perspective, not unlike that of Aristotle or of the Stoics, is the product of observation. Thus, because observation and resulting norms are tied to the evidence which gave rise to them, one cannot simply transport into the twentieth century the outlooks of a Basil or a Lactantius. Although both authors were acquainted with the economies of their day, they took those economies for granted. Neither were reformers attempting to make perfect an inherited way. Their attention was rather devoted to the virtues required of one who has to function effectively within the given economic order.

While they and the Fathers can tell us much that ought to be repromulgated today, it profits us little to look to the distant past to determine the Church’s doctrine with respect to economic policy. That doctrine has yet to develop, though it was given an important 19th century impetus.

The present effort of the Roman Catholic bishops in the United States to issue a joint pastoral on Christianity and capitalism may indirectly bring about the study needed to develop an economic philosophy. Present efforts may bear fruit in a generation or two. I say this because I am not confident that the American church has within its ranks the theorists needed to deal adequately with the issues it has set before its Weakland Committee. Theoretical learning always lags behind empirical discovery. Moral teaching is no exception for the moral is nothing other than the enunciation of the tried and the true. A certain amount of experience is required to know “that which completes” and “that which does not complete.” All else is but policy, even when thoughtfully determined in the light of the best generic principles available. Policy is prudential judgment, adopted and advocated with the means available to its promulgation. It is not law. Looking to the primitive Church, while we do not find economic theory, we do find a spectrum of opinions on some of the issues uppermost in the minds of the bishops, particularly the issue of poverty and its alleviation.

The Fathers without exception recommended almsgiving. But they refrained from advocating compulsory almsgiving either by Church rule or civil legislation. As Jacob Viner has pointed out, “They showed no concern about economic inequality except where it involved private riches in excess of what was morally safe for owners or where it was a sign or lack of compassion on the part of the rich for those living in extreme poverty.”

Early Church teaching could be summarized by three admonitions: 1) the admonition to self-restraint in the pursuit of riches, 2) the admonition to just behavior in business, and 3) the admonition to generous but voluntary almsgiving. All men have a moral obligation to charity, but alms are meritorious only when freely given; charity is a “precept.” The Fathers did not assert that any of the poor as such had specific rights or claims against any of the rich as such. A further insight frequently mentioned: it is not the function of almsgiving to eliminate poverty, only to relieve extreme distress.

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom advised against attempts to distinguish carefully between the deserving and the undeserving, though he acknowledged that this advice would anger his hearers; he justified himself on the grounds that “if we investigate the lives of men too carefully, we shall never have pity on anyone.”

Charles Guignebert presents evidence that the Fathers did not, as a rule, advocate wholly undiscriminating almsgiving. St. Augustine, commenting on a text from Matthew, “Give to everyone who asks” (V, 39-42), writes that that passage should not be read as “Give to him everything that he asks.” What was meant, says Augustine, was rather that “you are to give in accord with propriety and justice,” and this may upon occasion mean that the seeker for alms should be given “correction rather than alms. In general the Fathers advised that in giving one should give preference to the pious over the sinner and to the unfortunate over the lazy and dishonest.

It is not my intention to summarize the teachings of the Fathers on almsgiving in an attempt to reach for the beginnings of a theory on economic policy. My point is rather that the Church teaches best about what it knows best. It knows human nature, its foibles, its possibilities; it knows about the goals of life and the moral and intellectual virtue required as a condition for the attainment of those goals. It doesn’t know much about economic systems, prime interest rates and global redistribution of wealth or resources, in part, because there is little science of those things.

If ecclesiastical authority is to speak about what it knows best, and from its own traditions, it will not accept the secular terms of the debate. To the secular mind, one has to “make it” in this life, or one does not make it at all. The religiously informed mind knows better. This is not to say that material well-being is not important; quite the opposite is true. One needs a certain amount of worldly goods to cultivate the things of the spirit. What these are varies from situation to situation, from culture to culture, from community to community. Poverty is thus a relative notion. What is “dirt-poor” from one point of view may be rich from another. Real poverty has a multiplicity of causes. Some are rectifiable, others not.

A certain kind of poverty may never be eradicated because it flows from human failing.

a) People may be poor because of the poverty of the human organism. They may be dim of wit or handicapped in other ways by nature.

b) Some people are poor because they fail to husband properly the resources they have. They may be spendthrift or improvident.

c) Others are poor because of personal moral failure. As a result of moral weakness they have failed to acquire the necessary skills to make themselves useful as workers.

d) Others may be poor because their inherited land is poor. The natural resources of the area in which they were born and reared are not sufficient to provide for the population. They may not be willing to vacate their homes or region and choose instead to live at a level which by national norms counts them as deprived.

e) Some are poor because of exploitation, personal or communal; they are not paid a proper wage or given proper compensation for the natural resources which are taken from them. Jesse Stuart, who died in February, and Harry Candill have documented the latter for Appalachia with moving prose.

If one chooses to speak of poor nations rather than poor people, the relevant considerations are not too different. Some nations are poor because of a political incapacity to exploit natural resources, which resources if they were properly utilized could materially transform society.

In my judgment, the Church should avoid seeming to define itself merely as a champion of the poor. In most industrialized nations, political factions, if not government itself, have assumed that role. In Europe and North America the welfare state is omnipresent. Ecclesiastical bodies do not need to excoriate those governments to do more for the “poor.” There is evidence that increased expenditures seem to benefit less the recipients than those who deliver the care. A careful look at services that are presently available may be enlightening. Some programs seem to encourage indolence rather than self-reliance and personal moral growth are the ends of all material assistance. Self-reliance ought to be acknowledged as an important goal, since many programs have the unintended effect of making the “poor” wards of the state. Individual well-being cannot be left to the vagaries of government bureaucracies.

Regarding the obligations of “rich nations” to so-called “under-developed nations,” analysis directed to exploring those terms may be instructive. Are they Marxist categories currently employed to serve Soviet objectives? It has been suggested time and again that the third world needs capital, both monetary and human, more than anything else. Technical and vocational training with a humane dimension is badly needed in many parts of the world. On this an ecclesial body can have much to say to itself for it can, as it has in numerous nations, contribute by the sponsorship of colleges and universities. If capital is to be attracted to the third world certain safeguards and incentives have to be developed. These are moral matters too and need to be addressed since all capital represents someone’s savings, someone’s deferred consumption.

Domestically, it should not be assumed that unemployment in certain areas of the country is a bad thing. Some unemployment has been brought about because of the shortsightedness of unions; other because of the demands of free trade. If the flight of textile manufacturing from the South in the United States has caused hardship in certain communities it has enabled other communities in Asia to live better. The people themselves, as well as industries who employ them, have to be taught to be competitive and to take pride in their work. Solid craftsmanship has become rare, but where it exists, it commands a premium price. Communities come into being as a result of industrial or communal expansion and they diminish or pass out of existence for the opposite reason. Viewed from the larger standpoint of the nation as a whole, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Many coal-mining towns of Appalachia are not unlike the mining towns of the West and deserve an aesthetic grounds alone to pass out of existence. Most states have laws which force corporations to provide for several employees. State programs can aid in relocation and retraining, but they can also be cumbersome and ineffective. Furthermore, there is no point to the state preserving a dead or dying community. Social processes can at times be allowed to do their work. The gifted and self-reliant will need little assistance to take care of themselves. Creating mass programs for a residual few may be unproductive. Not everyone can or should be shielded by government action from ill-fortune. Personal fortitude needs to be encouraged. So, too, does private charity. Government may be ill-suited to play the role that only charity can properly effect.

Is the Church then without resources to speak to the contemporary mind? Does it lack the power to teach authoritatively? I would answer “no” to both questions. For one it has a powerful tool in its teaching with respect to the common good. As a guide to the formulation of ordinances or to the claiming of rights the notion “common good” has only heuristic value. It doesn’t tell us in the concrete what goods ought to be sought, but it does tell us that something communal is to be preferred to claims based on special interest. D’Entreves once pointed out that the notion of “common good” plays in political thought a role similar to that which “natural law” plays, in legal theory. A danger in both orders is that of allowing the heuristic rule to dictate specific conclusions. Both notions serve their purpose as corrective or as adjudicative concepts. One can argue that this or that is required by the common good or dictated by natural law. If parties to a dispute about which course of action ought to be pursued both acknowledge the force of the controlling concept, the debate has a different tone than it would have were there no such agreement. Reasonable men may differ about means to an end but if the end be mutually acknowledged, their differences can be productive of the common good. But if it be thought that there is no common good to be sought, or that it will occur by accident, or as a result of a multiplicity of self-interested pursuits, then something is lost to the commonweal.

The acknowledgment that the common good ought to be determined and pursued as an end depends upon the recognition of certain metaphysical givens, principally, the insight that man has a nature, the analysis of which will disclose what is suitable to him, and that he possesses free will. It should be evident that civic responsibility presupposes and flows out of personal moral virtue. The Church is at home in defending the concepts needed to build a responsible social outlook. By contrast much of the current secular debate is governed by ideas foreign to her basic insights. To offer two examples: first, while the Church recognizes the importance of the cultural setting in shaping the lives of individuals, it has never slipped into a social determinism, denying personal responsibility. Secondly, while it acknowledges the necessity of material well-being for a virtuous life, it knows that the grave is not the end of man; it knows that to stand firm and virtuous in the face of adversity is far more important than the achievement of individual security or material success.

The rationale for massive state-controlled welfare programs is not Christianity but a secular perspective which incorporates a materialistic anthropology and a social determinism. Income redistribution is not commanded by the Gospels, or by the Fathers, or by the tradition of Catholic moral teaching. This truth is recognized by the great majority of those who work hard and assume responsibility for their actions and who, with moral justification, resent yet another program that would tax their productivity in the interest of alleviating ills beyond the capability of government.

If the Catholic community seriously desires to aid the economically disadvantaged, it might take up the cause of Catholic education itself. The nation as a whole would profit if the Catholic community demanded freedom to educate in accord with its own lights, without economic penalty. There is nothing in the Constitution which requires the common school to be the instrument of an exclusive secular outlook. Where Catholic schools exist in urban areas, they often provide the most valued structure for the poor and the minority student to take advantage of native talent. A solid Catholic education with its traditional emphasis on moral and intellectual virtue can do more for its recipients than any government program. Its emphasis is future-oriented. It can assist in turning off the engines of destruction and not merely in picking up the pieces.

  • Jude Dougherty

    Jude Dougherty is Dean Emeritus of the School of Philosophy in the Catholic University of America and the editor of The Review of Metaphysics, and General Editor, Series Studies in Philosophy and the History of Philosophy, Washington, D.C., The Catholic University of America Press.

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