American Catholics And Social Justice
Pope Leo XIII

American Catholics And Social Justice

“Social justice” is at the center of most political activism in contemporary America. It has provided arguments for the expansion of entitlement programs, for making the affluent “pay their fair share,” and more generally for “redistributing wealth.” It has also become the rallying cry for demonstrations and encampments such as Occupy Wall Street. Liberals tend to see social justice as an affirmation of human rights and the biblical command to love one’s neighbor; conservatives tend to regard it as a Marxist notion that is inimical both to Christian values and the democratic tradition. These conflicting views have left many Americans uncertain whether to embrace or oppose the programs and agendas advanced under the banner of social justice.

Catholics have a special reason to feel troubled, for the hierarchy of their Church, who could have drawn upon the rich tradition of Catholic thought to illuminate the issue, instead have added to the confusion. What is more, in many cases their pronouncements have contradicted the spirit, and sometimes the letter, of traditional Catholic moral teaching. In the process, they have misled uninformed believers and alienated the informed.

Pope Leo XIII and Rerum Novarum

The term “social justice” was coined in the 1850s by Luigi D’Azeglio, an Italian Jesuit who was concerned about the increase in poverty caused by the industrial revolution. He believed that because humans are social by nature, the organizations to which they belong should help to ensure their welfare, but his focus was on the family, the Church, and local groups, rather than the state.

One of D’Azeglio’s students later became Pope Leo XIII and wrote the famous 1891 encyclical on capital and labor, Rerum Novarum, which affirmed the rights of the poor and the obligations of the more fortunate toward them, declaring it immoral to “exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain,” “to gather profit out of the needs of another,” and to deny workers just wages and suitable working conditions. But the encyclical also rejected the notion that conflict between employers and workers is necessary and natural, stressing instead that each needs the other and has responsibilities to the other.  It also forcefully denounced “the main tenet of socialism, community of goods,” arguing that “the first and most fundamental principle . . . if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.”

The key to overcoming the disparity between rich and poor, Rerum Novarum suggested, is not to take away the property of some and give it to others, which “neither justice nor the common good allows,” but instead to enable larger numbers of people to become property owners. This approach is beneficial to everyone, but “only provided that a man’s means be not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation.”

According to Rerum Novarum, all people have a duty, after taking care of their own needs, to help their neighbors who are in need, but it underscored that this duty is one of charity rather than of justice, a critical distinction, as I will show. The encyclical acknowledged that the State has a special obligation to protect and care for the poor because they lack the self-protection enjoyed by the more fortunate, but it emphasized that such efforts should not violate the rights of others.

In Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Pope Pius XI reinforced Leo’s balanced views. He warned against the two extremes of “individualism” and “collectivism,” arguing that “owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance” is a natural right that “ought always to remain intact and inviolate.” At the same time, echoing Leo’s distinction between charity and justice, he noted that the rich are bound by a very grave duty to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.

Similarly, Pius XI condemned both the false economic principle that the rich deserve the proceeds of capitalism while the poor rightly live in “perpetual want” and the “equally fictitious moral principle that all products and profits, save only enough to repair and renew capital, belong by very right to the workers.” Pius also referred to a term with which Leo was familiar but did not himself use, D’Azeglio’s term “social justice”; moreover, he offered a meaningful definition that has been lacking in most subsequent discussion. For Pius, social justice meant “the norms of the common good” by which “one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits.” However, he specifically rejected the notion that people have rights without responsibilities by recalling the Apostle Paul’s admonition in 2 Thessalonians 2: “If any will not work, neither let him eat.”

From Pius’ perspective, capitalism, unlike socialism, can be compatible with Christian principles. In other words, he saw nothing wrong in the acquisition of wealth, as long as in the process, one “renders service to the community” and violates no one else’s rights.

Changes in the Papal Perspective 

Although Leo’s and Pius XI’s successors have attempted to carry forward their views of social justice, they have sometimes obscured those views or, worse, abandoned their balanced insights. In so doing, they have given encouragement to the opponents of those views.

For example, in Mater et Magister (1961) Pope John XXIII presented an expansive list of government responsibilities toward citizens. The list included “roads; transportation; means of communication; drinking water; houseing [sic]; health services; elementary, technical and professional education; religious and recreational facilities; and the supply of modern installations and furnishings for the farm residence.” This encyclical argued that rich nations have a duty to provide not only emergency aid but also “scientific, technical and professional training” and the financial resources necessary to solve the deeper problems of “primitive” economies. Because it omitted the warnings against government overreaching that were central to Rerum Novarum, this encyclical can be seen as inviting government expansion.

A similar problem occurred in Pope John’s Pacem in Terris (1963), which considerably lengthened Leo XIII’s list of human rights. Whereas Leo had mentioned only property rights, the right to the results of one’s labor, the right to choose one’s state in life (in particular marriage), and the right “to procure what is required in order to live,” John specified “the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.” He continued as follows: “In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood.” The encyclical went on to say that the government is responsible for the “suitable and adequate superintendence and co-ordination” of such rights. Although it added the qualification that the support of one person’s rights must not be given at the expense of another’s, the encyclical assigned government a considerably larger role in the fight against poverty than had Rerum Novarum.

Two of Pope John’s phrases emphasize this larger role. “The right to be looked after” goes beyond having the opportunity to earn wages and save or purchase insurance for the future, suggesting instead that the state is responsible for citizens’ welfare. Also, the phrase “[government] superintendence and co-ordination” of people’s rights goes beyond judicial redress of grievances and, instead, puts government in charge of citizens’ lives. Whether Pope John intended such interpretations may be debated, but Pacem in Terris is clearly open to them and therefore may be said to have encouraged both an entitlement mentality and welfarism.

In Laborem Exercens (1981) Pope John Paul II noted the shift in papal focus over several previous decades from labor problems within nations to the global problem of “disproportionate distribution of wealth and poverty” among nations. This problem, he asserted “call[s] for a levelling [sic] out and for a search for ways to ensure just development for all.” While deploring Marxist collectivism, John Paul also criticized liberal capitalism on the matter of private property, declaring that “Christian tradition has never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” [John Paul’s emphasis.]

John Paul may have been technically right about Christian tradition, but the “broader context,” as he defined it, had the effect of negating Pope Leo’s claims that “the first and most fundamental principle . . . if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property” and that the real solution to the disparity of wealth among nations is to enable the poor to own property rather than to take away from the rich. Moreover, though John Paul was too cognizant of the errors of Socialism to have intended to aid political “progressives” in undermining the right of private property, it is arguable that his “broader context” had the effect of doing so.

The same encyclical also addressed the issue of immigration, asserting that workers in a foreign land “should not be placed at a disadvantage in comparison with the other workers in that society in the matter of working rights.” However, it made no distinction between legal and illegal immigrants and thus could be seen as implying that the distinction is unimportant. This implication no doubt encouraged some American Catholics, including some members of the hierarchy, to support politicians who favor an open border with Mexico.

In Centesimus Annus (1991), John Paul commemorated Rerum Novarum and applied its insights to contemporary society, for example affirming that profit is a legitimate goal but arguing that “other human and moral factors” are also important. He asserted that “stronger nations must offer weaker ones opportunities” and the latter have the responsibility of using the opportunities to improve their situation. Caring for the poor, he emphasized, is both a valuable exercise in self-transcendence and a precondition for world peace: “Another name for peace is development,” which requires “a concerted worldwide effort to promote development” in which richer nations sacrifice their “positions of income and of power” to bring all people “into the sphere of economic and human development,” and as a result accomplish justice.

Centesimus Annus also argued that “the State has a duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis.” But, following Rerum Novarum, it also warned against government playing too great a role in society, citing as an example the excesses of the modern welfare, or “social assistance,” state and the resulting “malfunctions and defects.” The corrective in such cases, John Paul noted, is the principle of subsidiarity: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it . . . always with a view to the common good.”

When the “social assistance state” expands its role, John Paul warned, “it leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” This prescient observation, which could have helped to prevent the financial crises in Europe and the United States, was unfortunately not endorsed by American prelates and therefore not widely disseminated among American Catholics.

In Caritas in Veritate (2009), Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that Catholic social doctrine is centered on charity and noted that in our time social justice has been hampered by global economic competition. He noted in particular that social security has been diminished, human rights endangered, and union negotiations made more difficult. He also acknowledged that solidarity is a challenge to everyone and “cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State” and argued for initiatives that aim for profit but also go beyond it and are both competitive and civilized, offering as an example the “economy of communion.” (For more on this promising initiative, also known as the “economy of sharing,” see

Two of this encylical’s views, however, diverge sharply from those of Rerum Novarum. One is the assertion that the creation of wealth should be balanced by the “redistribution” of wealth. (Though Progressive Democrats in the U.S. have not yet, to my knowledge, cited the support of the Vatican for their enthusiastic efforts toward this end, this encyclical certainly provides the basis for doing so.) To realize just how far Benedict’s idea about redistributing wealth is from Leo XIII’s perspective, recall that Leo maintained that “neither justice nor the common good allows” taking from some to give to others.

The other troubling view expressed in Caritas in Veritate is that unions are even more important now than in the early 20th century and should continue to play a major role in safeguarding workers’ rights. Had the assertion been focused on Third World labor problems, it would have been unobjectionable. Instead, however, it referred to workers and labor unions in general and ignored the demonstration of many economists that, in advanced societies such as the U.S., contemporary labor unions often cause serious problems.

The American Bishops’ Perspective

American prelates have echoed the papal ideas discussed above. Indeed, in some cases they have expanded those ideas and, in the process, wandered even further from the insights of Popes Leo and Pius XI. The most notable example of such wandering is found in the detailed position paper on social justice issued by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in 1986 under the title “Economic Justice for All.”

As might be expected, much that the Bishops said was unexceptionable. For example, they explained that “in teaching us charity, the Gospel instructs us in the preferential respect due to the poor and the special situation they have in society: the more fortunate should renounce some of their rights so as to place their goods more generously at the service of others.” And they added, quite reasonably, “the obligation to ‘love our neighbor’ has an individual dimension, but it also requires a broader social commitment to the common good.”

Where problems arose was in the bishops’ application of the Gospel to specific social problems. For example, they spoke of the special plight of “female-headed families,” particularly in black and Hispanic communities, as if that plight were always caused solely by economic factors and never by people’s self-defeating behavioral patterns or the government policies that encourage them. This despite the fact that numerous scholars, from Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Thomas Sowell, have called attention to such patterns and policies. As Sowell has written: “The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.” The bishops also declared that “the first line of attack against poverty” is to increase jobs in the private sector but, again, made no mention of the government regulations that make it difficult for private companies to expand the workforce.

Similarly, the bishops claimed that “the concentration of privilege results far more from institutional relationships [that] distribute power and wealth inequitably than from differences in talent or lack of desire to work,” and they proceeded to support the rights of workers to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. In addition, they condemned efforts to restrain or “break” unions, called for the reform of U.S. labor law to bolster bargaining rights, and urged unions to increase their activity around the world. To be fair, the bishops mentioned the responsibilities of workers and union management, such as refraining from making demands that would “damage the common good.” But they quickly added that “managers and shareholders” of companies should make “at least equal sacrifices.” It was clear that, in the bishops’ view, the main burden of responsibility (and blame) lies with management rather than with workers or unions. This view lacks the balanced view of Leo XIII and Pius XI, which, incidentally, they advanced at a time when the plight of the working class was considerably more serious than in contemporary America.

Another problem was the bishops’ embrace of John XXIII’s expansive view of human rights, including (in the bishops’ words) “rights to freedom of speech, worship, and assembly . . .  rights to life, food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and basic education . . .  [the] right to security in the event of sickness, unemployment, and old age . . . the right to employment . . . [to] healthful working conditions, to wages, and other benefits sufficient to provide individuals and their families with a standard of living in keeping with human dignity, and to the possibility of property ownership.”

Arguably, a number of the items in this list are not, strictly speaking, “rights” at all. For example, everyone has rights to life and the possession of property, and these rights entail the opportunity to their lawful fulfillment by earning the income necessary to obtain food, clothing, and insurance against illness, as well as to rent or own shelter. But a right to acquire something is not the same as a right to the thing itself. By missing this distinction, Pope John XXIII and the American bishops (among others) have encouraged a perspective that invites people to adopt a sense of entitlement. “In its silence concerning responsibilities,” Mary Ann Glendon observed, modern talk about rights “seems to condone acceptance of the benefits of living in a democratic social welfare state, without accepting the corresponding personal and civic obligations….” And Onora O’Neill suggested that such talk makes people heedless of the burdens they put on other citizens when they demand that the government fulfill their rights.

Yet another problem proceeded from the bishops’ view of human rights: that is, their claim that the community has the duty “to help fulfill [people’s] basic needs, and that “social institutions [should] be ordered in a way that guarantees all persons the ability to participate actively in the economic, political, and cultural life of society.” This notion is obviously flawed: institutions can guarantee people the opportunity to participate but not the ability to do so; the latter depends on factors over which the community has no control, including individual aptitude, interest, and effort. Moreover, it is clear that by “community” the bishops were referring to the government because no other agency can offer such a guarantee. In fact, they said as much elsewhere in the document when they declared: “It is the responsibility of all citizens, acting through their government, to assist and empower the poor, the disadvantaged, the handicapped, and the unemployed. Government should assume a positive role in generating employment and establishing fair labor practices . . . .” [Emphases added.]

As if that call for bigger government were not enough, the bishops expressed support for global government: “As we noted in the Challenge of Peace . . . recent popes have strongly supported the United Nations as a crucial step forward in the development and organization of the human community; we share their regret that no political entity now exists with the responsibility and power to promote the global common good, and we urge the United States to support UN efforts to move in that direction.”

In November 1991, in a comprehensive statement on the needs of families entitled Putting Children and Families First, the bishops stated: “We support housing policies which seek to preserve and increase the supply of affordable housing and help families pay for it. We urge national and local governments as well as community groups to work together in bringing about housing, planning, and zoning policies that reflect the needs for affordable housing for families.” This view helped motivate Congress to pressure banks to make housing loans to those who could not repay them, a policy that led directly to the Financial Crisis of 2008 that ironically worsened the condition of the poor (and everyone else).

More recently, American bishops have made even clearer their advocacy not only of big government in general but also of the Democratic agenda in particular. Some examples of such advocacy, all written on USCCB letterhead:

On June 16, 2008, Bishop Murphy wrote to the U. S. Senate renewing the bishops’ support of affordable housing, specifically of the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund Act.

On September 18, 2008, Bishop Murphy (and others) wrote to congressional leaders urging increased food stamp benefits, protection of Medicaid and social service assistance, increased home energy and unemployment assistance, and the passage of “another stimulus plan.”

On September 26, 2008, in a letter to congressional leaders, Bishop Murphy explained that “subsidiarity places a responsibility on the private actors and institutions to accept their own obligations. If they do not do so, then the larger entities, including the government, will have to step in to do what private institutions will have failed to do.” It should be noted that this interpretation was very different from John Paul II’s view of subsidiarity, that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it . . . always with a view to the common good.” Bishop Murphy did not attempt to explain how the very same principle of subsidiarity could support both the idea that government “should not interfere” and the opposing idea that the government “will have to step in.”

In March 2009, in a letter to the U. S. Senate Bishops William Murphy and Howard Hubbard supported Obamacare, child nutrition programs, the National Housing Trust Fund, and the allocation of “major new resources to address the serious impacts of climate change” [emphasis added], among other initiatives.

In November 2010, the USCCB issued an “Action Alert” urging Catholics to contact Congress and urge further extension of unemployment benefits and several other program extensions proposed by the Obama administration. Such promptings, though motivated by the Church’s traditional gospel-based advocacy for the poor, gave encouragement to liberal and progressive advocates of bigger, more intrusive government.

What the Bishops Should Ponder

Taken together, the passages from the encyclicals written after Leo XIII’s and Pius XI’s and the statements of American prelates mentioned above suggest that the “Catholic view” on economic issues is identical to the liberal democratic view and that Democrats are correct in presenting themselves as friends of the poor and Republicans as lacking in compassion. Both beliefs are mistaken, and by promoting them the bishops are not only alienating informed laity but perpetuating harmful governmental policies and obstructing meaningful efforts to help the poor. I submit that to restore their own credibility and to provide the genuine leadership their congregants and the country need, the bishops should consider the following ideas:

Not all poverty is the fault of the rich. When the bishops speak about poverty, they sometimes imply that the poor are not responsible for their condition—that they are always sinned against and never sinning. Not even the bishops’ admirable zeal for the poor can redeem this fallacious notion.

In Third World countries, to be sure, poor people do not cause their own poverty, nor do they have the power to alleviate it. The same is arguably true of some poor people in affluent countries like the U. S. And wherever this is the case, the bishops are right in calling attention to the situation and seeking to remedy it. However, it is also true that in affluent countries some poor people are responsible for becoming poor, and an even greater number are responsible for remaining so. Because Political Correctness frowns on such a claim, further explanation is in order.

Some people in affluent societies are poor because they have chosen to neglect their educations and drop out of school, or to take drugs or drink to excess, or to commit criminal acts—in other words, their own choices make them unemployable and therefore poor. Other people manage to gain employment but soon lose it because they refuse to alter inappropriate habits and attitudes. Furthermore, when people in either of these groups become accustomed to government support, they tend to develop a sense of entitlement and dependency and become less and less inclined or able to care for themselves.

To acknowledge this reality is not to endorse the vicious stereotype that the poor are inherently lazy; it is, rather, to avoid the equally false notion that the poor are magically spared the weaknesses of human nature that afflict the rest of us. The rather obvious truth is that paternalism can erode people’s dignity and paralyze their initiative. Nor is that all. When people receive without earning, they are likely to want more and more and to become outraged when their wants are not met. The riots that occurred in Europe when financial problems caused governments to cut back citizens’ entitlements dramatically illustrate this progression.

The essential lessons to be drawn from modern efforts to overcome poverty can be summed up quite simply: Although receiving help in time of need may inspire gratitude and motivation to change one’s circumstances, receiving help indefinitely is more likely to create dependence, foster a sense of entitlement, and lead ultimately to resentment of one’s benefactors. To exclude the poor from the challenge of overcoming their poverty is to patronize and dishonor them. Therefore, wherever possible, the poor should be encouraged to seize opportunities to improve their situation, for example by completing a job training program and accepting a job, or by receiving rehabilitation services. If the poor refuse to take such initiatives, their fellow citizens should not be held responsible, through taxation or otherwise, for their support. This approach follows St. Paul’s directive, “If any will not work, neither let him eat.” A hard saying, to be sure, but one to which there is no fair alternative.

Big government doesn’t work. The principle of subsidiarity, so vital to Catholic social thought, is based on the insight that big government creates as many problems as it solves, sometimes more than it solves. The bishops should understand this reality as well as anyone because they have witnessed first hand how the continuing expansion of federal regulations has forced Catholic schools and hospitals to violate their religious beliefs in the matter of contraception and abortion.

History provides endless examples of the failure of big government. Contrast, for example, the old Soviet economy with the present economies of former Soviet states, or North versus South Korean economies, or the former Chinese economy with the current, more capitalistic one. In the case of the U.S., consider the financial crisis that resulted from governmental pressure on banks to lend money to those who could not repay, or the monumental wastefulness of subsequent efforts such as TARP and multiple “stimulus” packages, or the bungling that characterized the federal government’s effort to manage the energy industry. The fact that these initiatives were motivated by genuine concern for the poor may lessen officials’ moral culpability, but it does not diminish their negative impact on the country.

As to why big government doesn’t work, we need only recall Lord Acton’s famous observation that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” which is another way of saying that humans are imperfect and therefore vulnerable to irrationality, as well as to moral failings. The larger the government, the more expansive the egos of the people that run it, the greater their feelings of omniscience and inclination to control citizens’ lives, and the more profligate their spending of other people’s money. The bishops would do well to reflect on the reality that the stain of original sin is not removed by election to public office.

Modern trade unions do harm as well as good. Judging from their pronouncements, the American bishops (as well as a number of recent popes) see the positive aspects of unions but ignore the negative ones. Unfortunately, the latter have increased over time.

In early 20th century America, employers were denying workers fair wages and humane working conditions, and the labor movement came as a much-needed blessing. In subsequent decades, however, unions gained in power and after achieving reasonable demands began making unreasonable ones, such as preventing the dismissal of unproductive and even incompetent workers and requiring workers to join unions against their will. Eventually, unions expanded their reach from private industry to the public sector, where their demands have not infrequently placed a heavy burden on taxpayers and brought entire states to the brink of bankruptcy. The leaders of some large unions have also used members’ dues (without their approval) to support political candidates and parties, a practice that is unfair to workers and has led to the corruption of elected officials.

The bishops should denounce the unions’ unreasonable demands on employers and corrupting relationships with politicians as vigorously as they support reasonable demands and relationships. Such denunciations would in no way deny the value of unions; they would simply emphasize that moral law applies to workers and their representatives as well as to employers. The bishops should continue to encourage the formation of unions where they do not exist and where management is treating workers unjustly, not only in the U. S., but also and more urgently in the Third World. However, the bishops should cease urging the involvement of American unions in Third World countries because that represents a conflict of interest. Instead, they should urge the formation of independent unions to represent exclusively Third World workers.

Helping the poor is a requirement of charity rather than of justice. This was a central insight of Rerum Novarum. Other important insights, as noted earlier, include that “the first and most fundamental principle” to be honored in fighting poverty is “the inviolability of private property”; that “neither justice nor the common good allows” taking property from some and giving it to others; and that in the battle against poverty, people’s means should not be “drained and exhausted by excessive taxation.” The wisdom of these insights is attested by the fact that they are as relevant to our time as they were to the late 19th century.

If succeeding popes and the U.S. bishops had faithfully applied Pope Leo’s insights, they would have been no less outspoken about treating the poor with compassion and generosity. (Leo, after all, emphasized that charity is a moral obligation binding on everyone.) But they would have focused on the generosity of individuals, singly and in charitable associations such as Catholic Relief Services and the Salvation Army, rather than on governmental largesse. This focus, which complements the principle of subsidiarity, would have led them to oppose both expanding the list of presumed rights and making government their guarantor. Accordingly, it would have helped prevent the excesses of “Great Society” programs, the spread of an entitlement mentality, the efforts to have the government “redistribute” wealth, the assaults on the right of private property, and the promotion of class envy that underlies all these initiatives.

It is ironic that as distinguished a group of spiritual leaders as the American Catholic bishops have generally failed to denounce class envy as a sin against the tenth Commandment. That mistake can be remedied, of course, and thoughtful reflection on Pope Leo’s insights can be the catalyst for doing so. 

Third World poverty cannot be solved by transferring money or goods between governments. The existing system of foreign aid, which the bishops generally endorse, consists essentially of governments of rich nations giving large sums of money or goods to governments of poor nations to provide food, clothing, and shelter to those in need. One problem with this approach is that it usually provides only temporary relief and leaves deeper, more systemic problems unaddressed. Another, more glaring problem is that the governments of poor nations are often corrupt, so the money goes into the bank accounts of the government leaders and their friends rather than to the poor. And where food or clothing is given, it often does not reach the poor; instead, officials sell it elsewhere and pocket the money.

Because he held that the right to private property is inviolable, Pope Leo XIII urged governments to create policies that foster all people to become property owners, reasoning that “if working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the consequence will be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over, and the respective classes will be brought nearer to one another.”

Contemporary economic research has proved Pope Leo prescient. A number of scholars agree that the key to overcoming poverty lies in establishing property ownership as a fundamental right, as well as in freeing the poor from corrupt governments that misuse their office for personal gain and prevent the poor from improving their lives. Among those scholars are British International law consultant Brian Risman, who cites as evidence the economic advancement of  Japan, China, and India; Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, author of The Mystery of Capitalism; Enterprise Africa researcher Karol Boudreaux, author of Empowering the Poor Through Property Rights; and South African political economist Moeletsi Mbeki, who also argues for the importance of free trade in the war against poverty.

The challenge of establishing property rights, honest representative government, and free trade in Third World countries may be the most fundamental one, but there are other important challenges in a variety of areas, including education, sanitation, health care, agriculture, transportation, and industrial development. The bishops should call attention to these challenges and encourage not the federal government but smaller agencies and individuals to address them in the name of charity.

In sum, U.S. bishops have adopted a view of social justice that is both oversimplified and at odds with certain core insights in Pope Leo XIII’s remarkable encyclical Rerum Novarum. A wiser view of social justice is that individuals do not have an equal right to the goods of the world but have, instead, an equal right to pursue those goods. In this view, inequity exists when individuals are denied the opportunity to pursue the goods but not when they fail to take advantage of the opportunity. In the latter case, the individuals themselves are at fault and have no claim in justice for others to bear the burden of their irresponsibility. The government’s main responsibility is to ensure that no one is denied the opportunity to pursue the goods of the world but not to guarantee equality of distribution. Individuals, on the other hand, have a dual obligation—to do nothing to prevent others from the legitimate pursuit of goods and, as the gospel emphatically demands, to practice compassion and charity toward their neighbors.

I submit that by embracing this wiser perspective the U. S. bishops and their counterparts around the world would provide their followers with more meaningful leadership, regain their confidence, and inspire them and all caring people to seek genuine and lasting social justice.

Copyright © 2013 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero