A lot of “experts” are getting bent out of shape over pretty much anything Pope Francis says these days. Take, for instance, his answer to somebody’s question as to whether he might retire as Pope Benedict XVI did. Pope Francis’s answer was to the effect that, sure, it’s possible. Immediately the pundits and commentators started discussing papal retirement as if it were an established fact and was scheduled for a few months from now. You see the same thing every now and then when somebody asks whether it’s possible that Queen Elizabeth II could abdicate. Sure she could. Is it likely? Hardly.
Getting back to the head of the Catholic Church and leaving the head of the Church of England to her own devices, there are, broadly speaking, two groups of Catholics who weigh in whenever Pope Francis does something of great moment, e.g., where he lives, the shoes he wears, what he has for lunch, where, and with whom — you know, all those doctrinal issues so critical to the 1.2 billion Catholics he shepherds.
Let’s call them “Group A” and “Group B,” and take a look at their reaction to, say, Pope Francis’s call for redistribution. The labels liberal v. conservative, even orthodox v. heterodox don’t really mean anything. This is because from an Aristotelian-Thomist perspective, they’re all off-base to some degree.
Those in Group A claim that Pope Francis’s call for redistribution couldn’t possibly be a solution to the growing wealth and income gap. He would bankrupt the world, and everybody would be worse off than before . . . if they managed to survive the war that would follow.
Those in Group B claim that only redistribution is the solution to the growing wealth and income gap . . . and everything else, for that matter. Once the State redistributes, all problems will be solved. Just as they were in the Soviet Union and China. North Korea? Cambodia? After all, private individuals cannot be trusted to do the right thing, especially as other people define it for them.
Okay, it’s time for a reality check. The fact is that if you look carefully at Catholic social teaching, instead of just cherry picking to see if you can find what you most fear or hope for, you will see something that all the “experts” seem to be missing. They’ll see that people in both Group A and Group B are partly in the right, all the while managing to be completely in the wrong.
The simple fact is that a lot of commentators don’t realize that Catholic social doctrine has two basic parts, only one of which is, strictly speaking, social. As Leo XIII explained in Rerum Novarum, there is a double task involved when the social order is badly structured and in need of reform. These can be stated briefly as:
1. Take care of individual needs now. This is charity, and must be voluntary, or it is not truly charity.
2. Organize to reform the system so that the causes of the problems are removed. This is social justice. Social justice is the particular virtue directed at the institutions of the common good, not to any individual good.
There is a permitted exception to addressing the problem of meeting individual needs with charity, which Pope Leo XIII noted in § 22 of Rerum Novarum. When the situation is such that individual charity can’t or won’t handle a situation, then the State may levy additional taxes to redistribute a measure of wealth to keep people alive in a manner befitting the demands of human dignity until the “extreme case” passes.
It is important to note that redistribution of existing wealth by the State is neither charity nor social justice. It gets “filed” under “distributive justice” by default, since it is action by the State. This, however, creates confusion, as it makes it sound as if “distributive justice” is based on need, not proportionality of inputs.
State redistribution is something that (in my opinion) is justified under the “principle of double effect.” The principle of double effect is an ethical doctrine that originates in Aquinas’s analysis of a killing in self-defense in the Summa Theologica.
We won’t get into self-defense, but content ourselves with summarizing the principle. The principle of double effect applies when carrying out an act that is ordinarily either good or morally indifferent, but which has bad “side effects.” For example, surgery causes pain and endangers the patient’s life, but the intent, to repair or remove a diseased or injured organ, is good; surgery itself is morally neutral.
For an act to be morally licit (i.e., “allowed”) under the principle of double effect, four conditions must be met:
1. The act must either be good or morally indifferent, i.e., the act cannot be inherently or objective evil in and of itself.
2. The bad side effect must not be the means by which the good effect is achieved (i.e., it must be an actual side effect).
3. The good effect must be what is intended. The bad side effect must be unintended. (This isn’t exactly the same as #2.)
4. The good effect must be at least as significant or important as the bad effect; i.e., the good must either equal or surpass the bad.
In social justice, as we saw above, there is a fifth condition: we cannot allow the cause(s) that forced such a choice on us to remain. We have the duty to organize in social justice to restructure the institutions of the social order that were causing, or allowing others to cause, the situation that forced us to choose something bad.