Sunday, August 8, 2010

One more though on voluntary poverty

I mentioned earlier than there may be good arguments for voluntary poverty, I do feel obliged to point out that one that is still fairly common in Christian circles is just a pile of pure, steaming crap.

I mean the social justice argument that it is wrong to be rich while others are poor or, in the more extreme versions that even in a society like ours where there is virtually no one without means it is damaging to have large disparity in incomes. This argument is based on simple ignorance of economics and is not a good argument for voluntary poverty. In a society of scarcity, we could reasonably say, as John the Baptist did, that anyone with two coats should give one away. And if you want to give your coat to someone please go right ahead. But if you think that giving your wealth away is going to reduce poverty and suffering, you're just wrong. It won't make any  significant difference at all.

Even worse is the argument that takes Christ's message as providing justification for taxing someone else's wealth away to eliminate poverty. (I won't name names but one very prominent Catholic politician seems to think their faith justifies this.) 


  1. The Social Teaching of the Church is based almost entirely on Leo XIII's landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum in the late 1800s, which was later reaffirmed by Pius XI in Quadrogessimo Anno written in 1931. Other popes since then have re-affirmed them, and no Pope since then has ever refuted them either directly or indirectly. Some of the key points are an equitable distribution of wealth, that capital is in the service of the family and not the other way around, workers' right to organize, a living wage, access to adequate medical care (this is in the late 1800s and later in 1931). Leo rejects collectivist means to acheive these ends, and also rejects unfettered laissez-faire capitalism.

  2. Yup, you are right.

    I think, however, that the church would do well to revisit the issues. I don't see it happening any time soon.

  3. No, I don't either. Especially when you consider the USCCB's Pastoral Letter on the Economy in 1985, and even Benedict's encyclical last year. The issues are so much more complex today than they were in Leo's time, I don't think anyone knows anymore how to achieve a just economic system or what it would look like.

  4. But going back to giving your extra coat to someone not making a significant difference, I think it would make a significant difference in the winter if the person who receives it doesn't have a coat. This is what infuriated some people about Mother Teresa. They felt that with her high profile she could have done more on a systemic level to help the poor of Calcutta. Her view was that she was helping one person at a time and making a difference that way. I wondered at times if she couldn't have done more systemically to improve conditions in Calcutta, but I think maybe she was right. I can't change the system, but I can help one person at a time as the opportunities present themselves. And maybe that's all we're called to do, which is no small task.

  5. Yes, giving your coat to another person who needs it can make a huge difference in their life and I wouldn't want to put a stumbling block in the way of anyone inclined to make such a sacrifice.

    My point was narrower than that. That is that the argument that giving will achieve some sort of social justice.

  6. Well, its a little like the myth of Sisyphus, who pushed the boulder up the mountain and just as he's about to get to the top it slides back down and he has to start all over again. I think we have to wait until the Eschaton to see real social justice. So what do we do in the meantime?