Catholic Social Teaching – What Catholics need to know before voting (Part 3)
6. Economic Justice
This topic is of great interest for the United States, since John Paul II and the Church have been quite critical of the US economy. We will explore here the main aspects of Catholic Social Teaching in regards to economic justice.
The economy must serve people and not the other way around. Every person has a right to productive work, decent and fair wages, and to safe working conditions:
“Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless… wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.” (Rerum Novarum, 45).
Workers also have a right to join and organize unions:
“They were the means of affording not only many advantages to the workmen, but in no small degree of promoting the advancement of art, as numerous monuments remain to bear witness. Such unions should be suited to the requirements of this our age – an age of wider education, of different habits, and of far more numerous requirements in daily life.” (Rerum Novarum, 49)
At the same time, in accordance with the law of nature, workers have a right to private property with appropriate limits:
“The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property. For God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races.” (Rerum Novarum, 8).
The Church opposes accumulation of wealth when others lack the basic necessities of life: “…there is a better understanding today that the mere accumulation of goods and services, even for the benefit of the majority, is not enough for the realization of human happiness.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 28)
John Paul II expressed strong opposition of superdevelopment, which results from a mere production of goods and leads to waste while many others around the world can not afford essential human provisions. This lack of universal solidarity is called “consumerism” and very much applies to the United States. The late Pope in his own words condemns such principle:
“…with the miseries of underdevelopment, themselves unacceptable, we find ourselves up against a form of superdevelopment, equally inadmissible. Because like the former it is contrary to what is good and to true happiness. This super-development, which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of “possession” and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better. This is the so-called civilization of “consumption” or ” consumerism ,” which involves so much “throwing-away” and “waste.” An object already owned but now superseded by something better is discarded, with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, nor of some other human being who is poorer.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 28)
The Church is against a socialist model of economy, because it does not allow the workers to dispose of their income as they desire for their benefit and their families’:
“Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.” (Rerum Novarum, 5)
It may surprise many, but the Church rejects the notion that a free market automatically produces justice. The Church acknowledges that competition and free markets are useful elements of economic systems, but these markets must be kept within limits established by law, otherwise it leads to individualism:
“The easy gains that a market unrestricted by any law opens to everybody attracts large numbers to buying and selling goods, and they, their one aim being to make quick profits with the least expenditure of work, raise or lower prices by their uncontrolled business dealings so rapidly according to their own caprice and greed that they nullify the wisest forecasts of producers.” (Quadragesimo Anno, 132)
“Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching.” (Quadragesimo Anno, 88)
(Part 4: Stewardship of God’s Creation, Promotion of Peace and Disarmament, Participation, and Global Solidarity and Development)