Most official Church documents present an admixture of Gospel teachings, interpretations of facts, and pious platitudes. Thoughtful and faithful Catholics accept authoritative Catholic principles, consider the facts and logic of prudential arguments to agree or disagree, and endure the clichés. Every so often, churchmen urge a “preferential option for the poor.” But what does the slogan mean?
Implicit in the Commandments is the right to private property. The Seventh Commandment is "thou shalt not steal" and the Tenth Commandment is “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods.” It is impossible to reconcile the total elimination of private property in favor of state ownership with the Ten Commandments. But the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard teaches that an employer, in justice, should pay each worker a just wage.
Further, the right to private property is not absolute. If there is a dangerous conflict, the right to life takes precedence over the right of property ownership. So governments have the right to reasonable taxation, property easements, and the like. Nevertheless, unreasonable taxation and some seizures of private property could be forms of theft. How do we know the difference? A careful analysis of the facts that goes beyond sloganeering is critical to determine whether governments serve the common good or violate the Seventh Commandment.
The last century reveals that the free market is the most effective and efficient means to combat poverty on a large scale, today lifting billions of people from poverty. The government plays the referee, applying and enforcing just laws, protecting against fraud and theft in the marketplace. But sometimes the free market fails or cannot address certain chronic conditions.
Material poverty has economic, sociological, psychological, physical health, and spiritual roots. A child growing up with abusive and drug-addicted parents may develop the same pathologies. Addressing and “solving” poverty of this kind is extremely difficult. But various charitable groups and government agencies try.
Jesus reminds us: “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them….” (Mark 14:7) So a good society does not neglect the poor. Material poverty is a shortage of adequate food and funds to sustain a reasonable standard of living. Hence, we “fight poverty” by devising methods to bridge that gap, transferring sufficient funds, food, or services to those in need. Indeed, we have an obligation in justice to care for the poor from our surplus wealth.
We might begin by encouraging parents to bear many children and bring them up to appreciate the beauty of serving the poor with compassion, with some serving Christ as religious brothers and sisters. In the meantime, we rely on charitable groups (including church ministries) to feed or otherwise assist the poor. Many government agencies do the same.
In matters of public policy, the questions we must answer are: Is there a moral obligation for the government to infringe on the right to private property to remedy social ills (from traffic congestion to poverty)? How does the program work? Does it comply with civil laws? How do we measure its effectiveness?
Governments sometimes go beyond their power to impose taxes to “fight poverty.” For example, forty years ago, land reform in Latin America became a policy imperative for many politicians in the United States and Latin America. Many argued that the big landowners exploited the poor for profit and reduced them to virtual slavery. But if the government confiscated the property -- and distributed it to the poor – many thought this “private” ownership would incentivize productivity and lift them out of poverty. Many Church authorities also supported so-called land reform as an expression of a “preferential option for the poor.” But the scheme didn’t work.
When the government stripped the big landowners of their property, the government distributed the respective property allotments to the peasants who had worked there. Appearances to the contrary, the new “owners” were only nominal landowners with little right to the property, aside from a piece of paper issued by the government. By law, they could not sell the property (preventing them from cashing in and returning to their initial property-less “victim” status).
The new “owners” also didn’t have any experience in private ownership. So the ever-expanding government bureaucracy became the new landlord, micromanaging the business activities of the nominal “owners.” The results? Higher costs, less production, continued poverty. In this fallen world, the rigors of the profit motive are usually more reliable than the zeal of bureaucracies in economic success. Hence, government-run companies always cost more and produce less.
In effect, land reform effectively transferred property ownership from private individuals to government bureaucracies. The peasants now worked for an inefficient bureaucracy that had little interest in the machinery of economic success and the expansion of wealth: profits and healthy rates of return on investment. The “preferential option for the poor” effectively became the preferential option for government bureaucracies. Helping the poor was illusory.
A retired government official familiar with the many failures of “land reform” in Latin America tells this story: In El Salvador, the owner of one of the large, expropriated farms had been a longtime cattle breeder. He had a prize bull that had won in shows from Colombia to Panama. The beast was in the prime of his life, siring hundreds of calves a year, bringing in tens of thousands of dollars a month. When the new “owners” took over, they had a party. How should they celebrate?
They ate him. (The story sounds apocryphal, but the source insists the account is correct!)
The account is a worthy parable for the folly – and evil -- of most government economic confiscations. We can argue the facts. But here is a Catholic principle worth pondering: “Socialism, if it remains truly socialism…cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.” (Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, May 15, 1931, n. 117) Call it a preferential option for common sense.
Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Va.