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Justice For The Poor: Chesterton and Catholic Social Teaching

Magnificat by Daniel W. Erlander

Catholic Social Teaching really does not have a lot of nuance to it. It basically boils down to one thing: justice for the poor.

The Church has always emphasized the corporal works of mercy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, tending to the sick, and so on, but as important as those things are, this is not what Catholic Social Teaching is about. It is not about mercy, it is about justice.

There is a distinction between justice and mercy, which is perhaps best summed up in a line from G. K. Chesterton: “Children are innocent and love justice; while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”

With mercy, the emphasis is about not giving the guilty what they do deserve.

When we recite the Magnificat, the beautiful prayer of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we are describing a vision of social justice:

“He hath put down the mighty from their seat,

and hath exalted the humble.”

As G. K. Chesterton points out, every social revolution in history has failed solely because it could only fulfill only half of the revolutionary maxim of the Magnificat: there have indeed been times when the Mighty have been deposed from their seats, but no revolution has ever yet achieved the sequel lifting up the humble.

The Catholic Church has worked to achieve this without something so drastic as a revolution, but with teaching and applying the Gospel and transforming lives. The Church wants to help create a just society, and one of the basic elements is that those who work are entitled to enjoy the fruits of their labor. And interestingly enough, the Church has recognized that this has especially been a problem in modern society, where a large segment of the population is not fairly benefitting from their own work.

The first encyclical on Catholic Social Teaching was issued in the midst of the industrial revolution, just before the dawn of the 20th century, by Pope Leo XIII. In Rerum Novarum he argued that in a just society, as many as possible should be owners.

Ownership is an ideal. “Thou shalt not steal” would not be one of the commandments if ownership were not an ideal. Just as “thou shalt not commit adultery” would not be a commandment if marriage were not an ideal. “Thou shalt not kill” would not be a commandment if life were not an ideal. “Thou shalt not bear false witness” would not be a commandment if truth were not an ideal.

So Property is an ideal. Ownership is an ideal. Pope Leo XIII recognized that this ideal was not being acknowledged in the modern world. The reason why ownership is important is that it provides independence and protects that basic unit of society, the family.

This basic principle has been reaffirmed by all of the social encyclicals issued by the popes from Leo XIII to Pope Benedict XVI.

G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc and others took Pope Leo XIII’s teaching and developed a social and economic idea known as Distributism. It differs from both Socialism and Capitalism. The best way of explaining it is that Socialism is based on communal rights and Capitalism is based on individual rights, but Distributism is based on family rights, and the idea that a society and an economy should be to protect, nurture, and serve that primary institution consisting of a father, a mother, and children.

Distributism defends the ideal of ownership, keeping the connection between home and work rather than separating the two as the modern world has separated everything from everything else. We have seen the separation of work from home, the separation of business from morality, the separation of morality from religion, the separation of sex from birth, the separation of husband from wife.

Catholic Social Teaching tries to put a broken world back together. But the problem with the Church’s Social Teaching is that it deals with a subject that makes people very, very touchy. It is a subject that is even more personal, it seems, than sex. It is money. How we get money, how we spend it, and how we keep it or don’t keep it. Mammon, of course, is the one alternative to the true God. But even apart from the danger of worshipping money as a false god is the danger of making the economy a false king. Or a false science.

Chesterton argues that the academic economic models simply do not work. They do not They do not consider moral consequences. The Social encyclicals have affirmed this point. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict made it clear that every economic decision has moral consequences, and that we have to act with principles other than pure profit. If Capitalism is mere acquisition and accumulation, it will always provoke Communism. Big Business and Big Government are dueling giants that are chained to each other.

The Church defends the freedom to trade, to buy and sell. But rights presuppose responsibilities. Every free-dom is a potential abuse of freedom. The role of the State is to protect against the abuses. Chesterton says Government is “only an accidental and even abnormal necessity, arising from the imperfection of life. “The State cannot become a Universal Provider, or else, says Chesterton, it is just another big shop.

Taking care of the poor means more than giving hem handouts. It means creating a society that restores their dignity. The key to human dignity is liberty. There are many reasons for Chesterton’s importance – but perhaps the most over-looked is that he is a defender of liberty. It is a word that we all like the sound of, but we seldom think about what it really means. We apparently haven’t been thinking much of it in modern times, as we have watched it erode. Every time we trade freedom for security, we soon watch it become slavery. We have to start doing things for ourselves. Liberty means doing things, not having hem done for us. It is a freedom that we want everyone to enjoy. Chesterton says, “Liberty is life.” And “Heaven is symbolized by wings, and hell is symbolized by chains.”

Dale Ahlquist is President of the American Chesterton Society, chesterton.org. Reprinted from the Stillwater Catholic Worker Community Newsletter.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, Sept.-Oct. 2013.