Leo XIII: “Taxing the Rich Does Not Help the Poor” | Crisis Magazine


In Quod Apostolici Muneris (1878), Pope Leo XIII deplores those who “under the motley and all but barbarous terms and titles of Socialists, Communists, and Nihilists, are spread abroad throughout the world,” striving in alliance for “the purpose long resolved upon, of uprooting the foundations of civil society at large.” It may sound odd to our ears, that socialists, whose prescriptions for society are many and comprehensive, should be united with nihilists, who by definition believe in nothing. But Pope Leo, beginning as always from a rich view of human nature grounded in reason and elevated by relevation, sees the alliance we miss—and by implication he includes as well the fellow traveler, secular liberalism, friendlier to the free market but ultimately also an enemy to man.

How so? In this essay I will focus on two of the evils Leo discusses in his letter. The first is the denial of the body; the second, the severance of human law from divine law, effacing in citizens the sense of moral obligation. We obey such human laws because it is to our advantage, narrowly and materially conceived, to do so, not because it is right and just.

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Were Early Christians Socialists, Marxists or Communists?

In Acts 4:32-35 we see the early Christians experiment with a form of community that greatly resembles socialism or communism: selling their land and possessions and laying the proceeds at the feet of the apostles for distribution among the people. One might easily surmise that this is proof that the Church favors this type of government and finds that private property and private ownership is opposed to Christian values. It is the furthest thing from the truth.

However, it seems much more akin to the structure of many modern monasteries or convents where the people abandon their worldly goods and take a vow of poverty, receiving from their superiors and stewards of the goods, only what is needed. It is a way to free one from the concerns of the world so that one might have complete focus on the real purpose of life: serving God.

Though the text does not state it, I would imagine that the state of mind of these followers was not much different than those who take religious vows of poverty; seeing all worldly possessions and gains as gifts from God and therefore the real ownership belonged to God alone. Their possessions then become no more than things that were entrusted to their safe-keeping so that God’s chosen leaders might best utilize these gifts to care for the community without them becoming focused on the worldly. It is a way to heed the warning that we cannot serve two masters (Mt. 6:24, Lk. 16:13). Obviously, this idea would not work well for an entire country as everyone would have to be of the same mind. Therefore this idea was abandoned rather quickly as a general way of life but preserved in religious orders where nuns and monks take vows of poverty to serve God and man. They leave far behind their ambitions to acquire worldly fame, power, riches or honor.

If this is true, then the belief that all goods come from God and are His to distribute is very distinct from the ideals of Socialism, Marxism or Communism. Beside the completely sectarian, and might I say obvious disdain for religion that these ideologies bear in common, they also have a differing view of who owns the fruit of their labors.

In socialism, one believes that the government owns our production and can redistribute these goods or money to those who need it. The ‘takers’ live off the ‘makers’. Many feel entitled to these benefits and have no shame in taking whatever they can get. In fact, they continually push for more and more goods that they feel are owed them and eventually comes a day of reckoning when there is not enough money from the working people to support their increasing greed for handouts. The system collapses on itself.

In Marxism as notably expressed through the National Socialist (the Nazis), the government desires to take over all industries deigned to be essential to the well being of the collective; banks, armaments, steel production, food production, health care, education and the like. They would likewise distribute goods to those who were loyal party members and those who produced the most good for their state.

Communism, on the other hand, regarded all production and wealth as owned equally by all (though the elites would always get a bit more). When you are no longer producing, you are no longer a valuable member of society and would be considered expendable.

All three systems strive for strong government controls and have a vested interest in eliminating all opposing viewpoints from the arena of ideas. Free speech is destroyed and controlled by the state to further their agenda.

So the difference between a system that considers that God is the source of all good and of all the fruit of our labor is diametrically opposed to a Godless system that views everything as the bounty of the state or collective. These systems are into exercising control of everyone and everything. There is a huge philosophical and theological difference between the voluntary surrender of goods for love of God and man and the abolishing of private property rites and the confiscation of wealth. These forms of government see always to rely on taking from the haves by the government and distributing these goods in any way they see fit – especially for the benefit of the collective. A religious vow of poverty is founded upon the sound virtues of love of God and neighbor while the other secular ideologies are founded upon the sins of power, envy and greed. The Church views people with true compassion while these ideologies view their subjects as faceless masses to be controlled and cajoled into producing what the state needs or wants. The collective always seems more important than the individual or personal freedom.

It is no wonder then that the Catholic Church’s Popes have a long history of opposing these socialist style doctrines: Encyclical Nostis et Nobiscum by Pius IX, Encyclicals Diuturnum, Humanum Genus, Quod Apostolici Muneris, Libertas Praestantissimum and Graves de Communi Re by Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Notre Charge Apostolique Mandate by Saint Pius X, Encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum by Benedict XV, Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, by Pius XI, Encyclical Summi Pontificatis, by Pius XII, Encyclicals Mater et Magistra, by John XXIII, Centessimus Annus, by John Paul II, Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, by Benedict XVI. All of these decry the dangers of socialism and these other ideological systems. I find it very disturbing that even among Catholics, socialism is now being viewed as a benign and perhaps even a social good that we should embrace. They somehow find it a very caring system and think that they are in agreement with the Social Justice teachings of the Church. However, social justice in the Catholic Church respects private property and stresses charity for the poor and disadvantaged but makes it a personal and Christian endeavor to take care of our poor and does not find it necessary to relegate charity to an all powerful government.

Before we let our emotions trump common sense and before we start idealizing socialist systems we should take time to read some of the above wisdom from our popes, past and present, and realize the dangers these forms of government pose to personal freedom and especially to religious liberty.

Once you do, you may want to get involved in the Fortnight for Freedom effort by our Church leaders in the US by visiting the USCCB website and seeing what you can do to preserve religious liberty in America. It is a fight worth your effort.