Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just get along? We could share all our stuff. You know, you could borrow my cashmere sweater that I saved up for, and I could borrow your Che Guevara t-shirt you got at in the dollar bin at the local flea market. Isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do?
John Zmirak thinks otherwise. At The Stream, Zmirak takes on those Christians who have a warm, fuzzy spot in their misguided hearts for what he calls “friendly fascism.” He reflects on Elizabeth Stoker-Bruenig’s latest piece in the New Republic, in which she scolds conservatives for “fighting” Pope Francis’ attempts to open the Church up to new economic ways of thinking.
She credits her discovery of Catholicism to the influence of a priest who called himself a “Christian socialist.” You remember socialism — the ideology that was denounced by Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI even before its most orthodox forms claimed the lives of some 94 million people. It’s the system which still governs North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela, and in more diluted versions is slowly poisoning Western Europe.
Bruenig argues that we have a right to private property ONLY after the needs of every single person have been equally met – and says she’s right, because theologians like Ambrose, Augustine, and Saint John Chrysostom back her up. Zmirak:
On Bruenig’s account, Leo XIII’s encyclical — and every defense of private property rights from the Ten Commandments to Thomas Aquinas — is irrelevant. If “all” human needs (presumably everywhere on earth) have not been met, then private property simply doesn’t exist. The comparatively wealthy have not obtained it by “labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in … mode of life.” No, they have stolen their surplus from the poor.
So unless you are reading on a borrowed phone in a refugee camp, you too are one of the thieves. Could this possibly be what Christianity teaches about economics?
Zmirak argues that one does not need to seek out theological backing on this; rather, one needs to be familiar with natural law, of which economics is a part.
We are obliged to learn all we can about the “how” of economics, before arguing about what should be the case. The grimy, bloody history of socialism is one long empirical lesson in the human costs of working backwards from what you wistfully hope for, to a theory of how things actually work.
Property rights are real. We have the right to work for and own things. As Christians, we are also obligated – by faith, not law – to care for the needy, but not to the point of sharing all we have equally with everyone we meet. No earthly law can force us to do this without running askance of natural law. Of course, the same goes for Christians who refuse to care for the needy:
Beyond ourselves and our families, we are called to invest our wealth in ways that create productive opportunities for others. We should also feel obliged as Christians — not compelled as obedient citizens — to provide for those who cannot help themselves. The penalty if we don’t is not federal prison but perdition. Giving to the poor is a command of faith, binding on those who believe, and we cannot fulfill it by voting to raise our own taxes — or those of our wealthier neighbors, whom we view with an envious eye.
In Becoming Europe, Samuel Gregg examines economic culture - the values and institutions that inform our economic priorities - to explain how European economic life has drifted in the direction of what Alexis de Tocqueville called "soft despotism", and the ways in which similar trends are manifesting themselves in the United States.