It is not uncommon these days to hear certain notions regarding the nature of property and theft bandied about in Catholic neoconservative circles. This is most common especially during election cycles. You know, the ones that essentially transform Catholicism into a justification for privatization, neoliberalism, and so on. These notions usually consist of relegating the common good of society to only defense and private property protection. These arguments, in effect at least (and in theory on some occasions), advocate for the dismantling of the welfare state and the actively intervening state.
And these arguments, while sounding very respectable and superficially Christian, stem from a fundamentally flawed notion of tradition and of the proper role of the state. The problem with these arguments is not, I should add, that these arguments are without precedent in a tradition. But rather, that these “Catholic Whigs” (a term which theologian Michael Novak uses to describe himself) conflate the Americanist-Liberal tradition with the Catholic political tradition. The fruits of this dangerous conflation have allowed for a pseudo-religious justification of a multitude of systemic injustices. Consequently, this conflation has allowed for many Catholics to defend an alliance with the GOP and their platform, not just as a temporary alliance, but also as an ideal one.
My reasons for this article are dual. First, my goal is not to simply repeat the claims of certain secular supporters of the welfare state with an added religions veneer, but to argue that welfare and the notion of a welfare state can be justified on explicitly Catholic grounds. My secondary reason is to prove that an alliance with the GOP (an alliance best exemplified by Michael Novak) is not only dangerous but also detrimental to the progress of Catholic social thought.1 (I should add that this is not a condemnation of all alliances stemming from necessity. Only that some alliances are more fruitful than others.)
The primary and most popular argument against the welfare state is what I call the argument from charity. This argument is twofold. First, it states that welfare distorts the natural end of charity by the use of coercion, thus devaluing charity. Secondly, the argument claims that welfare disincentivizes personal charity, and thus, does not encourage virtue. This argument is usually concluded by some claim that one cannot “legislate morality,” or something similar.
The first flaw in the above argument comes from a disordered conception of freedom. That is to say, a conception of freedom that is inherently negative. Or, to put it in better terms, freedom defined as ‘lack of’ or ‘freedom from something,’ in this case, ‘freedom from coercion.’ While this definition of freedom is not entirely wrong, it is disordered insofar as it makes freedom itself the end of a polity.
Secondly, this argument makes an unnecessary division between virtue and law by relegating the function of law to something that should only privately “allow” virtue instead of actively encouraging it. Yet, we know from Aquinas that law does not exist in a purely negative way, on the contrary, the function of law is positive insofar as it exists to actively “lead its subjects to their proper virtue.”2
The last and third flaw in this argument is the assumption that the purpose of a welfare state is to “replace” charity in some way or another. This misunderstanding arises out of a view of charity which is devoid of justice. In matters of economics, caritas is not sufficient, what is needed is justice. Hence, for Benedict XVI, justice is not “extraneous to charity”3 but in actuality is “inseparable from charity.”4 Furthermore, according to the 13th century theologian Albertus Magnus, it is “the duty of the legislator to arrange everything for the best advantage of the citizens.”5 Thus, this argument fails because it rests upon a denial of the integral connection between both concepts.
After all of this, one may ask the question: in what way is the economic welfare of people within a polis demanded by justice? I believe that one can answer this question by examining the definition of distributive justice. Distributive justice, as defined by Aquinas, is “the order of that which belongs to the community in relation to each single person.”6 Later on, Aquinas states that in distributive justice “a person receives all the more of the common goods, according as he holds a more prominent position in the community.7 Aquinas continues by saying that: “prominence in an aristocratic community is gauged according to virtue, in an oligarchy according to wealth, in a democracy according to liberty, and in various ways according to various forms of community.”8 Thus, the mode of equitable distribution is connected specifically to the mode of governance within that community. Finally, because economic matters do not function outside of society, one can safely include them within the domain of distributive justice.
Taken by itself, the notion of distributive justice is useless for what is being argued for in this article. What is needed is to examine the relationship between Aquinas’s theory of property and his notion of justice. There are two aspects of this relationship that we should examine. The first is that for St. Thomas Aquinas, private property is not a pre-political institution. In fact, what is “pre-political” is the “commonness” of the earth. That is to say, the earth is “common” in the sense that a division of possessions is not mandated by natural law. The institution of private property then, for Aquinas, arises out of “human agreement.”9 This is what is commonly referred to as the ‘social function of private property.’
The second aspect is this: property as an institution is an addition to natural law. That is not to say that natural law changes, only that private property was “devised by human reason for the benefit of human life.”10 Thus, private property is under positive law. To put it in other terms, property is not natural in the sense that it is mandated by natural law, yet it is natural insofar as it arises out of real human inclinations towards best distributing goods. Thus, it does not seem that far off base when Marx states that, “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”11 Meaning that: it is man’s reason which responds to the social problems which history presents to him. Man does not solely create these institutions (such as property.) They emerge out of a dual process between man’s reason and the concrete social problems that face him.
Thus, arguments against the welfare state that are based upon some absolutist theory of the institution of property seem to fail. We know that institutions adjust to certain historical conditions: proof of this is the fact Aquinas includes slavery as something that is devised by reason for the ‘benefit of human life.’ Yet, we know that slavery does not benefit human life. Thus we can state that all human institutions (including property) develop over time so as to adjust themselves more closely to what is demanded by natural law. Hence, by Aquinas making private property a function of Man’s reason, he was, in his own way, recognizing the historicity of private property.
I would like to conclude this article by saying that I myself have no particular attachment to the welfare state as a ‘political ideal.’ I personally believe that any reforming of the bourgeois state is doomed to be inherently temporary. Nonetheless, my reason for writing this article is to provide a practical defense of the welfare/social democratic state in the face of the encroaching neoliberalism manifesting itself in both faith and political society.
1 Novak, Michael. 1998. “Liberal Ideology, An Eternal No; Liberal Institutions, A Temporal Yes? And Further Questions.” The Review of Politics 60 (4): 765–74.
2 ST I-II, Q. 92, Art. 1, ad. 1.
3 Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 6.
5 In Politicis, ii. 2, p. 70 (legislatoris hoc opus est proprium: legislator enim habet omnia ordinare ad optimam dispositionem civium.)
6 ST II-II, Q. 61, Art. 1, ad. 1.
7 ST II-II, Q. 61, Art. 2, ad. 1.
9 ST II-II, Q. 66, Art. 2, ad. 1.
10 ST I-II, Q. 94, Art. 5, ad. 1.
11 Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977.
Albrecht Bastian is a freelance writer.