Government redistribution of wealth
As I explained here yesterday, the Church teaches that possessing excess wealth is theft, regardless of how someone obtained that wealth.
Therefore, giving away excess wealth is an act of justice, not an act of charity. Charity does not apply until someone is giving from their need rather than their surplus. As the Catechism says, “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity” (CCC 2446).
At this point, I want to talk about the role of the government in regulating wealth. First, it is worth noting that the Church does not have a negative view of the state, as if government is a necessary evil. Rather, the Church recognizes that government is both inherent to human nature and ordered toward the common good (CSDC 384).
Now, regarding the use, or misuse, of private property, the Church also sees the state as having a necessary role. The Catechism teaches, “Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good” (CCC 2406).
Further, this regulation of the right to ownership includes the redistribution of property. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says, “Authentic economic well-being is pursued also by means of suitable social policies for the redistribution of income which, taking general conditions into account, look at merit as well as at the need of each citizen” (CSDC 303).
Pope Benedict XVI affirms this teaching saying that “Economic life…also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics” and he goes on to say that the state needs to intervene into civil society “for purposes of redistribution” in order for society to regulate itself (Caritas in Veritate 37 and 39).
In addition, if it is not clear already, should the state regulate the use of property in order to redistribute the resources of a society, it is the excessively wealthy, and only the excessively wealthy, who should be targeted. Pope Pius XI states:
“It must likewise be the special care of the State to create those material conditions of life without which an orderly society cannot exist…To achieve this end demanded by the pressing needs of the common welfare, the wealthy classes must be induced to assume those burdens without which human society cannot be saved nor they themselves remain secure. However, measures taken by the State with this end in view ought to be of such a nature that they will really affect those who actually possess more than their share of capital resources, and who continue to accumulate them to the grievous detriment of others” (Divini Redemptoris 75).
In other words, the government not only has the authority, but also the duty, to limit and regulate the use of private property, even if this means redistributing that property in order to meet the needs of the poor and promote the common good.
Further, Pope Pius XI says that this kind of regulation not only strengthens and safeguards the right to private property, but it is also a “friendly service” for property owners. Referencing Pope Leo XIII, Pope Pius XI states:
“Wherefore the wise Pontiff declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. “For since the right of possessing goods privately has been conferred not by man’s law, but by nature, public authority cannot abolish it, but can only control its exercise and bring it into conformity with the common weal.” Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them” (Quadragesimo Anno 49).
So on one hand the Church unapologetically values and promotes the right to private property. On the other hand, the Church recognizes that it is the duty of the government to help ensure that private property is being used justly, even if that means redistributing that property.
This is a difficult teaching, especially for Catholics steeped in an American capitalist culture that’s suspicious of the government. But there it stands, demanding our attention and inviting our assent.
Giving to the poor is both a work of justice and a work of charity. (See ccc 2447 for example.) They aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.