It has been said that the great battle of our time is over the family. Yet there is much more to this battle than one may think. It is often forgotten that government policies on wages and property rights directly affect the family. The Church teaches that the “right to property is closely connected with the existence of families, which protect themselves from need thanks also to savings and to the building up of family property.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 250; see also Mater et Magistra [MM], 112; Pope Pius XII’s 1941 Pentecost radio address on the fiftieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum).
There are numerous openings for Catholics to offer an integrated proposal regarding current social and economic ills. Unfortunately, we consistently neglect to take these opportunities to proclaim Church teaching on the family, wages and property rights. I offer two recent examples.
Minimum wage and subsidiarity
The first has to do with President Biden’s plan to increase the minimum wage. His justification is based on a decidedly non-Catholic understanding of social justice and the family. In a speech in Cleveland, Biden repeated the message he gave to Congress the previous month when he said, “Congress should raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. No one — no one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty, live below the poverty level.” Furthermore, he signed Executive Order 14026 which imposes it on federal contractors.
While the minimum wage and federal anti-poverty policy seem reasonable on the surface, there are unspoken premises that contradict the Catholic understanding of what it means to be a human person. First, as discussed in my previous article, “The Great Reset, Catholic Style”, there are better ways of adjusting income to meet distributive justice that don’t violate the principle of subsidiarity.
The minimum wage is out of step with the Catholic understanding of the universal destination of goods. The universal destination of goods is very nuanced, but suffice it to say that it addresses whether people have enough economic resources to fulfill their vocation in this world (Gen 1:28-29; Gaudium et Spes [GS], 69; Compendium, 172). The goal is not to redistribute income by increasing wages at the expense of profits, other suppliers, and higher prices, but to ensure that all have the resources they need for human flourishing.
Wages are one way, albeit the most important way, to make economic goods available. However, there are other ways of providing resources, such as family allowances (GS, 69; Laborem Exercens [LE], 19; Compendium, 250). Today, families’ access to economic goods is made available in many ways, including wage and non-wage income, tax policy such as the earned income tax credit, government programs such as Social Security, local community resources such as food banks, and family resources such as a business.
Mandating wages while ignoring the goal of the universal destination of goods can lead to bad policies. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employer Costs For Employee Compensation report shows that workers in the lowest wage category receive a lower percentage of their compensation in benefits such as much-needed health insurance. This supports the idea that when the government increases the costs of paying workers, employers will try to manage those costs down by cutting other forms of compensation. Small business owners, for example, need to ensure that they make enough profit to support their own families.
Another bad result of mandating wages is that it runs the risk of creating one injustice to correct a second injustice. If remuneration violates distributive justice but satisfies commutative justice, then forcing the wage up to satisfy distributive justice violates commutative justice. It is also unfair to force business owners to bear the burden for the remediation of wider social issues, much of which they had no role in creating.
The magisterial documents explicitly tie the universal destination of goods and property rights together (GS, 71; Centesimus Annus [CA], 30; Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2402–2404; Compendium, 176). Similar to the American idea that the Second Amendment right to possess firearms shields citizens from a tyrannical government, Catholic social thought holds that possession of wealth protects against economic and political tyranny (Rerum Novarum [RN], 5, 37; MM, 109).
How do we connect all this with Biden’s remarks? Pope Leo declared that at a just wage the worker will have “some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income. …. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners” (RN, 46; see also Quadragesimo Anno [QA] 71-75 for more details on the just wage). In other words, a pro-family and anti-poverty government policy must encourage ownership, preferably of productive assets. There is a deep anthropological insight in this principle. Being made in the image of God, we have an intellect. Unlike other animals, our role as parents continues for life. We engage in long-term planning for our children and we look forward to spending time with grandchildren. Because of our nature we have the right to own property and the right to provide an inheritance (RN, 6, 13; QA, 61). The true poverty wage, then, is one so low that it is impossible to become an owner of wealth.
The official US poverty threshold is based on a methodology which takes the cost of the average basket of food consumed by a family and multiplies it by three. Although the threshold accounts for the family’s food needs, it does not explicitly take into consideration what is needed for saving or other costs of raising a child. By appealing to the consumption-based official poverty threshold as a target for anti-poverty policy, the need to invest for the future to gain economic independence and provide for the long-term needs of children is downplayed.
Pope Pius XI makes it clear that when wages do not satisfy distributive justice then the solution is not to impose an arbitrary wage but to change the economic structure and the process of wage determination (QA, 71). Subsidiarity says that this change should be made from the bottom up with input from all those affected. This is not some nice-sounding but unattainable ideal. It can be done because there is no such thing as helplessness, as the term is used by today’s Left, in Catholicism. Reforming structures so they support the common good requires living out virtues such as prudence and fortitude. Made in the image of God, all have access to the graces needed to practice the virtues. In addition, Catholics have the benefit of the sacramental graces when engaging the world. Hence, voluntary associations based on Christian foundations and focused on the common good is the preferred way to address structural economic problems (RN, 62; QA, 87; Divini Redemptoris [DR], 54).
Only when all else fails does government step in. However, interventions must be “supplementary,” only for “urgent reasons touching the common good,” and “as brief as possible” (CA, 48). The government’s job is to guide society so that its intervention is unnecessary. For a politician professing to follow Catholic social teaching, pushing for a permanent minimum wage increase is not an accomplishment. Instead, it is an admission of a bankrupt policy because government failed to fulfill its basic function in the “reform of institutions and correction of morals” (QA, 77). Yet, no one seems to have called out the politicians on this.
Social teaching vs. corporatism
The second example where Catholics have not taken the opportunity to present the Church’s proposal concerns the World Economic Forum’s 8 Predictions for the World in 2030 video that recently went viral and became an inspiration for YouTube commentaries and parodies. Its first prediction for 2030 is that, “You’ll own nothing. And you’ll be happy.” Furthermore, all we need will be supplied by drones. The use of the active voice, the absolutist phrasing of the prediction, and the image of a man grinning, gives the video a creepy feeling. You may know the WEF as the organization that proposed using COVID to implement the Great Reset.
The WEF provides some context to its predictions in their November 2016 agenda. In support of the predictions, Ida Auken, Danish Member of Parliament, writes that she rents all her kitchen appliances and clothes. In 2019, the WEF again presented evidence that the current generation likes to rent, including clothing, jewelry, and home appliances. Even though the predictions are supposedly based on clear current trends, it is difficult to see the average person in the Philippines, Brazil, or India renting their entire wardrobe by drone in a few short years. It also requires overcoming the ick factor before one can find true happiness in wearing borrowed underwear.
Although it takes surprisingly little effort to find sloppy thinking in the WEF’s documentation, the video should not be easily dismissed. The WEF is working through influential people to bring about structural change in the world’s economy along the lines of stakeholder capitalism. At a November, 2020 panel discussion at the WEF, John Kerry announced that Biden will push through the Great Reset. The plan is to restructure the world economy along the corporatist thinking of Klaus Schwab. The WEF’s stakeholder capitalism is social change with no checks and balances, no God, no acknowledgement of the spiritual nature of the human person, no concept of beatitude, no room for virtue, and no authentic subsidiarity.
This vision of no enjoyment of the fruit of one’s labor, no assets to fall back upon in bad times, and nothing to leave to the children as an inheritance, evokes the abuse inflicted on workers in company towns during the Industrial Revolution. Because of the viral notoriety of the video, it provides an excellent opportunity for Catholics to present the natural law foundation of property rights and the pro-family position.
There is a danger that the WEF’s corporatist ideology may be confused with authentic Catholic teaching. The fascist movements in the interwar period claimed their corporatism was compatible with Catholicism. The hijacking of the Church’s message was so successful that Pius XI, landlocked in Mussolini’s Italy, could no longer speak freely but was compelled to call out the dictator’s deception indirectly (QA, 95). Corporatism can easily devolve into a tool for political domination. This is precisely what Pius XI warned about regarding the fascists.
Today, few bishops appear to be presenting the teaching that is our birthright. Politicians already pass laws and policies that violate the First Commandment (the duty to worship God), Fifth Commandment (against murder of the innocent), and Sixth Commandment (the sanctity of the family). They openly deny 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 and arrogantly issued a statement of principles declaring themselves in good standing with the Church.
History shows that when government supplants Catholic teaching, it does not end well. This may not end well. That is, unless we Catholics seize the opportunities to present the Catholic proposal to the world.
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