Originally posted at Talk To Action.
Bill O’Reilly found himself gobsmacked in the middle of his nationally broadcast Fox News interview with two of the Catholic theologians who recently challenged Republican Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal.
“The Catholic Church teaches about distributive justice?” O’Reilly said. “I never heard that.”
O’Reilly’s guests that night were Professor Stephen Schneck of Catholic University and Professor Vincent Miller of the University of Dayton. They were there to discuss why they had signed a letter along with more than 70 Catholic educators, theologians and clergy that outlined how the Republican budget plan violates Catholic doctrine about treatment of the most vulnerable members of society.
Schneck told O’Reilly, “Catholics are obliged to preference the poor in regards to public policy.” He cited proposed GOP cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. O’Reilly then tried to paint his guests as radicals, barking: “So basically what you’re both telling me — and you correct me if I’m wrong — is you’re taking the liberal line that the government has an obligation to take from the wealthy, to give to those who aren’t wealthy. I mean they have an obligation to do this…”
Professor Miller injected, “the “Catholic Church teaches about distributive justice.”
O’Reilly objected, saying that he had gone through sixteen yeas of Catholic school and had never heard of it. (In fairness, he may have had a good excuse. As Miller noted, it is not taught enough.)
Miller cited a series of conservative generated economic inequities, including extending the Bush-era tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 a year; the GOP opposition to S-CHIP; and the curtailing of unemployment benefits.
Taken aback, O”Reilly claimed: “The wealthiest people in this country carry about 75% of the income tax load.” Miller responded that as he was growing up he watched the tax rate decline for the wealthiest Americans. But O’Reilly had left something out of his rebuttal. As noted economist Joseph Stiglitz recently observed, “The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent.”
He also notes that this increased wealth was largely unearned.
But one big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top 1 percent want it that way. The most obvious example involves tax policy. Lowering tax rates on capital gains, which is how the rich receive a large portion of their income, has given the wealthiest Americans close to a free ride. Monopolies and near monopolies have always been a source of economic power-from John D. Rockefeller at the beginning of the last century to Bill Gates at the end. Lax enforcement of anti-trust laws, especially during Republican administrations, has been a godsend to the top 1 percent. Much of today’s inequality is due to manipulation of the financial system, enabled by changes in the rules that have been bought and paid for by the financial industry itself-one of its best investments ever. The government lent money to financial institutions at close to 0 percent interest and provided generous bailouts on favorable terms when all else failed. Regulators turned a blind eye to a lack of transparency and to conflicts of interest.
This ties into what Miller described as the dismantling of much of the industrial and financial regulatory infrastructure of the New Deal (which was heavily influenced by Catholic distributive justice principles) by a series of presidential administrations and Congresses beginning in the Reagan era. This deregulation was carried out under the rubric of laissez-faire economic dogma and has led directly to the decline in the economic security of the American worker, as compensation and job security decreased over time in the name of maximization of profits.
When O’Reilly claimed that all the GOP wanted to do was bring down the budget to pre-2001 levels, Miller interjected that the nation has been going through some very hard times and now is not the time to make such draconian cuts.
In the course of the interview, both of his guests reminded their host that the Church teaches a preferential option for the poor. This apparently led O’Reilly to ask his guests if they were socialists. They said they were not. Nevertheless, O’Reilly blustered on about using Catholicism to justify European-style socialism and equating progressive taxation with the seizure of property.
But O’Reilly’s ignorance of and outrage about longstanding Catholic teaching on economics raises a fair question: If distributive justice is not socialism, then what is it, and how does it differ?
First of all, it is primarily concerned with the fair distribution of profits based upon a worker’s contribution to that profit. Distribution is to be based upon multiple factors, not just equality and need but also balanced against financial risk, special talents and the danger of the task at hand.
Secondly, unlike socialism, distributive justice is concerned with increasing the ownership of private property for two very important reasons. The first being that individuals tend to take better care of that which belongs to them; secondly, by dispersing private property into more hands, property becomes a defense to the over-accumulation of property by oligarchs.
Modern Catholic social justice economics begins with the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (Of New Things) which was issued by Pope Leo XIII in May 1891 and was subtitled, The Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor. At the heart of Rerum Novarum (as well as its encyclical restatement in 1931, Quadragesimo Anno) is a form of natural law ethics: The rules God set into motion in the world and also instilled in our own natures. Echoing the teachings of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, both encyclicals emphasized the merits of moderation. They did not condemn ownership’s right to profit from their businesses; rather they required that earnings to be justly distributed to their workers in proportion to their contribution and adjusted to allow that worker to support a family.
These encyclicals reinterpreted one of the foundational thinkers of Catholicism, Thomas Aquinas who defined distributive justice as follows:
…in distributive justice something is given to a private individual, in so far as what belongs to the whole is due to the part, and in a quantity that is proportionate to the importance of the position of that part in respect of the whole. Consequently in distributive justice a person receives all the more of the common goods, according as he holds a more prominent position in the community. This 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. Hence in distributive justice the mean is observed, not according to equality between thing and thing, but according to proportion between things and persons: In such a way that even as one person surpasses another, so that which is given to one person surpasses that which is allotted to another…
So no Bill O’Reilly, the Church’s historic teachings on distributive justice is not socialism. But even if you were not taught about it in school, you are old enough to know that it was none other than the conservative Pope John Paul II who famously declared, the Church has a “preferential option for the poor.”