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Why we need a distribution of power

Catholic social doctrine advocates neither statist control nor individual freedom run amok.

(Image: Darren Halstead/Unsplash.com)

A crucially important feature of Catholic social teaching, but one frequently underemphasized or misunderstood, is a clear animus against the concentration of power within a society. This perilous agglomeration can happen economically, politically, or culturally. By a basic and healthy instinct, Catholic social teaching wants power, as much as possible, distributed widely throughout the community, so that one small segment does not tyrannize the majority or prevent large numbers of people from enjoying the benefits that are theirs by right.

We can see this phenomenon perhaps most clearly in the economic order. If one organization manages to monopolize its segment of the economy, it can set prices arbitrarily, hire and fire according to its whim, preclude any competition that might provide better products and/or higher wages for employees, etc. One thinks here of the “trust-busting” work of Theodore Roosevelt in the early twentieth century and the similar concern today for breaking up Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other high-tech conglomerates that exercise an almost unchallenged dominance in their field.

A cornerstone of Catholic social teaching is what is traditionally called “distributive justice”—which is to say, the equitable allocation of goods within a society. Now this can take place through direct government intervention, for example through anti-trust legislation, minimum wage requirements, programs to aid the poor, taxation, etc., but it can also happen, more indirectly, through the natural rhythms of the market. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II observes that profit-making itself can and should signal to prospective entrepreneurs that there is money to be made in that segment of the economy and that they should, accordingly, get involved. The bottom line is this: spreading out wealth within a society tends to make an economy both more just and more efficient.

We can furthermore see this dynamic in the political realm. If one party comes to dominate a nation, a state, a city, or a community, corruption almost inevitably follows. Unchallenged, the ruling conglomerate can impose its will, compel the acceptance of its vision, and eliminate prospective opponents and critics. It is quite obvious that this sort of arrangement obtains in banana republics, communist dictatorships, and oppressive theocracies, but it is also apparent, to a lesser degree, in local and state governments in our own country.

If you doubt me, ask yourself why pro-life candidates in Illinois, Massachusetts, or California could never hope to be elected to office. When a political monopoly couples itself with economic power, the corruption becomes only deeper and more intractable. Once again, according to Catholic social teaching, the desideratum is the breaking up and spreading out of power throughout the society. This could happen in a number of ways: equipping a variety of parties, providing for a greater turnover within legislatures, lifting up various expressions of local government, allowing for mediating institutions, strengthening the system of checks and balances, etc.

Though perhaps less obvious than the first two instances, a third example of this dangerous hyper-concentration of power is in the cultural arena. Under both the Nazi and Soviet dictatorships of the last century, only very definite types of art, music, and literature were acceptable, and any deviation from the norm was quickly squelched by the state. Today, strict censorship of the arts holds sway in many Islamist states, as well as in communist China.

But lest we think we in the West are free of this sort of cultural monopoly, take a good look at the kind of strict leftist ideology that exists in practically every film or television program produced in Hollywood. This is not brutal state censorship to be sure, but it is indeed a sort of monopolization of cultural power that effectively excludes rival expressions of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Once again, it is very useful to notice the ways in which this cultural dictatorship allies itself with both political and economic power in order to consolidate its hegemony. Catholic social teaching would like this sort of power to be spread out as widely as possible too, permitting a range of artistic expressions at a variety of levels within the society. How dull it is when only one style of art or only one type of thinking is acceptable.

Someone who was acutely sensitive to the danger of hyper-concentrated power in the society was the great Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton. Accordingly, along with Hilaire Belloc and others, he developed an economic and political program that became known as “distributism,” deriving the name from the Catholic preoccupation with the just distribution of wealth. As the great Chesterton commentator Dale Ahlquist has recently pointed out, an alternative name for distributism might be “localism,” since the Chestertonian doctrine emphasizes the importance of the many local expressions of political and economic power over any grand project of centralization.

If you want to see a vividly narrative presentation of distributism, read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, paying particular attention to the manner of life in the hobbits’ shire in contrast to the political and economic arrangements in Mordor.

What I hope is at least relatively clear is that this uniquely Catholic approach cuts against both the extreme left and the extreme right. Catholic social doctrine advocates neither statist control nor individual freedom run amok. It holds out a wide and just distribution of economic and political power as an at least asymptotically approached ideal.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 198 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

19 Comments

  1. Accountability?
    A very small percentage of people in the USA hoard a large part of the Wealth, while the poor in the USA and World for most part, hold the debt.. an issue in a more “educated” time of governments should not be able to borrow money, because this creates wealth for the rich, and debt for the poor.
    No logic exits to the current unsustainable US borrowing of Trillions, and a near large part of a Trillion spent on Military arms yearly by the US. A fact of the US exists on a unsustainable economic system.
    When its recognized the US had a doubling of wages in the 1970’s, and prosperity for the working class. Yet now it will take decades for wages to double again, with cost of living, food, and basic existence in to increase drasticly in the near term. Combined with hunger is now greater in the US and World than ever today, with the USA directly inciting Hunger, starvation, genocide, death, to the poor purposely.
    Unjust war, as genocide, defiant to Pro Life, is a major event to the World, incited by the USA itself.

    Bishop Robert Baron needs to dig out some Old books and read the real Catholic Mind, that which recognized the Mind of the Catholic does not support, war, Genocide, nor the mass extermination and upheaval by groups to take over land, resources..
    As the people of the Americas say, we had the land, the Christians brought the Bibles. Now the Christians have the land, or did have, and we have, the Bibles.
    That is, America.
    Many regions in the USA have a great demand for workers, with a near zero unemployment. Yet, they are regions with jobs of desperation, filled by, immigrates, willing to work for slave wages.
    That is what Baron should recognize, as the Genocide, and murder of the poor, by our government, that real, anti Prolife issue.

    • Sorry once again, but there is no genocide or murder of the poor taking place in the United States. There is also not more hunger here than in other parts of the world. Given the current pandemic, there are no parts of the country that are at full employment. No one is forcing illegal immigrants to do the work they do. Your thinking is delusional. Please review the basic facts before you comment. Remember that lying and slander are sins.

    • It is a fact that the dominant health threat among the poor is obesity. How can hunger be “greater than ever” in the US? Get a grip, man. It’s great you’re taking the side of the poor, but you lose credibility when you make things up. And every adult illegal immigrant came to the US willingly, more correctly, eagerly and with determination, risking life … hardly the stuff of slavery. And, might I add, many people from around the world are literally dying to get here … to be victims of a genocide on the poor? Come on, man. You’re not helping your cause.

    • Lyle –

      You should look into seeing if you can move to a place created to cater to your desires, like China or Russia or Venezuela or Cuba. In those places, the Bible is not in vogue, and you will perhaps find what you are looking for.

    • “A very small percentage of people in the USA hoard a large part of the Wealth, while the poor in the USA and World for most part, hold the debt.. an issue in a more “educated” time of governments should not be able to borrow money, because this creates wealth for the rich, and debt for the poor.”

      I am sorry but I just don’t understand what you are saying. Look at ANY society and you see that 20% of the population controls around 80% of the assets. Look at the 20% and you find that 20% of the 20% hold 80% of the 80%. One more iteration gets you to 0.8% of the population controlling around 50% of the total assets. We see this in all nonprimitive human societies. Whether you look at late-19th century America, Stalin’s USSR, today’s North Korea or Sweden, the distributions look very similar.

      “No logic exits to the current unsustainable US borrowing of Trillions, and a near large part of a Trillion spent on Military arms yearly by the US. A fact of the US exists on a unsustainable economic system.”

      Agreed. A planned economy that relies on fiat money is not sustainable. But is that what you are getting at?

      “When its recognized the US had a doubling of wages in the 1970’s, and prosperity for the working class.”

      What are you talking about? Nixon closed the gold window in 1971 and let the USD’s purchasing power collapse. The purchasing power of wages did NOT double but went down. The only thing that hides how much working people suffered came from productivity increases

      “Yet now it will take decades for wages to double again, with cost of living, food, and basic existence in to increase drasticly in the near term. Combined with hunger is now greater in the US and World than ever today, with the USA directly inciting Hunger, starvation, genocide, death, to the poor purposely.”

      I disagree that there is a purpose to what is going on. It is much WORSE than that. When people embraced government meddling in the markets and justified confiscatory taxation to fund general social welfare programs guided by the State they made things worse.
      That said, because most of the world has moved towards freer markets, the amount of poverty has collapsed and the percentage of people in extreme poverty is at historically low levels. It is countries that are turning their backs on the markets that are getting worse.

      “Unjust war, as genocide, defiant to Pro Life, is a major event to the World, incited by the USA itself.”
      I am no fan of American imperialism but you are going too far. I lived behind the Iron Curtain and have seen the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh. Things are better now than 50 years ago.
      “Bishop Robert Baron needs to dig out some Old books and read the real Catholic Mind, that which recognized the Mind of the Catholic does not support, war, Genocide, nor the mass extermination and upheaval by groups to take over land, resources..”

      My problem with Bishop Barron is his timid support for unbridled markets and the economic and moral arguments made by the Late Scholastics.

      “As the people of the Americas say, we had the land, the Christians brought the Bibles. Now the Christians have the land, or did have, and we have, the Bibles.”

      Is that true? I would argue that Christians have made life much better wherever they have gone. The Utopias that they have supposedly ruined never existed and societies and traditions that have ‘lost’ the hearts of people declined because their citizens preferred another option.

      “That is, America.”

      America is an idea. And it is one still worth resepecting if its voter understand that its past greatness came from embracing Natural Law principles and free markets. My criticism of Catholics is that they refuse to remember their own scholarship.
      “Many regions in the USA have a great demand for workers, with a near zero unemployment. Yet, they are regions with jobs of desperation, filled by, immigrates, willing to work for slave wages.”

      Slaves don’t get wages. And when you have 15 applications for each job it is not slavery.
      “That is what Baron should recognize, as the Genocide, and murder of the poor, by our government, that real, anti Prolife issue.”

      I still don’t get your actual points. If you are saying that the government meddles too much, I agree. My issue is with the promotion of distributism as an anwer. It isn’t. Catholic social teaching has an answer. But there is Catholic scholarship that offers answers.

  2. This is actually a pretty good piece. There are a lot of details that would have to be figured out, but the need to break up the huge concentrations of wealth that are killing this country should be obvious to even (or maybe especially?) the most ardent free market supporter. Wall Street Banks, private equity firms, hedge funds, and, of course, the tech behemoths should be at the top of the list. Bravo, Bishop Barron!

  3. All very well and good, but there’s a fly in the ointment…we read: “The bottom line is this: spreading out wealth within a society tends to make an economy both more just and more efficient.”

    “More just AND more efficient,” really both? It’s precisely the heresy of a progressively efficient economy (and pricing) that has replaced mom & pop stores with Walmart. Etc. etc. etc. Less than a century ago, in India Gandhi preached, quaintly, a spinning wheel in every mud hut! (But, ironically, there is something now to be said for a smart phone in every hand…)

    Still, today, might we look for a more post-nostalgic analysis, one less bipolar about centralization versus “localism” (yes, of course, Subsidiarity in some form as an absolute). And, which taps even deeper, that is, into St. Augustine’s CITY OF GOD? Minimally, how might the centers that love wealth and power be at least set AGAINST each other, rather than, less realistically, ALL of them driven to pasture?

    In our advancing societal ice age, does economic, political and cultural safety for the Family now lie, actually, in preserving the INTERSTICES within systemic efficiency? I simply ask, what would it look like to be both Thomistic and Augustinian? Alongside the the Catholic Social Teaching (CST) noted by Bishop Barron, do we need a more distinctly independent and coherent Church—in centuries past a center of power, and now called to be more of a steadfast, consistent, beckoning and uncompromised NEGATION OF POWER?

    John Paul II was Thomistic; Benedict is Augustinian. What might we learn from BOTH beacons of active contemplation—even as entrenched powers (powers!) within the Church itself maneuver “not to praise them, but to bury them [Marc Antony lives!]?”

    So, this second “bottom line”: what does it look like, our engaged and engaging, and yet universal and perennial, and Eucharistic Church of tomorrow?

  4. Speaking of separation powers etc, time might be well spent “actually reforming” the Catholic Church by dismantling the bolated and corrupt “Paul VI-Francesco” super-bureaucracy called the Secretariat of State, demoting it, stripping it of all governing and financial power, re-assigning it to its diplomatic function, establishing a separation of powers in the Vatican, and re-establishing the Congregation for the Faith as the prime Congregation.

    Separation of powers, and establishing checks-and-balances, and the primacy of the Congregation for the Faith, would be an “actual reform,” if one thought that the primary purpose of the Church was the transmission of the Catholic Faith.

  5. “A cornerstone of Catholic social teaching is what is traditionally called ‘distributive justice’—which is to say, the equitable allocation of goods within a society.”

    On the contrary! This understanding of distributive justice comes out of the socialist movements of the 1830s and 1840s, congealed into pseudo dogma by Msgr. John A. Ryan of the Catholic University of America, and has been condemned repeatedly by the Catholic Church. See this short article:

    https://www.catholic365.com/article/12015/the-democratic-religion-or-the-great-reset.html

    True distributive justice relates to proportionality of input and outtake in a common endeavor, at least according to Aristotle, Aquinas, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine. As was made clear in § 22 of Rerum Novarum, distribution on the basis of need is grouped under “distributive justice” by default; it is an expedient that applies only in “extreme cases.”

    A succinct explanation of the difference between charity, justice, distributive justice, and social justice can be found in our new book, “Economic Personalism: Property, Power and Justice for Every Person.” If His Excellency would like a complimentary copy, I would be more than happy to send him one on request, or he can download the free e-book from the website of the Center for Economic and Social Justice, https://www.cesj.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/C-EconPersonalism_Web-NOblanks.pdf

    It’s a fairly short book and has a study guide in the back. If he has any questions, we here at CESJ are more than ready to discuss any issue he wants to raise with respect to economic or social justice.

    It should be noted that CESJ’s “Just Third Way” received the personal encouragement of Pope Saint John Paul II during a private audience with CESJ representatives and members of Polish Solidarity.

  6. Bishop Barron says all the right things regarding separation of powers. Except, spreading out wealth within a society to make an economy both more just and more efficient is inherently at odds with a democratic distribution of power. To distribute equally requires a dominant central authority rather than a separation of powers, with its competing views and checks and balances as we find in the present US Constitutional republic. Barron nevertheless rightly perceives a balance between government intervention and the natural flow of the economy. Now in danger of morphing into a Marxist autocracy. Egalitarian distribution of goods is a Marxist concept that was never fully realized in the USSR. It looked wonderful on paper ignored in reality. When the State becomes the ultimate arbiter human rights are inevitably compromised in favor of power. The present American model is the best for approaching Bishop Barron’s ideal, that is when Govt doesn’t enforce distribution based on perceived inequalities. As has been the process since the Obama regime. A regime rather than an administration due to forced policies on the populace. Furthermore, forced distribution of wealth and goods suffocates religious, humanitarian charity removing from people realization of their humanness. Distributive justice morally speaking requires exercise of free will. Our goal mustn’t be to create drones. A degree of imperfection needs to be acknowledged within a more perfect ordering of government.

    • Or, maybe Bishop Barron simply mis-spoke on this point. In any event, reading Tolkien’s fiction hardly suffices. Three points:

      First, Chesterton’s Distributism (upper case) refers to a community of truly decentralized centers of power and earnings (e.g., family farms instead of corporate agribusiness), NOT to government distribution of aggregate wealth.

      Second, my related point, above, is to wonder about other possible and realistic “forms” of such Distributism. In today’s coagulated and ratcheted-up culture, small beginnings would minimally include profit-sharing, and employee stock ownership programs (ESOPs), and what else??? As for the highly integrated corporate giants, and writing from Boeing country, I do recall some years ago noticing that the management/labor divide is handled differently in Airbus Europe. My recollection is that the Airbus boardroom includes a face-time/non-voting seat for Labor–so that when bad news has to be reported and handled, it is more likely to be trusted (coming from Labor’s first hand set of ears)—rather than triggering an ill-advised labor strike.

      What does real Distributism look like, today? After all, centralization (of the military and of industry) is what won World War II.

      Third, academically, and as for the danger of distributism (lower case, and rightly warned against by Fr. Morello) supplied by a grabby provider State, the naive error of Jacques Maritain in such matters was his belief that Saul Alinsky’s community-organizer cells (Rules for Radicals) were seedbeds for a restored culture of self-governing guilds, rather than stepping stones toward Socialism. Still, in his friendly relationship with Alinsky (not unlike Chesterton’s jousting with socialist George Bernard Shaw?), he did manage this higher perspective: “I do not know if Saul Alinsky knows God. But I assure you that God knows Saul Alinsky.”

    • Thank you, finally some common sense. There will be no economic solutions in this world if it continues to deny or push forward thinking ideals that seek to usurp the Godhead with propaganda statements like, “ science will win” or “ follow the science”. We should know this as Christians!! In the meantime it right and just to care for one another. Not forced or imposed but from the goodness that springs up in us from the Lord himself. If we turn, face, and accept His sovereignty in our hearts our charity would flow quite naturally. I don’t know much about economics (or anything at all for that matter ) but the one thing I did learn as I read a book called the “Unseen Hand” was that the more money that banks put into the economy , the higher the inflation. “An increase in the volume of money and credit relative to available goods resulting in a substantial and continuing rise in the general price level.” (Webster’s 3rd Unabridged Dictionary) This crushes out the middle class. Let’s borrow less money, promote and create a reasonable relationship with consumerism, bringing down inflation, freeing up wealth among the masses, and thus allowing more freedom to share with those who don’t have. But, I know not even this could create lasting equity of resources if Christ is not at the centre of everything we do.

  7. Thus wrote Mahatma Gandhi: “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by arts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment.”

  8. Would the Pope be willing to share his wealth??

    The birds have nests, the foxes have dens, but the Son of God has nowhere to lay his head. BIG difference in how the Savior lived compared to His “successor”.

    • “Would the Pope be willing to share his wealth??”

      I didn’t know that Pope Francis is wealthy. If you are referring to buildings and objects in Vatican City, well, the pope doesn’t own them.

    • Barb,
      The Pope is the successor of St.Peter, not Christ.
      Pope Francis is a puzzlement to me but one thing I’m pretty sure of is that accumulating wealth is not one of his priorities.

      • Neither the bible or Peter ever claimed to be a pope, head over the church, or in a superior position over the other apostles. He simply referred to himself as an elder among many ( 1 Peter 5:1 ). Apart from Catholic tradition, there is no biblical, historical, or credible archaeological evidence that Peter ever went to Rome or presided as its supreme bishop.

  9. My daughter thinks you meant to reference Matthew 16:17-19

    Jesus was not saying He would build His church upon Peter, but upon the simple foundational confession of faith which Peter made that Jesus is the Christ. The church is not built upon Peter, but Christ–Christ is the rock, not Peter (1 Cor. 3:11,12; Eph. 2:20,21). The “keys” symbolize the authority to open the way of salvation through the preaching of the gospel to all those who are bound in darkness and sin. Peter was first entrusted with the keys because he was the first to give this confession of faith in Jesus and was instrumental in initially opening the door of salvation to the Jews at Pentecost (Acts 2), as well as to the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house (Acts 10). However, all true disciples possess the keys when proclaiming the way of salvation to unbelievers and offering them spiritual liberty through Christ (Matt. 18:18).

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