Leo XIII: “Taxing the Rich Does Not Help the Poor”

In Quod Apostolici Muneris (1878), Pope Leo XIII deplores those who “under the motley and all but barbarous terms and titles of Socialists, Communists, and Nihilists, are spread abroad throughout the world,” striving in alliance for “the purpose long resolved upon, of uprooting the foundations of civil society at large.”  It may sound odd to our ears, that socialists, whose prescriptions for society are many and comprehensive, should be united with nihilists, who by definition believe in nothing.  But Pope Leo, beginning as always from a rich view of human nature grounded in reason and elevated by relevation, sees the alliance we miss—and by implication he includes as well the fellow traveler, secular liberalism, friendlier to the free market but ultimately also an enemy to man.

How so?  In this essay I will focus on two of the evils Leo discusses in his letter.  The first is the denial of the body; the second, the severance of human law from divine law, effacing in citizens the sense of moral obligation.  We obey such human laws because it is to our advantage, narrowly and materially conceived, to do so, not because it is right and just.

Human beings do not have bodies, as a plumber has a wrench or a doctor has a probe.  Nor are they bodies, simply, reducible to their constituent parts; even a dog is more than the sum of his parts.  Human beings are embodied rational souls, and everything they touch they mark with the fire of their spirit, the gift of God.  That is the ground of their right to property.  But they are not solitary atoms either, rebounding against one another in a chaotic war of all against all.  For the human soul is made for love, and can only attain its end by communion with other souls.  Therefore, long before we meet the State, we find human beings fashioning not artificial but real bodies in turn: families and clans and villages.

It is absolutely crucial to understand this.  Catholic Social Teaching affirms the reality of the bodies that human beings form; they are not notional, but real and living, and they imply real rights and duties among the members, who are themselves not mere parts, but whole persons.  The touchstone is the Church herself, wherein God has “established different grades of orders with diversity of functions, so that all should not be apostles, all not doctors, all not prophets.”  The State, “like the Church, should form one body comprising many members, some excelling others in rank and importance, but all alike necessary to one another and solicitous for the common welfare.”

We learn this solicitude not from the State, however, but within the fostering home of the Church and the family, to which the Pope returns again and again.  The family circle, he says, is “the starting-point of every city and every state,” resting upon “the indissoluble union of husband and wife.”  Leo makes the connections we miss, because we have lost his strong sense of human bodily realities.  All living bodies require order; that is the basis of Saint Paul’s warning to the Corinthians.  Not all can be teachers or prophets or priests.  The hand cannot see, the eye cannot grasp.  But the enemies of these bodies cry up an equality which is wholly abstract—mathematical, even mechanical.  Says the Pope, they “contend that all men are by nature equal, and hence they contend that neither honor nor respect is owed to public authority, nor any obedience to the laws, saving perhaps to those which have been sanctioned according to their good pleasure.”

Absurd?  Doesn’t our Declaration of Independence declare that all men are created equal?  The crucial word, though, is “created.”  The equality—even in the mind of the deist Jefferson—is an endowment by God.  Leo explains what it really means: “From the Gospel records, equality among men consists in this, that one and all, possessing the same nature, are called to the sublime dignity of being sons of God; and, moreover, that one and the same end being set before all, each and every one has to be judged according to the same laws.”  We are equal in our nature and, what is to say the same thing in another way, in the goal toward which we naturally tend.

But when people no longer recognize that end, and the genuine equality that subsists among them, they substitute for it an artificial equality in goods, violating the rights, Pope Leo says, of private property, claiming “that all may with impunity seize upon the possessions and usurp the rights of the wealthy.”  In other words, they seek equality where it is not to be had, and destroy the inequality—we may say, diversity—which God has ordained: “More wisely and profitably the Church recognizes the existence of inequality among men, who are by nature unlike in mental endowment and strength of body, and even in amount of fortune.”  Therefore she enjoins that “the right of property and of its disposal, derived from nature, should in the case of every individual remain intact and inviolate.”

The poor, then, are out of luck?  Not so.  We must clear from our minds the weeds of wrong thinking.  We must cease conceiving of “the rich” and “the poor” as abstractions, or as nameless masses, or as parts of a national machine.  A society can only be a society of persons, with the rights and duties that flow from their God-given nature as persons meant to be bound in love.  The Church, says Leo, is a loving mother—he is not using a metaphor here—and addresses in her motherly care both those who are rich and those who are poor.

She holds that the poor “represent the person of Christ Himself,” and so she “brings them aid to the utmost of her power, takes thought to have erected in every land in their behoof homes and refuges where they can be received, nurtured, and tended.”  He is describing here the care of persons, not numbers; a care that can only be given in love, and that binds in a relationship of loyalty and gratitude both him who gives and him who receives.  But love is also our duty, so the Church “lays the rich under strict command to give of their superfluity to the poor, impressing them with fear of the divine judgment which will exact the penalty of eternal punishment unless they succor the wants of the needy.”

May that be done by confiscatory taxes?  Not even by modest taxes.  The obligation is personal.  I am not saying, nor is Leo saying, that taxes may never be levied for the alleviation of need.  But such taxation is neither necessary nor sufficient.  And here we touch upon the great error of the modern state, which Leo sees quite clearly.  It is that “governments have been organized without God and the order established by Him being taken at all into account,” something even the pagans never did.  The Church has been forced to withdraw from “the scheme of studies at universities, colleges, and high schools, as well as from all the practical working of public life.”  That severs our public life from the life to come, and removes at a stroke the profound and personal obligations, God-given along with our rights, which the rich and poor owe to one another.  A Scrooge can thus say that he “gives” to the poor because he is taxed to support poorhouses and orphanages; and our modern statists can say that because they tax others to support a wholly dysfunctional way of life, they therefore have given to the poor.

We are forbidden to steal, says Leo.  We are forbidden even to covet.  Why is that?  Why does the commandment reach down into the depths of the heart?  A cog in a machine cannot covet.  If an atom in the great impersonal materialist modern state covets, what harm, so long as the state can make him keep his hands to himself?  But here we see the strange harmony between one form of worldly covetousness and another – the form that sees the amassing of private fortune as the summum bonum, and the form that believes in a mechanical and mathematical redistribution, without regard to the human person.  Catholic Social Teaching sees both materialisms as evil from the root.

When God rained manna upon the Israelites in the desert, they were forbidden to hoard it up; they were forbidden to treat it as quantity, rather than as a gift, from a personal God to persons made in His image.  When they tried to do so anyway, the manna rotted and stank.  It is high time we ceased thinking of masses and quantity, and remembered duty and love.  That should strike all of us, rich and poor alike, with trembling.


This article was originally published at Crisis.

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Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

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