One such oft-thrown-about quote I had been running into lately was from Pius XI's 1931 encyclical on Catholic social teaching Quadragesimo Anno (on the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum) and was reputed to describe capitalism and socialism as "twin rocks of shipwreck" -- which the speaker generally took to mean a via media which involved a partial redistribution, but not wholesale collectivization, of goods.
I was pretty sure that Pius XI had not in fact meant to mandate a welfare state as the proper compromise between collectivism and Randian individualism (indeed, my assumption was that Pius XI did not mandate any specific form of political governance -- that is something from which the Vatican wisely holds itself aloof) but it wasn't till recently that I put surfed on over to the Vatican website to wee what Quadragesimo Anno actually said about twin rocks of shipwreck. Here's the actual quote:
46. Accordingly, twin rocks of shipwreck must be carefully avoided. For, as one is wrecked upon, or comes close to, what is known as "individualism" by denying or minimizing the social and public character of the right of property, so by rejecting or minimizing the private and individual character of this same right, one inevitably runs into "collectivism" or at least closely approaches its tenets. Unless this is kept in mind, one is swept from his course upon the shoals of that moral, juridical, and social modernism which We denounced in the Encyclical issued at the beginning of Our Pontificate. And, in particular, let those realize this who, in their desire for innovation, do not scruple to reproach the Church with infamous calumnies, as if she had allowed to creep into the teachings of her theologians a pagan concept of ownership which must be completely replaced by another that they with amazing ignorance call "Christian."In the following paragraphs Pius goes on to outline the idea that, while the principle of private ownership remains essential, it must be recalled that in Christian virtue one's possessions (especially when they go beyond the necessities for housing, feeling and clothing one's family) may bring with them certain responsibilities to the wider community.
In regards to these responsibilities, Pius points out:
50. Furthermore, a person's superfluous income, that is, income which he does not need to sustain life fittingly and with dignity, is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.However, in the preceding paragraph he has already said:
The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away: "For man is older than the State," and also "domestic living together is prior both in thought and in fact to uniting into a polity." 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."All to often, especially in this age of "liberation theology" and other politicizations of the Christian message, "Catholic social teaching" seems to be used as a code phrase for "how the Church says nations should be run". There is, of course, an element of that, but in general I think that conceiving of "social teaching" as being primarily political in application represents a mis-understanding of what Catholicism is and how it views the human person.
In this regard, I think we might do well to turn to a much more recent encyclical, and one dealing not with social teaching per se, but rather with virtue: Benedict XVI's recently released Spe Salvi:
Christianity did not bring a message of social revolution like that of the ill-fated Spartacus, whose struggle led to so much bloodshed. Jesus was not Spartacus, he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation like Barabbas or Bar- Kochba. Jesus, who himself died on the Cross, brought something totally different: an encounter with the Lord of all lords, an encounter with the living God and thus an encounter with a hope stronger than the sufferings of slavery, a hope which therefore transformed life and the world from within. What was new here can be seen with the utmost clarity in Saint Paul's Letter to Philemon. This is a very personal letter, which Paul wrote from prison and entrusted to the runaway slave Onesimus for his master, Philemon. Yes, Paul is sending the slave back to the master from whom he had fled, not ordering but asking: “I appeal to you for my child ... whose father I have become in my imprisonment ... I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart ... perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother ...” (Philem 10-16). Those who, as far as their civil status is concerned, stand in relation to one an other as masters and slaves, inasmuch as they are members of the one Church have become brothers and sisters—this is how Christians addressed one another. By virtue of their Baptism they had been reborn, they had been given to drink of the same Spirit and they received the Body of the Lord together, alongside one another. Even if external structures remained unaltered, this changed society from within. When the Letter to the Hebrews says that Christians here on earth do not have a permanent homeland, but seek one which lies in the future (cf. Heb 11:13-16; Phil 3:20), this does not mean for one moment that they live only for the future: present society is recognized by Christians as an exile; they belong to a new society which is the goal of their common pilgrimage and which is anticipated in the course of that pilgrimage. (para. 4)This, I think, underlines a key point which is too often forgotten in our modern society where funerals are infrequent and quiet (though mortality stubbornly remains at 100%) and "community" is considered one of the most important aspects of organized religion: At root, the most important point in any Christian's life is after death, and his most important community is not the body politic but the Body of Christ.
As such, moral teaching (including social teaching) is, I think, more concerned with personal virtue than with achieving a particular end state organization of society. Paul was more concerned that Onesimum and his master Philemon both treat each other as brothers in Christ than that an end be put to the slave owning culture of Roman society.
One of the difficulties with exhorting people to virtue is that often they don't listen. A rich man is exhorted to use his riches for the good of his fellow creatures and he instead uses $100 bills to light cigars and throws champagne parties while the poor starve at his gate. What is to be done? Certainly, no degree of government intervention can cause this man to behave virtuously against his will. At most, he may be taxed, and those tax receipts used for the common good.
To a certain extent, I think this is justified. The government is charged, among other things, with protecting the common good, and I think it is justified in taxing those who have money in order to make sure that there are not starving people in the streets. However, when the government (which its size enforcing a one-size-fits-all approach) goes beyond alleviating hunger and homelessness to trying to assure some sort of economic equality or "minimum standard of living" it is my opinion that it runs the serious risk of setting up unintended incentives for people who consider their chances of making their own way in life to be marginal at best. This, combined with the necessity of respecting the property rights of individuals, seems to me to preclude using the governments powers for much redistribution beyond the alleviation of catastrophic need.
In this sense, what I see as the correct conservative approach to social teaching does not have nearly the warm and comforting glow as the "progressive" approach. And yet, I think it more correctly accounts for the reality of our nature as moral and mortal beings, living out our time on earth in expectation of what is to come.
The phrase "you cannot legislate morality" has been very much overused, and yet in this instance there is a very real truth to it. We cannot achieve the twin aims of respecting people's natural right to property and leaving room for people to behave in a virtuous manner by helping their fellow men unless we simultaneously allow people the opportunity to sin against their fellow men by refusing to help anyone.
Perhaps it is not surprising that in a society in which many loudly blame God (or suggest that he does not exist) for having given us the freedom to sin, many also feel reluctant to leave individual citizens the liberty to sin, or be virtuous, in their use of their personal wealth.