(From Father Alfred McBride’s Essentials of the Faith, pp. 186-187)
“Christian life strives to order this world’s goods to God and to fraternal charity.” (CCC 2401)
In biblical society, most people owned little. They had no savings, no state-supported safety net against starvation, homelessness, or sickness. A robber who stole a winter robe exposed the victim to freezing. A predator who stole sheep from a shepherd in a hand-to-mouth economy could ruin a family. When rich people did these things to the poor, prophets cried to heaven for justice.
Survival societies know best the wisdom of the seventh commandment. Survival groups in rich societies know well its call for mercy and justice. Stealing harms the individual and the society. It deprives the poor of the little they have and erodes trust, which is the glue of the social order.
The Catechism outlines the moral principles implied by the seventh commandment. God willed that the goods of the earth be used for the common good of all. We have a right to private property, but it should benefit others as well as oneself. In economic matters, human dignity demands the practice of the virtue of temperance to moderate attachment to worldly goods. It also calls for justice that protects people’s rights, and it urges solidarity with the poor. Hence we should not steal from another, cheat in business, pay unfair salaries, or exploit others’ weaknesses or distress to make money. Promises and contracts should be made and kept in good faith and with fairness.
The Catechism broadly outlines the fundamentals of the social teaching of the Church in paragraphs 2419-2449. See also Catechism 1877-1948, where it deals with the person and society, the common good, and social justice. Christian revelation calls for a deeper understanding of the laws of the social order. The Church exercises a moral judgment on economic and social issues when the fundamental rights of the person and the salvation of souls are at stake. The social teaching of the Church proposes principles for reflection, criteria for judgment, and directions for action.
The rise of the modern society prompted the Church to make fresh application of the Gospel of the social order. Popes from Leo XIII to the present day have developed this social teaching. Pope John XXIII taught that peace will come more easily when people are treated justly. Pope Paul VI argued that the rich nations of the world have a responsibility to help the poor ones. Pope John Paul II has said the state has an essential obligation to assure that workers can enjoy the fruits of their labor. While the state has an obligation to protect human rights in the economic sector, the primary responsibility for this belongs to the institutions, groups, and associations that make up a society.
The Catechism concludes this section with an exhortation to love the poor. It cites the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and many biblical passages that deal with concern for the poor. “Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use” (2445). St. Rose of Lima carries the point as well as anyone: “When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus. We must not neglect to help our neighbor, because it is Jesus whom we serve.”
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