Viewing Occupy Wall Street through the lens of Catholic teaching

What is a Catholic to think of the Occupy Wall Street movement? Looking at the movement through the lens of a steward of Providence provides important insights and balanced answers. 

While there are a variety of issues that seem to be motivating the movement, the broadest one has to do with the question of inequality, which is often described as the 1 percent (the “Haves”) versus the 99 percent (the “Have nots”).  

There is a sense that since our economic system doesn’t provide for a more equal distribution of resources, that we either need a different system, or that government enact policies that “force” more equal outcomes.

Equal outcomes?

Does Scripture teach that a system of equal outcomes is to be expected? I think not. St. Paul speaks of God distributing gifts in a variety of ways — for the common good (1 Cor 12:4-7). In the parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30), the master distributes talents in varying amounts and holds the servants responsible for providing a good return. 

But doesn’t allowing unequal outcomes conflict with Jesus teaching about helping the poor? Of course not. Jesus’ teaching on the poor is a key part of the Gospel message that the Church has consistently proclaimed and acted on through the centuries. Each of us has a responsibility to assist with the needs of the poor (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2405). Yet, this is very different from saying that an economy should provide for equal outcomes. 

Throughout history, there has been the temptation to think that there is a way to create a utopian society, usually through placing hope in some central authority. This fails to recognize that original sin affects all of us — including those who are entrusted with power. 

Striking a balance

So, what does the Church have to say about economic systems? The Church has rejected socialism, meaning state ownership and administration of the means of production. Likewise, the Church rejects a version of capitalism that is based solely on the law of the marketplace (Catechism, No. 2425). The Church proposes principles that lead to a system based on a balance between individual freedom and reasonable regulation for the common good. 

The Church’s teaching on subsidiarity describes this balance well: “A community of higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (No. 1883). 

We are in the midst of an important debate about what responsibilities government should have and how to best fund those responsibilities. As we do so, it’s important that we keep in mind the Church’s teaching on not becoming overly centralized, while providing reasonable regulation of the marketplace. We should be providing a reasonable safety net for the poor, while at the same time encouraging those needing assistance to develop and use their talents in ways helpful to society. Finally, it would be to our betterment to see a system of taxation that is more simple, limits the ability to “game the system,” recognizes those with more can afford to pay a greater percentage than those with less, and keeps effective tax rates low enough to provide incentive for individuals to work and deploy capital so that we can have a vibrant economy.  

Phil Lenahan is the president of Veritas Financial Ministries (VeritasFinancialMinistries.com) and the author of “7 Steps to Becoming Financially Free” (OSV, $19.95). Submit questions for columns to askphil@osv.com.