69. God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner.(8) Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others.(9) On the other hand, the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods.(10) If one is in extreme necessity, he has the right to procure for himself what he needs out of the riches of others.
-Vatican II, Gaudiem et Spes
A couple of blocks from my home there is a Speedway station, a typical gas station/convenience store. We sometime gas up there, or stop for a quick gallon of milk when we are in a hurry.
There is a round friendly twenty-something guy who works the counter. He is quite chatty, and I am introverted and at first found his cheery attempts at conversation annoying. I realized a long time ago that my natural reticence is often misinterpreted as aloofness or even unfriendliness, so I try and pretend that I am a naturally friendly person. Thus I chat.
I learned that he is a manager, and that he is married with a kid.
The other day I was standing in line after pumping gas. He was talking with the guy ahead of me. I wasn’t paying attention until he said, in response to something, “Hey man, I make minimum wage. I can’t afford that.”
When I was at the counter I asked him “I thought you were the manager here. You only make minimum wage?”
“That’s right. Working for a gas company sucks. They say that they will give me a raise when they can afford it.”
“But Speedway is a huge corporation. Surely they can afford to pay you a decent wage.”
“Well, jobs are scarce. What can I do?”
Later I looked it up and discovered that Speedway is wholly owned by Marathon Petroleum,
and that it is the fourth largest convenience chain in the country. The CEO of Marathon made over $9 million in 2009, the most recent year I could find information about.
I write of this because I have been thinking a lot about the long and thought-provoking conversation that my post on phony distributism inspired. If you haven’t read it you really should. Not only was it that rare thing, an internet conversation that remained charitable and respectful, there was a good bit of work that went into the lengthy posts. The conversation was mostly between Red Owen ( ” the ochlophobist”) speaking for the radical left and Tom Storck and Christopher Zehnder for the distributist cause. Owen convincingly argued that it was anachronistic to equate leftism with statism, that nearly all of the contemporary left believes in direct democratic worker ownership and are deeply suspicious of bureaucracy and centralization. Of course I don’t think Owen ever granted that the stain of statism was earned on the left by the fact that the largest self-proclaimed attempts at socialism were statist and nightmarish ( I speak of the Soviet Union and Communist China) nor of the fact that most of the participants in the Russian Revolution were not fighting to establish the police state that evolved. Suspicion is not irrational.
Still, I think it was eye-opening to see that what the modern left envisions is not far from the distributist ideal, at least regarding economic organization. That leaves the huge area of sexual politics, abortion, and the other cultural and moral stands that the left, for the most part, endorses. I always thought that for a movement which claims to be trying to inspire a working class revolution to take such positions was stupid and politically suicidal. Do any of them actually have blue collar jobs? I do, and working class folks are for the most part moral conservatives and offended by the left’s embrace of what seems to them odious.
So the conversation eventually became a disagreement about what tactics were justified in establishing economic democracy. Owen, in keeping with his ideals, thought that workers were justified in seizing the property of the oppressive elite. The distributists, in keeping with the tradition of Catholic social teaching, balked at this.
And it is true that CST shies away from anything resembling class warfare, and is skeptical of rebellion of all sorts (though in extreme cases it does not condemn direct action, even revolution).
But is this a deal breaker? I think not.
Catholic moral teaching is never static. Gaudiem et Spes speaks of the Church’s “unfolding of the divine law” and one need not look far to see that moral teaching evolves, just as doctrinal teaching does. This is called “development of doctrine” and is evident whether one looks to social teaching or teaching on marriage and sexuality.
Can anyone envision how the Theology of the Body would have been received if it had appeared in the wake of Vatican I instead of Vatican II? The Church was slow to see the value of the unitive aspect of human sexuality, and in earlier times tended to see sexual pleasure as a sort of unfortunate necessity for procreation. St Augustine, the most influential of the Western Fathers, thought that sexual pleasure was always sinful, though in marriage it was only venially so. He was no longer a Manichean; he did not hold, as they did, that procreation was sinful. But he was still influenced by the negative sort of Platonism, which saw the world and matter as a shadowy illusory thing, an impediment to illumination, which was purely spiritual. Don’t get me wrong; I am a Platonist, too. But mine is the other Platonism, one that sees the created world as the icon of God, and matter participating sacramentally in the divine.
And turning to social morality, the Church has come far from the days when it used torture and declared preemptive war. And it was not long ago in historical terms when it condemned the concept of human rights and democracy.
And there are inherently radical notions in traditional Catholic social principles. Vatican II said, echoing St Thomas “If one is in extreme necessity, he has the right to procure for himself what he needs out of the riches of others.” Does it seem like such a leap, if an individual can do this, that the workers at an oppressive enterprise can refuse, together, to endure injustice?
We live in a world of extreme disparity, where in spite of increased productivity and corporate profits working class wages are stagnant or declining, and poverty is increasing. a handful live in luxury while most struggle to make ends meet. Globally, of course, the disparity is even starker. I have been chronicling the situation for some time here.
If revolution has ever been justified in the history of the world it is surely justified in a world where a manager at a gas station is laboring to support his family on minimum wage, while his overlord rakes in over $9 million a year.
As I have said before, I only hope that it will be nonviolent.