My friend Mother Clement, as I thought she might, takes issue with the thrust of my May Day/St. Joseph the Worker Day/International Workers’ Day post in her comment.
To which I reply:
The “rules” Mother Clement cites constitute a description of how fallen human nature operates and, as such, sink far below what all humans are created to do and to be. Persons enslaved by a fallen human nature (Romans 7) that is alienated from God, are "in bondage to the devil" because of the "fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15) and consistently act in ways that are unjust. Therefore, from the fall on, Divine law is imposed in order to restrain those actions which violate justice in order to keep humanity from destroying itself. The first level here is “natural law,” which would have applied even if the fall had not occurred, the next level being the consequences, also largely “natural,” of the fall itself, then the covenant with Noah, and finally, the Torah, which, incorporating the rest, explicitly includes specific safeguards for the poor. When these legal mechanisms break down, social chaos results, as we have seen so often over the past century.
Therefore, while St. Paul is clearly speaking in the context of the Church (whose members are called, not to sink below what Divine law requires, but, voluntarily and with the help of the Holy Spirit, to "put to death the deeds of the flesh" and to rise above it), St. James writes more generally, and posits, essentially, a matter of cause-and-effect: if justice is violated, the consequences are inevitable. In this, he echoes the prophets of the Old Testament, who frequently denounced economic injustice (Amos 8:1-6, for example).
In this case, the basic problem is that when economic inequality, some of which is inevitable, goes beyond a certain point, as is happening in the United States and elsewhere at this time, all kinds of things, economic, political, and social, become unstable, and revolutions, from the right or from the left, become much more likely, if not inevitable. This is what happened in Russia in 1917, in Germany in the early 1930’s, and what could well have happened here in the United States had it not been for FDR and the New Deal.
This is largely what the "social teaching" of the Roman Catholic Church has been addressing over the past century or so, beginning with Rerum Novarum; the Roman Church understands, largely from bitter experience, that both Fascism and Soviet-style socialism are the results of out-of-control capitalism, and while both are certainly "cures that are worse than the disease", they spring forth from such capitalism, which is, in fact, indeed a "disease": sin begets sin.
Besides the fact that it is unjust that some people live in opulence while others, even while working full time jobs, go hungry or have other basic needs, such as healthcare, that go unmet, there is also the fact that wealth accumulated beyond a certain point creates an imbalance in political power, which leads to the wealthy, whether persons, families, or corporations, accumulating ever more wealth, regardless of what this accumulation costs society in general. Without certain safeguards being in place, one cannot divorce economic power from political power: “money is the mother’s milk of politics”. Among such safeguards, a strong, democratic organized labor movement is essential.
Thus, it is incumbent upon the state, charged with, in St. Paul's words, "rewarding good and punishing evil", to keep the economic playing field more-or-less level, something that, at least in the United States, it has been neglecting in the past few decades. This task has been part of the divine mandate given to the state going back to the covenant with Noah. IOW, while such sharing should be voluntary in the Church (and in most cases, it obviously is not), there is a question of justice here, and it is the state’s responsibility to impose justice when that is called for. Or, to put it another way, what goes on in the Church should be an example and model for those outside, and if it were, perhaps the state’s intervention would be unnecessary. However, given the concrete circumstances of our existence, such intervention is often necessary, and is certainly so at this time.
If things continue as they are, the economic crisis now beginning in the United States could well overshadow the Great Depression, and we will have to deal, once again, with the prospect of the rise of some sort of totalitarianism, from either the right or the left, as was the case here in the years immediately prior to WWII. Remember, according to St. Paul, the state too is a “minister of God” and we are to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. IOW, while there is a right to private property, even private productive property, it is not absolute. That is why the Roman Church continually has recourse to the concept of “the common good” in discussing these issues. And, given our form of government, all of us are blessed in that we have certain basic rights, guaranteed by our Constitution, which allow us to have a voice in these decisions.
Plus, on another level, as the Lord Jesus himself indicates many times, when the wealthy ignore the needs of the poor, they endanger their own salvation (for example, Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 16:19-31, Luke 18:18-25) . This is not simply a matter of a juridical decision, arbitrarily imposed, but is a question of learning to allow the Lord to work in our lives and to radically transform us so that we entirely trust in God. It is all too easy, existentially, for the wealthy to bypass this because it is so easy for them to trust in their wealth (and attendant political power) as opposed to trusting God for their wellbeing in this life. This is why “almsgiving” and “fasting” are basic disciplines of the Christian life, along with "prayer".
Thus, all Christians are called to a modest, frugal lifestyle and, if they have been "blessed" with accumulated wealth, to use that wealth in the service of others, to consider carefully the consequences of their investments and, if they employ others, to treat their employees fairly.