A reader asks for precision on Leo XIII

A reader asks for precision on Leo XIII June 27, 2017

A reader writes:

You recently posted a quote attributed to Leo XIII that “Once the demands of necessity and propriety have been met the rest of your money belongs to the poor.”

This is not exactly what he said. According to this, what he actually said was

But when the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, it is a duty to give to the poor out of that which remains.’Give that which remains as alms.'”

The words “out of” make Pope Leo’s demands look more reasonable. I think some people who would object to the words “the rest of your money belongs to the poor” might not object to what Pope Leo actually said, which is a more nuanced position.

So I would ask you to refer people to the more accurate quote and the website I referred to in order to reverse any damage done to Pope Leo’s reputation.

I also recommend you read the context of the quote. Pope Leo says that the duty to give to the poor out of that which remains, except in cases of extreme necessity, is one of charity and not of justice and ‘obviously cannot be enforced by legal action.” He nevertheless adds that the laws of men yield precedence to the law of Christ. Your public comments on this would be of interest.

I thank my reader for the more accurate quote (that will teach me not to verify exact quotes on the web). On the other hand, I can see no essential difference between the quote and the paraphrase I posted. Nor can I, for the life of me, see how the paraphrase “damages” Pope Leo’s reputation, since it is essentially the same point made again and again in the Tradition:

St. Ambrose: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to poor persons. You are handing over to them what is theirs. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.”

St. John Chrysostom: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”

St. Gregory the Great: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”

St. Gregory the Great: “For if everyone receiving what is sufficient for his own necessity would leave what remains to the needy, there would be no rich or poor.”

St. Basil: “Are not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast receivest to distribute? It is the bread of the famished which thou receivest, the garment of the naked which thou hoardest in thy chest, the shoe of the barefooted which rots in thy possessions, the money of the pennyless which thou hast buried in the earth. Wherefore then dost thou injure so many to whom thou mightest be a benefactor.”

St. Bede: “He then who wishes to be rich toward God, will not lay up treasures for himself, but distribute his possessions to the poor.”

Leo XII: “Every person has by nature the right to possess property as his or her own. . . . But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used?, the Church replies without hesitation in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘One should not consider one’s material possessions as one’s own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when other are in need. … .’ True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for one’s own needs and those of one’s household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly one’s condition in life. … But when what necessity demands has been supplied and one’s standing fairly provided for, it becomes a duty to give to the needy out of what remains over.”

Pius XI: “The right to own private property has been given to the human by nature, or rather by the Creator himself. … At the same time a person’s superfluous income is not left entirely to one’s own discretion. … On the contrary, the grave obligations of charity, beneficence and liberality, which rest upon the wealthy are constantly insisted upon in telling words by Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. However, the investment of superfluous income in securing favorable opportunities for employment … is to be considered … an act of real liberality, particularly appropriate to the needs of our time.”

Gaudium et Spes: “God has intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of all people and all peoples. Hence justice, accompanied by charity, must so regulate the distribution of created goods that they are actually available to all in an equitable measure. . . . Therefore, in using them everyone should consider legitimate possessions not only as their own but also as common property, in the sense that they should be able to profit not only themselves but other people as well. Moreover, all have the right to possess a share of earthly goods sufficient for themselves and their families. This is what the Fathers and Doctors of the Church had in mind when teaching that people are obliged to come to the aid of the poor, and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods.”

Paul VI: “Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditional right. No one is justified in keeping for one’s exclusive use what one does not need, when others lack necessities.

St. John Paul II: “It will be necessary above all to abandon a mentality in which the poor — as individuals and as people — are considered a burden, as irksome intruders trying to consume what others have produced.”

I am puzzled at why my reader found it necessary to point out that we cannot be compelled by law to be charitable.  Of course we can’t.  And I never said we should be.  What I was trying to point out is that those who brag about their burning charity but who cannot even be persuaded to acknowledge the claims of justice are, not to put too fine a point on it, liars.

So when I hear the umpteenth Catholic libertarian say they would *love* to be charitable while adamantly refusing to acknowledge that they owe a debt to the common good when the state seeks taxes for such legitimate things as paying for soldiers, cops, road builders, infrastructure maintenance, and health care workers, then I say their claims to possession of a super-added charity that goes above and beyond mere justice are rubbish.  If you will not pay what you owe, who will believe you when you say you will charitably give what you do not owe?  He who is faithless in small things will be faithless in great things as well.

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