Inequality and Redistribution in Catholic Social Teaching
Central to the Biblical concept of the Jubilee is the redistribution of property to alleviate accumulations and dispossession. Such concentration occurs very naturally in many economies, since none are perfect, but it becomes greatly exaggerated in industrialized nations:
“The development model of industrialized societies is capable of producing huge quantities of wealth, but also has serious shortcomings when it comes to the equitable redistribution of its fruits and the promotion of growth in less developed areas.”
There is an overwhelming amount of time spent in Catholic Social Teaching exhorting authorities and private persons to act against rising social inequality.
Pope Francis has gone so far as calling inequality “the root of all social evil.”
And if we grant the interdependence of political and economic power, which implies that inequality of property necessarily implies imbalances in political power, then it is not difficult to see why this is so.
a. A problem of distributive justice
We discussed above the differences between commutative and distributive justice. Commutative justice is the most personal, practical, and obvious, but it is also the imprecise. Considering every day transactions, even if both parties aim with good will toward the just price of the goods or services being exchanged, they will rarely hit the mark. When someone under- or over-pays, the amount of the deviation begins to accumulate, introducing disequilibrium into the system. On a social level, when these accumulations reach a certain point, an offense against distributive justice becomes apparent and, because distributive justice is the role of the State, and because it is obvious that at this point only the State could possibly remedy the injustice, it falls to political action to propose a solution.
Note that we have only mentioned transactions in which men sincerely aimed at the just price. Even here we must admit that deviations must occur and accumulate. What would we expect, then, in a society in which men are taught to use every means at their disposal to pay least and charge the most in economic transactions?—and in which some are in a position to exploit and some are in a position to be exploited? A society which has forgotten the Just Price in favor of self-interest and the profit-motive will necessitate the action of the State far more than a society which seeks justice of its own accord, because it will be actively seeking disequilibrium in every transaction. The need for distributive justice in the case of large-scale inequality is great indeed.
b. Removing structural causes of inequality
Benedict XVI called for the “structural causes of economic dysfunction.” He was joined later by Pope Francis who said:
“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.”
On this point, Francis went so far as to issue a challenge by invoking the words of Christ: “You yourselves give them something to eat!”
But what does this mean?—and what did these popes have in mind? We can begin by remarking that many of the modern world’s problems are self-inflicted and are rooted in the imperfection of human planning and problem of selfishness:
“Having become his own centre, sinful man tends to assert himself and to satisfy his desire for the infinite by the use of things: wealth, power and pleasure, despising other people and robbing them unjustly and treating them as objects or instruments. Thus he makes his own contribution to the creation of those very structures of exploitation and slavery which he claims to condemn.”
Yet, even if we allow that this diagnosis is accurate, we still need a more specific analysis if we hope to arrive at practical solutions. For this purpose, a cursory survey of CST will produce quite a few more specific causes of inequality: land concentration and the need for agrarian reform, particular for undeveloped nations; unemployment and underemployment; insurmountable barriers to market entry; barriers to education; media preference and prohibitive advertising costs which inevitably favor the few and exclude the majority. With respect to this last point, we can speak of a population of “information rich” which corresponds to an “information poor,” a problem which stems from the unequal availability of technology. Lastly, all of these possibilities involve or encourage large-scale indebtedness, which can be attributed in part to personal choice, but also in part to necessity.
But perhaps the most recurring problem is one we’ve already mentioned, and which has proven most difficult to remedy. The evil in question is the concentration of property, and the solution proposed is the redistribution of property.
As unwelcome as the phrase “redistribution of wealth” may be in certain contemporary circles, it is a common theme in CST. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI said that:
“Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic. This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility. Therefore, it must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution.”
Throughout this encyclical he uses the term “redistribution” a total of eight times, even mentioning joyfully the “unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale.”
Although it should be abundantly clear by now that the Church takes this stance in favor of private property rather than against, the popes are constantly met with accusations of socialism, as if a call to redistribution was equivalent to the abolition of property altogether. But Benedict XVI is defending nothing other than the doctrine of diffused property which we mentioned earlier and which has its roots in Rerum Novarum itself. To quote again, for the sake of convenience, the relevant passage, we see that Leo XIII concurs with Benedict XVI:
“The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.”
 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Towards a Better Distribution of Land. The Challenge of Agrarian Reform (23 November 1997), 1.
 Evangelii Gaudium, 52-53, 59-60, 202; Rerum Novarum, 3; Populorum Progressio, 9; Caritas in Veritate, 22, 32, 42; Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 14; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 94, 145, 192, 297, 362, 363, 374, 389, 561.
 This comment appeared on the Pope’s twitter account on April 28, 2014.
 Mk 6:37.
 Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Towards a Better Distribution of Land. The Challenge of Agrarian Reform (23 November 1997), 13.