Pope Francis: Zacchaeus and "legitimate redistribution"

The latest speech from Pope Francis is leading Drudge and the Twittersphere, and for good reason. Any time a world leader talks about “legitimate redistribution” in regard to economic policy, it raises eyebrows, if not hackles. In the case of this pontiff, the highlight of that phrase provokes heightened scrutiny. However, the longer context of Francis’ remarks this morning to UN leadership provides a much more nuanced picture of Francis’ view of economic policy — although probably not nuanced enough for libertarian ears:

With this in mind, I would like to remind you, as representatives of the chief agencies of global cooperation, of an incident which took place two thousand years ago and is recounted in the Gospel of Saint Luke (19:1-10). It is the encounter between Jesus Christ and the rich tax collector Zacchaeus, as a result of which Zacchaeus made a radical decision of sharing and justice, because his conscience had been awakened by the gaze of Jesus. This same spirit should be at the beginning and end of all political and economic activity. The gaze, often silent, of that part of the human family which is cast off, left behind, ought to awaken the conscience of political and economic agents and lead them to generous and courageous decisions with immediate results, like the decision of Zacchaeus. Does this spirit of solidarity and sharing guide all our thoughts and actions, I ask myself?

Today, in concrete terms, an awareness of the dignity of each of our brothers and sisters whose life is sacred and inviolable from conception to natural death must lead us to share with complete freedom the goods which God’s providence has placed in our hands, material goods but also intellectual and spiritual ones, and to give back generously and lavishly whatever we may have earlier unjustly refused to others.

The account of Jesus and Zacchaeus teaches us that above and beyond economic and social systems and theories, there will always be a need to promote generous, effective and practical openness to the needs of others. Jesus does not ask Zacchaeus to change jobs nor does he condemn his financial activity; he simply inspires him to put everything, freely yet immediately and indisputably, at the service of others. Consequently, I do not hesitate to state, as did my predecessors (cf. JOHN PAUL II,Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 42-43; Centesimus Annus, 43; BENEDICT XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 6; 24-40), that equitable economic and social progress can only be attained by joining scientific and technical abilities with an unfailing commitment to solidarity accompanied by a generous and disinterested spirit of gratuitousness at every level. A contribution to this equitable development will also be made both by international activity aimed at the integral human development of all the world’s peoples and by the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.

Consequently, while encouraging you in your continuing efforts to coordinate the activity of the international agencies, which represents a service to all humanity, I urge you to work together in promoting a true, worldwide ethical mobilization which, beyond all differences of religious or political convictions, will spread and put into practice a shared ideal of fraternity and solidarity, especially with regard to the poorest and those most excluded.

In this case, the term “legitimate” is a limiting factor when redistribution is placed in the context of the Gospel story of Zacchaeus. Who was Zaccheaus? He was a tax collector — an agent of the government — who overtaxed and profited from his cheating. In Luke 19, Jesus’ visit to Jericho inspires this sinner and cheater to repent when Jesus extends an invitation to join him. What does Zacchaeus do in response? He proclaims his intent to redistribute his ill-gotten gains back to those whom he defrauded, and to willingly and privately share his wealth with the poor. “And Zacchae’us stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

In this exhortation, Francis links legitimate redistribution — ie, social benefits that almost every nation distributes in some form or another — with the larger efforts in the private sphere. Francis calls more for the conversion of the heart in private transactions in this exhortation more than any change in public policy. Much like conservatives like to profess in other contexts, Francis argues here that culture is upstream of politics. If we change hearts to be more generous and less attached to the hoarding of wealth as Jesus did with Zacchaeus, then there will be less need for governments to redistribute by force.

This may not be the most conservative or libertarian expression of economic policies, but it’s basic Catholic teaching on economics for decades, if not centuries. The lesson of Zacchaeus isn’t that government should seize more private property, but that private citizens should convert to a greater love of God and therefore have more solidarity with the poor. Those who oppose social-benefit programs will still find fault with Francis on this point, and there’s plenty of room for debate as to what constitutes “legitimate” efforts in that sphere. It’s clear, though, that he wasn’t calling for widespread and massive confiscation of wealth by governments. In fact, the story of Zacchaeus points out the dangers and injustice that result from that kind of policy.

Just remember — when the media provides only small soundbites of Pope Francis, it pays to read the entirety of his remarks, and to know and understand the teachings behind them.

Update: David Freddoso asks, “How do you know Pope Francis is being misquoted? His lips are moving.” Like me, he suggests that people read the speech rather than the coverage:

Pope Francis discussed “equitable development” and a spirit of generosity, and he even mentioned — near the end, almost as an afterthought — that the state should continue to play a role in this. But there’s no “demand” for broader “legitimate redistribution” by government. …

When Francis said “legitimate redistribution” right near the end, he was clearly condoning some kind of role for governments in assisting the poor. Perhaps he even believes in a more robust role than he lets on here. But he did offer anything on that topic here. To be sure, a demand for a more robust government role would not necessarily be inconsistent with anything he said, but it’s also not what he said. In fact, the use of the word “legitimate” here appears to play the opposite role that the AP’s headline implies — namely, the Pope is implying that not all government redistribution is “legitimate,” and that there might be unspecified limits to what it is just for the state to do. (Which is, in fact, part of the message of the earlier papal documents he cites immediately before that line.)

Kathryn Jean Lopez also notes what the AP and other agencies left out of the speech:

He sounded some familiar themes of his past 14 months as pontiff. He admonished our “throwaway culture,” he talked about the need for “solidarity” with the suffering, and to serve the poor. In his talks with Catholics and all people of good will, he injects the Beatitudes even into more secular context. The Beatitudes are who he is, why Catholics are who we are, and they just so happen to make the world more tender and compassionate.

So, of course, the first Associated Press story that hits the wires makes no mention of anything Pope Francis had to say about the “culture of death” but runs the headline “Pope urges ‘legitimate redistribution’ of wealth by the state to poor in spirit of generosity.”

Actually, he didn’t, but that gets in the way of the media’s preferred narrative.

Update: I forgot the link to David’s piece, but it’s fixed now.