Is economic equality a moral obligation?

I was reading an Anthony Trollope short story recently.  It’s set around Christmas time, and part of it relates how the pastor of a parish tries to make sure that the needs of the poor are met and, if possible, that each of them is provided somewhat more than the necessities, so that they can feast a little on Christmas Day.

The pastor does this by taking up subscriptions for the purpose from the local gentry and farmers.  At one point it is said that the pastor is not a rich man, so when the farmers don’t cough up quite enough, he doesn’t have the means to take the burden entirely on himself.  As a result, one of the poor families must resign itself to having just enough to eat on Christmas, but not enough extra to constitute a feast.

Meanwhile the pastor lives in a nice, comfortable house, with servants.

The pastor’s complaint is not that some people are rich, while others are poor.  His complaint is just that those who are better off, aren’t offering enough to let the poor to have something extra for Christmas.

Which got me thinking:  Why didn’t the pastor feel guilty that he lived in this nice, probably relatively large house, with servants and a yearly stipend that enabled him to live in relative luxury, while others, including widows and orphans, were just getting by?

It appeared from this story, that the obligation felt by the pastor and the farmers and gentry, was not to make poor people no longer poor, but merely to make sure they didn’t go hungry (as well as making sure they had enough to celebrate with during Christmas, presumably so that they themselves could celebrate in good conscience).

And it seemed to me that this was correct:  In all the exhortations to almsgiving in the scriptures and the writings of the saints, I don’t recall anyone abhorring inequalities in wealth per se.  What is abhorred is rich people living in splendor while others go *hungry* or die of cold or what have you.  You don’t have to make the poor not poor, you just can’t let them starve.

I decided to check St. Thomas Aquinas, who seems to have analyzed everything about good and evil and religious obligations.  What St. Thomas has to say on the matter is basically the following:

1.  It’s more important to give “spiritual alms” than corporal alms.

Since it’s more important to take care of the spirit than the body, therefore the spiritual works of mercy are of more importance than the corporal works of mercy.  It’s more important to turn someone from his sin than to relieve his hunger.

Now obviously, if someone’s hunger is extreme — i.e. he is sick or dying from lack of food — you need to succor his health before anything else.  But once he has enough to eat and is not in imminent danger or extreme pain, the top priority should be to make sure he is instructed if he is ignorant; counseled if he is doubtful; reproofed if he is living in sin, etc.  In other words, it’s more important to improve his spiritual condition than his economic condition.

2.  Corporal alms nevertheless have a good spiritual effect, on both giver and receiver:  On the giver when they are given out of love, and on the receiver when he is moved to pray for his benefactor.

3.  Almsgiving is a matter of precept — but only to a certain extent.  (By a “matter of precept” is meant something that we are specifically instructed and required to do.)

St. Thomas says that almsgiving is a matter of precept insofar as one has surplus from which to give, after taking care of his own needs and the needs of those for whom he is responsible; when someone’s need is extreme, in other words he is in danger of illness, injury or death if he doesn’t receive help; and when without our aid he will not receive the help he needs.  In those circumstances we are obliged to help as a matter of precept, since to let a person die when we could have saved him would be like killing him ourselves.

Otherwise, almsgiving is “a matter of counsel” — we may or may not give alms depending on our inclination or the circumstances.

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