Reuters reports that in his speech to a Vatican conference on social justice, Bernie Sanders “decried the ‘immoral’ gap between the world’s haves and have nots, saying it was worse today than more than a century ago.”
Sanders noted that the Roman Catholic Church’s first encyclical on social justice, written in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, lamented the enormous gap between the rich and the poor.
“And let us be clear. That situation is worse today. In the year 2016, the top 1 percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent,” the Democratic contender said.
“At a time when so few have so much, and so many have so little, we must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable,” he said.
Notwithstanding Sanders’s tired tirade against inequality, if he actually read a little bit of the document he referring to, he would quickly realize that the approach the encylical takes is nothing close to Sanders’s.
Pope Leo XIII indeed begins Rerum Novarum, the encylical Sanders is referring to, decrying the gap in both income and power between employers and workers:
3. .. [B]y degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.
And yet Leo XIII considers socialist solutions as hurting the very people they presumably wish to help!
4. To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. [My emphases]
In fact, Leo XIII goes so far as to say that socialism “is manifestly against justice. For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.” Further, inequality among people is a simple fact of life:
17. It must be first of all recognized that the condition of things inherent in human affairs must be borne with, for it is impossible to reduce civil society to one dead level. Socialists may in that intent do their utmost, but all striving against nature is in vain. There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition. Such inequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition. [My emphases]
Leo XIII wanted workers and capitalists to recognize that they need each other and act accordingly:
19. The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity. Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvelous and manifold. First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice. [My emphasis]
Leo XIII then goes into a great deal of detail discussing the respective roles of the rich, the working class, and the Church, but I have made my point. Sanders has constantly villified the rich, presumably to benefit workers. Leo XII’s perspective was completely different. He sought the natural harmony that can exist between labor and capital. If Sanders had any inkling of what Rerum Novarum actually said, one would hope he would have been much more hesitant to use it to support his divisive claims.