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Equality and Inequality

A Christian Perspective


By Philip Trower

Every educated westerner knows how making all human beings equal came to be regarded as what ought to be one of the three main goals of any decent society. Roughly 250 years ago a gifted and not unendearing literary vagabond with ideas like dynamite persuaded a decadent once-Christian ruling-class and intelligentsia that the notion of hierarchy or of one man or woman being in any way superior or inferior to another was in some way demeaning and an affront to human dignity.  We were initially all in every respect equal and we must do everything to restore ourselves to that state.

What remains difficult to understand is how so many gifted and well-meaning people remain wedded to the idea, after two centuries of trying to realise it, have had such devastating effects. The importance  they understandably attach to equality before the law and fundamental human rights partly explains the situation.  But they do not seem to see that the very concept of such rights is fatally jeopardised if you do not believe in God.  A blind cosmic process can no more confer rights than a duck can play a violin.

To some extent common sense usually has a modifying effect.  I am sure for instance that even the most dedicated egalitarian doesn’t believe that all men are equally gifted or that it would be possible to organise a society in which everyone --- the head of a university and a shop assistant --- would receive the same salary.  Certainly the Soviets didn’t.  In the Soviet paradise all animals were equal, but some animals were more equal than others.

Conflicting with common sense on the other hand is a tendency to identify equality with sameness.  If men and women for instance are to be made as much as possible alike, why did the Creator, or if you wish the evolutionary process, give men beards but not women?

Certainly human beings like other biological creatures have certain important things in common.  We all belong to the same species for instance.  But that is not a reason for making ‘equality’ an absolute ideal in the sense that diversity or difference should as far as possible be wiped out?  On the contrary, variety and difference are what make nature and the universe so fascinating and beautiful.  They would be far less so if instead of being, like an orchestra, a harmony of different sounds and instruments, they resembled a regiment of soldiers on a drill ground; a conglomeration of identical units all doing the same thing at the same time.

The Holy Father, Pope Francis, recently commented on this. Speaking of unity and diversity in the Church, he said it was the ‘specific duty’ of the Holy Spirit to create ‘harmony’ out of the diversity.  Unity is through harmony not equality.  ‘We’re all different in the Church, we’re not equal, thank God’ otherwise ‘it would be hell’.

Of course equality, which is basically a numerical concept, has its place in nature.  But it is a very small place. Things can be alike in number or degree.  There will be the same number of peas in two heaps of equal size.  Or two women can be equally beautiful without necessarily looking in the least alike.  The equality here is in the amount of the transcendental quality we call beauty.

How then has this state of affairs, this ‘idealisation’ of ‘equality’ as a supreme good, and even the object of a cult, come about?  Or rather why does it persist?  We know how it came about.

Largely  I have come to believe through the unacknowledged inheritance of certain Christian ideas, the most important being that “everyone matters”. Indeed there is a sense in which the whole secularised post-enlightenment European heritage can be seen as a vast web of Christian heresies.  That is Christian ideas misinterpreted or misplaced.

“Everyone matters.”  That means there is no such thing, as there is in the Oscar Wilde play of that name, as ‘a woman of no importance,”  or ‘a man of no importance’ for that matter either.  To quote  our late Cardinal Hume: “Everybody matters.  No human life is ever redundant.”

Perhaps no one has expressed the idea more beautifully than  Bl. John Henry Newman.  A single human baby, he tells us somewhere, matters more to God than the whole physical universe.  So since we were all babies once there is no one to whom this does not apply or has not once applied.  Indeed as God does not desire the death of even the worst sinner it must continue to apply right up to the end.

Having agreed then that, without making us equal in every respect, God has endowed us with certain features in common which make us creatures of a particular kind. Over and above this, having established that every human being matters to a degree almost beyond imagining, we can relax and let common sense prevail once more in regard to the very modest place which equality as such otherwise occupies, in the overall scheme of things. This is compared to diversity, variety, difference and dare I admit it, that  now almost indecent word ‘hierarchy’.

Leaving aside the angels for a moment, is anyone going to insist that among plants and animals there are not higher and lower species, or among humans degrees of talent and ability?

However here again, just as there is a big difference between the common sense view of equality and the egalitarian cult of it, so there is between the way ‘the world’ understands  hierarchy and the way Christian tradition does.  I am using the word ‘world’ in the Gospel sense.  For worldly-minded people higher positions or abilities exist for the advantage of their possessers.   In Christianity they exist for the benefit of those lower down the scale.

Nothing better epitomises the Christian position  than the papal title ‘Servant of the servants of God’; or the fact that each of us, tiny though we are, is in the charge of an immensely powerful spiritual being, a guardian angel. Those of children being ‘always in the face of the Father.’  Authority, hierarchy and power are for service, not self-satisfaction.  The more you possess the stricter the accounting you will have to give. Such is hierarchy in Christianity.  It turns the notion of hierarchy on its head. It is the same with inequality.  Inequality in Christianity is for the strong to look after the weak. This, at least, seems to be one reason why the poor are blessed and the last shall be first. Hierarchy also exists because in helping God ‘complete’ his creation (CCC 2460) there are different tasks, higher and lower or more and less difficult, for human beings to do.

It will perhaps be useful here to give some more of Pope Francis’ thoughts about equality. 

In his morning homily on 5th June last year he identified three categories of people in the Church: uniformists, alternativists, and advantagists.  Uniformists are “those who want everyone to be equal in the Church… to make everything uniform.”  These people have been present from “the very beginning”: that is from “when the Holy Spirit willed that the pagans be allowed to enter the Church.”  Such Christians Pope Francis described as “rigid” because “they don’t have the freedom that the Holy Spirit bestows and they confuse what Jesus preached in the gospels with their doctrine of equality.”

It is the specific duty of the Holy Spirit, he continued, to “produce harmony in the Church….Unity in the Church is harmony---we’re different, we’re not equal, thank God, otherwise it would be hell.”

Taking our subject all in all, one can perhaps say that what concerns the majority of  well-meaning westerners most --- those the Church now calls ‘men and women of good will’ --- is gross inequalities of wealth rather than trying to make everyone as much alike as possible.  The Holy Father has described such inequalities as “the root of social evil”. 

But this, as I will show in a moment, doesn’t mean that he thinks the pursuit of justice and peace should culminate in establishing universal middle class prosperity world-wide, and that we should see this, the final equality, as the main goal of history.  Such may be the aim of our secularist brethren, and I have the impression that many Catholics are being enticed into embracing it.  But it is all more mysterious than that.  It is mysterious  both theologically and economically.

It now seems to be a well established fact that in countries where the gap between richest and poorest is widest, or where there is most economic inequality, the poor are better off because the economy works better. I get this from an article in our English Catholic Herald by a Professor Philip Booth of the Cass Business School.

Pope Leo XIII, (d.1903) whom he quotes, appears to have put his finger on the explanation for this phenomenon, when he forecast about socialism in general, that  were its economic principles to be imposed, “the sources of wealth would run dry. For no one would have any interest in exercising his talents or his industry, and that ideal equality, about which they have such pleasant dreams, would be in reality the levelling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation.”

Could anyone deny that this is exact situation, foretold by Pope Leo, would be realised to a greater or lesser degree in every country where Marxism was to triumph during the forth-coming century?  The only people not to suffer ‘degradation and misery’ would be the ‘egalitarian’ ruling classes.

I will end with some of the Holy Fathers’s reflections on the mystery of riches and poverty given to Il Messagero on 30th June last year.

“Poverty is the centre of the Gospel….The Gospel cannot be understood without understanding real poverty, keeping in mind that there is a most beautiful poverty of the spirit: to be poor before God so that God can fill you.  The Gospel addresses the poor and rich alike.  And it speaks both of poverty and wealth.  It does not in fact condemn the rich at all except when riches become idolatrous objects --- the god of money, the golden calf.”

A final word about the Church and socialism.

While she rejects socialism as a system of government, she does in her social teaching embrace the principle of what she calls ‘socialization’.  By this she means that we all have a moral obligation to work together with our fellow citizens in so far as we can or are equipped for it, to promote the common good either on a national or local level.  Purely individualistic self-advancement and consumerism are not on the cards.


Copyright © Philip Trower 2016

Version: 11th September 2016

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