Today, the National Catholic Reporter tells of an article that appeared in “the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper,” L’Osservatore Romano, which was written by one-time feminist and current historian Lucetta Scaraffia. In it, she “compared proponents of gay marriage, with their championing of ‘marriage equality,’ to 20th-century communists who wooed millions with their promise of perfect social and economic equality.”
Now, this article certainly does not possess the magisterial authority of a statement issued by the pope speaking in unison with the church’s bishops. But it still raises some interesting questions.
If believing in marriage equality is like believing in “perfect” social and economic equality, is it also like believing in racial equality? Put another way, if being pro gay marriage is like being a 20th century communist, and 20th century communists are defined as advocates of economic equality, is it then also like being a 19th century abolitionist?
This question in turn prompts a further one, only indirectly related to the morality of supporting gay marriage in the civil sphere. How can one oppose racial inequality but condone economic inequality? If it is wrong to organize society in such a way that people receive unequal treatment according to race, how then is it acceptable to organize society in such a way that people receive unequal treatment according to class? Scaraffia goes quite a bit further than this. She does not merely condone economic inequality, she harshly condemns those who strive to eliminate such economic inequalities from society.
(Of course we could debate whether she describes accurately communism either as political theory or as political fact just as we could similarly question whether various communisms in fact ameliorated these inequalities or if they instituted new oppressions…but let’s put that aside for now.)
For Christians who believe that all human beings are endowed with equal dignity as creatures of God whom we image, these questions of inequality are more than just rhetorical. Human dignity sits at the very center of Catholic social teaching. We hold to some sort of baseline human equality that transcends individual differences of talent, beauty, or aptitude.
In light of this I wonder, when is it acceptable to treat equal people unequally?
First, I would like to sopport the fact that it is indeed wrong to strive to eliminate economic inequalities by using social enforced systems (such as communism) when economic inequalities are to be addressed through charity one at a time… and such inequalities are to be deemed a blessing. This applies to many cultures as well, on which people feel grateful that they can help a single person through charity.
Indeed, it is worth mentioning that dignity is not related to economic or social status (or marital status) or even equality. So in order to understand when it is acceptable to treat equal people unequally, it is important to understan that “equality per se” is not the same that “equal dignity”.
As we undertand that people is not equal, even if digninty is equal among people, we realize that unequality is to be applied as people is not equal.
So for instance, wo know that people do not learn equally. Some people learn better through analisys, while other people learn better through experience. So, they are not equal and thus they should certainly be treated unequally. (Let alone the fact we all are not equal). So it depends on God what each one of us deserves to learn or possess (this includes blessings). So, even if things seems unequal to us, for God they are equal. Just the same, I’m pretty sure the never changing decisions from saints that have reflected on the Church’s teachings are an aid for us to notice when some “unequal” situation is indeed “unequal” before the eyes of God and it depends on us (individually speaking) to change that particular “unequal” situation in the light of the Church.
When we disagree with the light of the Church, disagreement should help us to realize that we are having a sin inside us that prevents us from understanding the truth. Hence we know we should pray for better understanding or for humbleness to accept that we are not to understand everything… but we should accept it nonetheless. Such is Love.
In general, I think there may be times when it is acceptable to treat people unequally: where there are relevant differences between them, or where outcomes for all will be better.
In the first case, it can be argued that, while race is not a relevant difference from an economic point of view, other things such as talent or effort may be. Our economic system probably doesn’t actually pay the talented more or the hard-working more all (most of?) the time. But if you think it should, you accept there are reasons why rewards might be unequal.
The other case was put forward by Rawls. He argued inequality was acceptable as long as the inequality meant those at the bottom did better. So if the very poorest were better off in an unequal society than an equal one then it would be just to have an unequal society.
The problem with both of these is, of course, putting them into practise. How would we ensure effort and talent are rewarded and that the inequalities we have mean the poorest are better off?
Thanks for your comments, cathyby, and apologies for my delay in responding to you. I agree that in theory rawls provides the best (and really the only) moral defense of inequality-that inequality is permitted only if the worst off are better than they would be in a perfectly equal society (I believe that’s a fair paraphrasing of rawls, please correct me if I’m mistaken).
But as you point out, the problem is in the application. I also think ideology clouds our judgement (of course rawls tries to provide more empirical and objective means of measuring these things so I am now talking less about rawls and more about our ordinary, real world, political deliberations.) We demonize the poor, thinking them incapable of flourishing without the beneficence of the rich. We imagine them dependent and believe their inequality is good for them. For example, here in the US many white apologists for slavery insisted (and probably sincerely believed) that blacks were better off enslaved by whites than they were free. To a lesser extent, I think we still believe this about the poor today b ecause we believe them so innately “bad” in the first place.
So I’m not sure how we distinguish productive inequalities (the type rawls imagined) from those that are unjust. I would love to hear more thoughts about this.