The Social Doctrine of St. Basil the Great

by Kamiel Duchatelez

Basil’s social doctrine is grounded in the conviction that all people are equal and share the same human nature. The poor, the rich and the emperor are all companions in slavery, that is, they are all dependent on God. Moreover, human beings are social creatures and communal life and interaction with one another require a generosity that can alleviate the needs of the destitute. The scriptural command to “Give to anyone who asks” calls us to a sharing and a mutual love that are characteristic of human nature. The Acts of the Apostles teaches us how this is to be put into practice. In the first ecclesial community of Jerusalem, the Christians sold their goods and gave the money to apostles to distribute to those who needed it.

Basil encouraged the faithful Christians of his time to respond to the Gospel injunction to “sell your possessions and give to those in need.” He had long ago responded to this call and committed himself with all his heart to a life of voluntary poverty. In the Acts of the Apostles, the giving away of one’s possessions is presented as a free choice, and in the Gospel it is seen as a condition of perfection. However, Basil became even more radical and saw it as a rule of life for all Christians. Moved by the extreme social needs of the population, and enlightened by the Scriptures, Basil insisted that the produce of the earth was intended for all. While God the Creator had indeed distributed it unevenly, he had done this with the intention that the rich should share with the poor.

Basil simply swept aside such objections as “To whom am I unjust when I keep what is mine, asks the rich man.” His response: “Tell me, which things are yours? Where did you get them from at the beginning of your life? It is like someone who has a seat in the theater, and who objects when others also take their places. He claims that he owns what is for the common use of all. So too with the rich. They claim in advance that which is common property and make themselves the owners of it. Moreover, if everyone acquires what they need and leave the excess over for the destitute, then there will be no rich and no poor. Did you not come naked out of your mother’s womb? Are you not going to return naked to the earth? Where did you get your present possessions from? If you say ‘from fate,’ then that makes you an atheist who neither acknowledges your Creator nor gives thanks to your Benefactor. If you acknowledge that they came from God, then tell me the reason why He gave them to you. Is God unjust that He gives the things of life to people unequally? Why are you rich while another is poor? In any case, is it not so that you can receive the reward for good and faithful stewardship, and the other can receive the reward for his patient effort? But you, who grasps at everything in your insatiable greed, do you really think that you are doing nobody injustice by plundering so much? Who is the greedy one? The one who is not satisfied with that which is enough. Who is the plunderer? The one who takes that which belongs to all. Are you greedy? Are you a plunderer? The one who steals clothes off someone’s back is called a thief. Why should we refer to the one who does not clothe the naked, while having the means to do so, as anything else? The bread that you have belongs to the hungry, the clothes that are in your cupboard belong to the naked, the shoes that are rotting in your possession belong to the barefooted, the money that you have buried belongs to the destitute. And so you commit injustice to so many when you could have helped them.”

“Nice words, but money is nicer,” thought the rich in reaction to Basil’s harsh charge. Basil viewed the goods of the earth as a gift of the Creator. God had entrusted their stewardship to a number of people who were intended to share them with others. With his theory of stewardship, Basil went beyond a prevailing understanding of almsgiving in his day to lay a new foundation for the Church’s social work.

We can see in this a plea for the recognition of what we might call human rights, although Basil also goes further than this. In situating the inequality between rich and poor in God’s ordering of salvation history, so that the former are called to love of their neighbor and the latter to patience, Basil clearly saw that there is no such thing as private ownership in the strict sense. And, there should really be no such categories as rich and poor.

This radical approach sounds revolutionary in the face of corruption and excess. But it is an evangelical radicalism that we are meant to strive for nonviolently. This is not so surprising considering that Basil upheld the one same ideal for all Christians. He was realistic enough to realize that not everyone would follow that ideal, but it was lived out among ascetics and in monastic communities. Jesus and the scriptures held up certain ideals to which all were invited, but to which not all would respond.

The author is a Catholic priest living in Belgium. This is an extract from Basilius de Grote: Een Evangelische Revolutionair (Averbode, 1999, pages  110-112). The translation is by Macrina Walker. For more on the topic, see C. Paul Schroeder’s translation of St. Basil the Great: On Social Justice.