As we saw in yesterday’s posting, the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in the Slaughterhouse Cases effectively shifted the source of all rights, especially life, liberty and property, from human beings, to the State. This, to all intents and purposes, abolished the natural law as the basis for the government of the United States.
According to both Mortimer Adler and the solidarist political scientist and jurist Heinrich Rommen, abandoning an understanding of the natural law based on human nature — whether or not you believe that human nature is a reflection of God’s Nature — and thus discernible by reason alone, leads straight to tyranny. This had been going on in Europe for centuries, but now it was embedded in the country that, to all indications, the popes had been looking to as “the last, best hope of earth.”
It is this shift in the understanding of the natural law and natural rights away from its character as something inherent in each human being that constitutes socialism. This is seen most obviously in the insistence on the abolition of private property in capital as a natural right, private property being the principal support of and protection for life and liberty. As Karl Marx stated, “The theory of the communists can be summed up in the single sentence: the abolition of private property.” Leo XIII echoed this when he singled out “community of goods” as the chief tenet of socialism. (Rerum Novarum, § 15.)
Socialism had been on the rise since the end of the Civil War, characterized by Orestes Brownson as a struggle between the agrarian capitalism of the South, and the industrial and commercial capitalism of the North. Only the Homestead Act slowed the progress of industrial and commercial capitalism, and not everyone was able to take advantage of the “free” land. Small ownership was further weakened as a result of having to rely on past accumulations of savings and a deflating paper currency to finance growth and development, where the large commercial and industrial interests could create money virtually at will by discounting and rediscounting bills of exchange among themselves and the state and National banks.
When most of the available land was taken by the early 1890s, Frederick Jackson Turner characterized the situation as “the end of democracy.” Turner predicted that America would now become more “Europeanized” as ordinary people lost the means to be in direct control of their own lives.
Thus, the Supreme Court’s power grab in Slaughterhouse, and the lack of democratic access to the means of becoming capital owners combined to form an almost unstoppable coalition to concentrate economic (and thus political) power in fewer and fewer hands. Populism lost its orientation toward private property, and became, to all intents and purposes, a watered-down form of socialism.
In this environment, the program of the agrarian socialist Henry George, who advocated effective nationalization of all land and natural resources, seemed almost heaven-sent. While not himself a Catholic, he was married to a Catholic and his children were raised in that faith.
Strong support from some influential Catholics, both lay and cleric, as well as from Michael Davitt, the Catholic co-founder of the Irish National Land League, was key to George’s success. True, Charles Stewart Parnell, the president and co-founder of the League, was strongly opposed to land nationalization, but he was a Protestant. Scandals connected with Parnell, especially the Kitty O’Shea affair, seemed, in the eyes of many, to invalidate his opposition to George’s program.
Large numbers of people, both Catholic and Protestant, took this as tantamount to an official endorsement by the Catholic Church. Thanks to converts like John Henry Newman and Orestes Brownson, the Catholic Church had a high reputation for its intellectual integrity among many non-Catholics. The large Irish voting blocks in major cities also had significant influence, especially in Tammany-controlled New York.
The actual position of the Catholic Church, however, was (as today) almost completely the opposite of popular thought. Father Thomas S. Preston, a former Anglican clergyman who converted to Catholicism along with many others as a result of the “Oxford Movement,” wrote some very insightful critiques of George’s proposals. Father Preston warned fellow Catholics that George’s theories and proposals were directly contrary to the traditional teachings of the Church.
Father Preston’s efforts seem to have been intended to counter the activities of Father Edward McGlynn, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, who worked with George and even campaigned for him when George ran for mayor of New York. Father McGlynn was subsequently excommunicated for disobedience and dissent from Catholic teaching.
The excommunication was lifted after an equivocal recantation and promise to desist given through a third party, after which Father McGlynn simply continued his activities in support of George as if nothing had happened. Georgist “legend” has it that Father McGlynn bested Leo XIII in an unwitnessed debate at the Vatican over the issue of private property as a natural right, but there is no support for this other than a third party book written after both Father McGlynn and Leo XIII were dead.
Capitalism was growing in power, while socialism was growing in influence. While capitalism was in the ascendant at the moment, and, admittedly, was marginally less of a problem than socialism, that wasn’t saying much. The horrors of socialism had yet to reveal themselves, while those of capitalism were everywhere evident.
The only thing capitalism had in its favor was that it “merely” distorted and limited the application of the natural law, where socialism abolished the natural law itself. In Quadragesimo Anno (1931), Pius XI would characterize this abolition of the natural law as the basis of human society as “a theory of human society peculiar to itself.”
Something clearly had to be done. That something was Rerum Novarum.