As we noted in our last episode in this series, socialism was growing by leaps and bounds in the latter half of the 19th century, particularly in America, which had seemed immune. This was largely due to the fact that prior to the Civil War the issue had been between the industrial and commercial capitalism of the North that ran on wage slavery, and the agrarian capitalism of the South that ran on chattel slavery.
After the war many people saw socialism as the only answer. Henry George’s ideas in particular gained a strong following, especially among Catholics, whose Church had condemned socialism. Obviously countermeasures had to be taken. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued what many authorities consider the first “social encyclical.” There is evidence suggesting that the pope issued the encyclical, at least in part, to counter the growing influence of George, both in America and in Europe, especially Ireland.
George’s chief promoter among Catholics, Father Edward McGlynn, had been excommunicated, but reinstated after an equivocal recantation. Georgist “legend” later claimed that McGlynn had convinced Leo XIII that the abolition of private property via the single tax was acceptable. There is, however, no evidence to support this contention other than a book written years after George, McGlynn, and Leo XIII were dead.
Whatever the truth of the matter, McGlynn continued to speak at georgist meetings, and to promote the “single tax” as if he had never been censured or excommunicated. In consequence, georgist legend today takes full advantage of the suspicion that many Americans (even Catholics) have of the Vatican.
Leo XIII is portrayed alternately as conniving and duplicitous, and then as a dupe of the Jesuits. The pope is accused at one and the same time of being mentally slow and a “wily European” bent on confusing and deceiving honest Americans — whom he then betrayed by condemning everything American in Testem Benevolentia Nostræ.
A natural law interpretation of key passages about private property and its benefits in Rerum Novarum refutes George’s concept of the “single tax.” The single tax consists of all income (“rent”) and increase in value attributable to land ownership.
It seems evident from George’s swift response to Rerum Novarum that he (George), at least, thought he was being singled out for criticism. In a 30,000-word “open letter” to the pope, The Condition of Labor published on September 11, 1891 (Rerum Novarum was issued on May 15, 1891), George did not, however, debate the issue so much as state his disagreement with Catholic teaching on private ownership of land and natural resources.
To be fair, although not a Catholic, George was polite and much more respectful of the Holy See than many Catholics, especially today. George found himself able to agree on many of the teachings in Rerum Novarum. He certainly had no quarrel with the goals that Leo XIII said were desirable, even necessary. George may even have been one of those Leo XIII had in mind when the pope declared,
“Our thoughts now turn to those who dissent from us in matters of Christian faith; and who shall deny that, with not a few of them, dissent is a matter rather of inheritance than of will? How solicitous We are of their salvation, with what ardor of soul We wish that they should be at length restored to the embrace of the Church, the common mother of all. . . . Surely we ought not to desert them nor leave them to their fancies; but with mildness and charity draw them to us, using every means of persuasion to induce them to examine closely every part of the Catholic doctrine, and to free themselves from preconceived notions.” (Leo XIII, Longinqua (“On Catholicism in the United States”), 1895, §§ 20-21.)
George, however, disagreed strongly with the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church, based on the natural law that applies to the whole of humanity. This is that individuals as individuals have a natural right to own land and natural resources as well as the products of human industry — capital.
This is because George traced the problem of poverty and virtually all other social and economic ills to private property in the limited capital of land and natural resources. This meant that the Catholic Church was, in his opinion, failing to address the real cause of poverty.
The exact opposite is the case. Leo XIII and subsequent popes seem to have been watching the United States — “the last, best hope of earth” — very carefully. George’s program, no less than Marx’s, would therefore have been a matter of grave concern.
Combined with the rise of other forms of socialism, the nullification of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Slaughterhouse decision that redefined the source of natural rights, the badly flawed financial system that favored the rich over the poor, and the effective end of “free” land as the decade of the 1890s opened, George’s success among Catholics would have been regarded as a very serious matter indeed.