Thursday, February 20, 2014

Henry George v. Cardinal Gibbons


Georgist “legend” today has it that James Cardinal Gibbons (1834-1921), “quasi-primate” of the United States, did not put Progress and Poverty (1879) by agrarian socialist Henry George (1839-1897) on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”) because the Catholic Church found nothing wrong with George’s theory that individual people cannot own land.

A Georgist View of Religious Authority
Not quite.  The Catholic Church had serious problems with George’s theories, as Archbishop Michael Corrigan of New York had made clear, and as Leo XIII would make even clearer in Rerum Novarum.

So why did Cardinal Gibbons not “prohibit” Progress and Poverty?  Because forbidding Catholics to read it without special permission would give George’s theories credibility.  As a newspaper article from 1888 makes clear, Gibbons thought George’s thought really wasn’t worth bothering about:

The Lewiston Wednesday Journal
Lewiston, Maine
February 1, 1888, p. 1

HENRY GEORGE.
Cardinal Gibbons Does Not Believe His Writings Call for Any Action on the Part of the Catholic Church.

New York, Feb. 1.

Giovanni Cardinal Simeoni
The Herald has received from Rome by cable, copious extracts from Cardinal Gibbons’ letter to Cardinal Simeoni on the question of condemning the works of Henry George. The Cardinal states that in his opinion the condemnation would be inopportune and useless. He points out that Herbert Spencer, John Stuart Mill and others had advocated substantially the doctrines urged by Mr. George, long before the latter put them forth. It would be though [sic] singular if the church should ignore the works of those great thinkers and attack the comparatively unknown American.

Cardinal Gibbons then refers to doctrine [sic] set forth in Steecanellas treaties published by the propaganda in 1882 to show that Catholic writers regard land as subject to different treatment by state [sic] than other private property.  He also points out that Mr. George does not attack private property in things which are the results of human exertion but only wishes to extend the principle of eminent domain, which has always been a complicated question.

So far as Mr. George proposes to carry his theory into immediate practice, concludes the Cardinal, he is a mere visionary and the practical sense of the American people can be relied upon to reject his proposals.  It is therefore prudent to let such absurdities die a natural death and not incur the risk of giving them an artificial importance by the intervention of church tribunals.
James Cardinal Gibbons

Try as we might, there is nothing in that report to suggest that Cardinal Gibbons regarded Henry George’s theories either in a serious light, or as a threat to the Church.  They were not, in fact, really worth bothering about at all.

#30#

4 comments:

Baseball Billy said...

So, the Georgists are still making their presence felt? Where?

Michael D. Greaney said...

George's influence is strongly seen in today's understanding of private property and distributive justice, largely thanks to the efforts of Msgr. John A. Ryan as detailed in his books "A Living Wage" (1906) and "Distributive Justice" (1916).

Baseball Billy said...

Do you think the "Social justice" movement of the Democrat Party was built upon the thinking of Henry George, Msgr. John A. Ryan, and John Maynard Keynes?

Michael D. Greaney said...

Yes, I do. The whole story will be given in the book I'm currently working on. It's rather tangled, given all the political ins and outs that have muddied the waters, not to mention the bad assumptions that have worked their way into things.