In the previous posting on this subject, we learned that, while Pope Leo XIII started off his pontificate by continuing the condemnation of the “new things” of socialism, modernism, and “New Age” thought, people just weren’t “getting it.” Despite the work of Msgr. Aloysius Taparelli, S.J. in developing a philosophically sound principle of social justice, the socialists had seized on the term and made it their own by giving it a definition that conformed to socialism instead of to natural law.
|Henri de Saint-Simon|
Taking back social justice could wait, however, but the danger of socialism could not. The principle of the New Christian socialist Henri de Saint-Simon, that everything is to be subordinated to material betterment, had permeated virtually the whole of society. Worse, Leo XIII had discovered that the traditional focus of the Church on faith and reason was having little if any effect. A new approach was needed to combat the new things.
The New York City mayoral campaign of 1886 triggered a breakthrough in the manner of presenting Catholic social teaching, which some have mistaken for a change in teaching. Campaigning against Abram Stevens Hewitt (1822-1903), Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1858-1919), and a few “also-rans,” the agrarian socialist Henry George (1839-1897), supported by his colleague, the Catholic priest Father Edward McGlynn (1837-1900), ran on a platform derived from George’s book, Progress and Poverty (1879).
|Abram Stevens Hewitt|
George declared if elected mayor he would establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. He would do this by founding a New Christianity and abolishing private property in land to bring temporal salvation to humanity and inaugurate a terrestrial paradise.( Sylvester L. Malone, Dr. Edward McGlynn. New York: Dr. McGlynn Monument Association, 1918, 12; Stephen Bell, Rebel, Priest and Prophet: A Biography of Dr. Edward McGlynn. New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1937, 27.) How George expected his New Crusade (ibid.) would do so has never been explained.
Summoned repeatedly to the Vatican to explain his views on land ownership, McGlynn refused and was excommunicated for disobedience July 4, 1887 (effective July 5, due to the holiday). In the meantime, an encyclical that began as a particular response to the controversies stirred up by George and McGlynn was expanded to address all forms of socialism (“Opposed to Henry Georgism,” The Milwaukee Journal, April 30, 1887, 1).
|Pope Gregory XVI|
Half a century before, Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos had been revolutionary as an encyclical that addressed social matters instead of religious, philosophical, or theological issues. Nearly four years in preparation and involving consultation with a number of experts, Leo XIII’s new encyclical was equally revolutionary as a Catholic social document. This has led to the mistaken belief that Rerum Novarum — the term comes from a phrase in Gregory XVI’s Singulari Nos — was the first social encyclical.
Instead of merely warning against the new things of the modern world (especially socialism) on the grounds that they are opposed to faith and reason, however, the new encyclical presented a pragmatic solution to the problems of both capitalism and socialism: widespread ownership of capital. Leo XIII’s long experience as both a civil and religious leader — he became pope at an age when most men had already retired — gave him a unique and practical knowledge of how society actually works that the socialists, modernists, and New Agers could not match.
|Pope Leo XIII|
Pecci’s terms as papal governor of Benevento (1838-1841) and Perugia (1841-1843), then as nuncio to Belgium (1843-1846), and finally Archbishop-Bishop of Perugia (1846-1878) were exemplary both for the future pope’s administrative efficiency and attention to the needs of the poorest of the poor. (As nuncio to Belgium, Leo XIII had been made titular Archbishop of Damietta. His appointment to Perugia, a bishopric, was technically a demotion, so the hyphenated title was granted to stress the fact that he had not been degraded.) He concentrated his efforts in four areas: 1) reform and training of the clergy, 2) education for all, 3) promoting widespread capital ownership, and 4) resisting the intrusion of the State into individual, family, and religious life.
This vast experience and knowledge are what Leo XIII applied to resolve not merely the stated conflict between “labor” and “capital” (meaning owners of labor and owners of capital, respectively), but to lay the foundation for rebuilding the whole of the common good. In this way the social order would not become a “Heaven on Earth,” but provide the environment within which every child, woman, and man has access to the opportunity and means to acquire and develop virtue.
Ordinary people could become not the gods of the New Age or the slaves of capitalism and socialism, but more fully human by acquiring control over their own lives through direct capital ownership. As the pope explained,
We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners. (Rerum Novarum, § 46.)
There was only one problem. Despite all his experience and practical knowledge, the pope had only a limited grasp of money, credit, banking, and finance.
In common with many of the leading experts at the time, Leo XIII believed that the only way to finance new capital formation (i.e., invest) is to produce more than is consumed, and accumulate the excess as money savings. These savings can then be used to purchase land or develop a business. As he said,
If a workman's wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income. (Ibid.)
|Father Edward McGlynn|
As would be the case with distributism a few decades later, the problem here is twofold. One, by limiting the source of savings to what can be accumulated by restricting consumption (“practicing thrift”), only people who can afford to cut consumption will be able to save and invest, and that, to all intents and purposes, means only the rich can afford to own capital.
Two, by implying that the only source of capital is that which is already owned by others, Leo XIII’s program relied on the willingness of wealthy owners to divest themselves of their capital voluntarily. Anything else would destroy that private ownership the pope had already insisted must be regarded as “sacred and inviolable.”
Despite the revolutionary genius embodied in Rerum Novarum, there remained no practical means to implement Leo XIII’s vision. Even in America, the one country where it had been possible to obtain land on easy terms under Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act, the “free land” had nearly all been taken by 1891 when the encyclical was issued.
Nor were the capitalists, socialists, modernists, and New Agers slow to take advantage of these weaknesses.#30#