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THE Global Justice Movement Website
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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Distributive Justice"?, XIX: Henry George and the Catholic Church

In 1886, agrarian socialist Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty (1879), ran for mayor of New York City on the socialist United Labor Party ticket.  Father Edward McGlynn, a priest of the New York Archdiocese, strongly supported George’s candidacy.

McGlynn’s endorsement was combined with George’s known sympathies with Catholicism — within limits.  George’s wife was Catholic, and he raised his children in that faith.  This made him very popular with many of the New York Irish.

This did not, however, stop George from making what have become the standard accusations against the Catholic Church when it suited his needs.  He declared, for example, that, “The Catholic Church has been used to bolster the power of tyrants and to keep the masses quiet under social injustice.”  (“Their Church Insulted: Prominent Catholics Express Their Opinion of Henry George,” letters to the editor from Eugene Kelly and P. M. Haverty, New York Times, January 11, 1887.)

McGlynn continued to campaign for George after Vatican authorities ordered him to desist.  (“A Summons from Rome: Dr. M’Glynn to Answer for Political Activity,” New York Times, December 10, 1886.)  Eventually McGlynn would be excommunicated (not, it is important to note, for heresy, but for disobedience), although reinstated after an equivocal recantation through third parties.  He then continued his activities in support of George as if he had never been censured . . . arguing that he had never really apologized for his outrageous behavior, and the lifting of the ban was, in reality, an acknowledgement that his views were not heretical. That McGlynn was thereby calling himself a liar doesn't seem to have occurred to him.

George’s thesis was that, while people can be permitted to “own” land and natural resources, title to land is, in his opinion, a meaningless concept.  This is because in George’s theory the State (the community or the collective) has the right to take to itself all income — the usufruct or fruits of ownership — resulting from land ownership, regardless who holds nominal title.

Thus, instead of taking over nominal ownership directly, the State would exercise effective ownership indirectly by means of the “single tax.”  The “single tax” consisted of all profits from land ownership.  As George explained his proposal,

“What I, therefore, propose, as the simple yet sovereign remedy, which will raise wages, increase the earnings of capital, extirpate pauperism, abolish poverty, give remunerative employment to whoever wishes it, afford free scope to human powers, lessen crime, elevate morals, and taste, and intelligence, purify government and carry civilization to yet nobler heights, is — to appropriate rent by taxation.

“In this way the State may become the universal landlord without calling herself so, and without assuming a single new function.  In form, the ownership of land would remain just as now.  No owner of land need be dispossessed, and no restriction need be placed upon the amount of land any one could hold.  For, rent being taken by the State in taxes, land, no matter in whose name it stood, or in what parcels it was held, would be really common property, and every member of the community would participate in the advantages of its ownership.”  (Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 406.)

As Louis Kelso would point out decades later, “Property in everyday life, is the right of control.” (Louis O. Kelso, “Karl Marx: The Almost Capitalist,” American Bar Association Journal, March 1956.)  By taking away control and enjoyment of the fruits of ownership through the tax system, George’s proposal would abolish private property in land by making title meaningless.

George’s theory transformed the meaning of the universal destination of all goods from universal individual exercise of the right to property, to collective title. It thereby changed the right to property, that is, the right inherent in every human being to own, from the right to acquire title, to the actual grant of title itself.

The meaning of “generic” in “generic right of dominion” was in this manner changed from “of, applicable to, or referring to all the members of a genus, class, group, or kind,” to “of, applicable to, or referring to the genus, class, group, or kind as a whole, i.e., the collective.”  The change in the definition of “generic” abolished private property as effectively as direct confiscation by the State.

Both populists and socialists flocked to George’s banner.  Clinching matters (at least as far as many New York Irish Catholics were concerned) was the fact that George received an endorsement from Michael Davitt of the Irish National Land League.  Charles Stewart Parnell opposed George’s program because he, Parnell, was against nationalization of land.  This caused a split in the League, weakening it at a critical time.

The defection of the Irish from the Democratic Party, on whose support the party had always been able to rely, naturally worried Tammany Hall.  Boss Tweed had been sent to prison, and the party leadership was working hard to clean house, especially in light of the challenge from the reforming Progressive Republican candidate, Theodore Roosevelt.  Tammany Hall asked the New York Archdiocese for the official Catholic Church opinion as to the orthodoxy of George’s proposal.

They got an earful.  Despite McGlynn’s activities and strong support from working class Catholics, as well as George’s own sympathies with the Catholic Church, his proposal was still socialism, and condemned.  Father Thomas Scott Preston, Vicar-General of New York and Protonotary Apostolic, was quite clear that (as Pius XI would remind Catholics less than half a century later) “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”  (Quadragesimo Anno, § 120.)

As Preston explained, “The various theories embraced under the general name of communism or socialism are, in the opinion of the Catholic Church, not only contrary to the law of God, but destructive of the best interests of society.”  (Rev. Thomas S. Preston,  “Socialism and the Church,” The Forum, Vol. V, No. 2, April 1888.)  Preston analyzed George’s proposal at great length, giving reasons and supporting argument explaining the Catholic Church’s position.

Preston explained that the difference between socialism and communism is only a matter of degree, not of kind.  As private property in land or anything else is a natural right inhering in each person, the State is a thief when it takes over what belongs to private citizens, regardless of the justification, except for the highest good and on offering just compensation.  Preston then reminded Catholics that “we can never do wrong in order that good may come.” (Ibid.) He cited socialism as the example of wrongdoing with which he was concerned:

“The socialism which has been advanced in this country, of late, as a panacea for human ills, denies that there is, or can be, any private property in land.  We quote the exact words of Mr. Henry George: ‘We must make land common property. . . . If private property in land is just, then the remedy I propose is a false one; if, on the contrary, private property in land be unjust, then is the remedy the true one.’

“The whole theory advanced by this gentleman is contained in this proposition, and without it all he has written and argued goes for nothing.  On it he stands or falls. In his opinion land can never be appropriated by any individual, no matter what the State or the community may do to sanction it. According to him, property in land is robbery.  “Although the whole people of the earth were to unite, they could no more sell title to land against the next generation than they could sell that generation.” (Ibid.)

Thus, as Preston observed, George’s theory “is contrary to the constitution of all civilized nations, and would destroy the present order of society.  Secondly, it is contrary to the law of God and the teaching of the Catholic Church.”  (Ibid.)  Preston closed by reminding Catholics, “If the supreme tribunal of the Church has already condemned the main proposition of [George’s] theory, that condemnation alone is sufficient for sincere Catholics.”  (Ibid.)

While the explanation of the true Catholic position on George’s theories managed to salvage the election for the Democrats (for all the good it did them), George came in a close second to the reforming Democratic candidate, Abram Stevens Hewitt, while Roosevelt finished a distant third.  Unfortunately, Hewitt, while of unquestioned honesty and integrity, was not the right person to put the Democratic Party in New York back on the straight and narrow.  In the judgment of some authorities, the level of corruption soon exceeded anything seen under Boss Tweed.

Catholic support for George’s proposal, especially in light of the growing economic disenfranchisement of ordinary people through the loss of capital ownership, continued to grow.  This was helped not a little by the enthusiastic support of McGlynn, who directed all his efforts to support georgism.  This was in spite of unequivocal warnings from the New York Archdiocese and even the Vatican itself.

It was clear that something would have to be done.

That “something” was Rerum Novarum.