What today’s Aristotelian-Thomist finds astounding in the modern interpretation of Catholic social teaching — quite apart from what seems to be the virtual complete abandonment of, even full-blown attack on reason deprecated by G. K. Chesterton, of course — is a claim that I have come across a number of times. This is that Leo XIII (contrary to the claims of the Catholic Church that it has never changed a substantial teaching) inserted a “new” understanding of private property into Rerum Novarum.
Having made that statement, I must immediately qualify it. “Liberals” believe that the pope somehow changed an unchangeable teaching of the Catholic Church. “Conservatives,” on the other hand, assume as a matter of course that the new understanding that has developed is actually the old teaching, and fail to see any difference . . . or (at least) claim not to see any difference. Then you have those “liberal-conservatives” (or “conservative-liberals”) whose contradictions preclude an accurate or even meaningful classification of their errors.
If the understanding of a particular teaching were consistent with what the Church actually teaches, this would not be a problem. Well, not a problem except for the specific individuals who put truth on a different basis than what is actually the case. Getting the basis of truth wrong is one of those seemingly small errors that leads to great errors in the end.
Unfortunately, both the “liberal” and the “conservative” understanding of why something is true is badly flawed. That is, they both base their opinions — not knowledge — on faith instead of reason. This leads directly into a much greater error that the Catholic Church has termed “modernism.”
More than one commentator has remarked that “modernism” is an unfortunate choice of words. This is because “modern” is the last thing that modernism is. Modernism is a synthesis of pretty much every crime against reason that has been committed for at least 2,500 years, or since the Greeks set out to try and systematize human thought.
Modernism bases things on the will rather than intellect, that is, on faith rather than reason. This has been devastating in its effect on our understanding of the natural law, and thus our understanding of Catholic social teaching, especially with respect to the natural right of private property.
Of course, it all depends on what it is you’re putting your faith in. The ultimate error is the same, but it manifests itself in different ways.
For the “liberal,” it is fairly obvious what is going on. One of the condemned propositions of modernism is that religious faith must conform to the findings of science.
This is wrong on two counts. One, while scientific truth and religious truth are both consistent with the principle of identity (that which is true is as true, and is true in the same way as everything else that is true), we have to realize that scientific truth and religious truth deal with different subject matter.
Scientific truth and religious truth cannot contradict one another, but they aren’t going to say the same thing. They are different areas of knowledge, and you can’t apply the findings of one to the other. You can’t say, for example, that because in biology photosynthesis turns light into plant food, then 2 plus 2 equals green.
Two, the science on which the “liberals” base their claim that religious truth must conform to scientific truth is usually bad science — or, when the science is good, their understanding of it is bad.
This is worse in the social sciences, because it is in the social sciences that errors about the natural law have their most serious effect. If we make a mistake about human nature, we will, obviously, carry that mistake over into the social sciences. We see this most graphically with respect to the natural right (i.e., based on human nature) of private property.
Most modern economic science is based on an assumption that leads inevitably to the conclusion that ownership or control of capital must be concentrated. We won’t go into the whys and wherefores right now, because that is not the point we’re making. We’re only after the bottom line: that most people cannot exercise their natural right to be an owner in any meaningful sense. The only question is whether a private elite will own (capitalism), or a public elite (socialism).
That being the case, the “liberal” argues, then all that the pope says and the Catholic Church teaches about the sacredness of private property and the need for widespread ownership of capital must be either prudential (i.e., nice if you could do it, but you can’t), or “private property” must mean something entirely different from what people have always assumed it meant.
In neither case can a natural right be something truly inherent in human nature, or maybe human nature isn’t really as absolute as people have always assumed. The Catholic Church must conform its teachings to this infallible teaching of science.
The “conservative” does the same thing, except in reverse. The “conservative” accepts what the Catholic Church teaches as infallible . . . but makes the unconscious assumption that what “science” teaches is also infallible. Consequently, regardless what it might look like what the words mean, the Catholic Church is really saying what science is saying because science must conform its teachings to what the Church teaches . . . which is conforming to what science teaches.
Briefly, then, “property” means two things. One, property is the natural right inherent in each and every human being to become an owner, that is, to acquire title to things. Property is not the thing itself. Two, property is the bundle of socially determined rights that define what an owner may do with what he or she possesses or “owns.”
In general, no one may use his or her possessions in any way that harms him- or herself, other individuals or groups, or the common good as a whole, or in any way that prevents others from exercising their rights. As Louis Kelso pointed out (and as we quoted, supra), “Property in everyday life, is the right of control.”
In Rerum Novarum, then, Leo XIII carefully presented this understanding of private property, and explained its importance in the social order. Thus, while the pope severely criticized capitalism, he condemned outright both the harsh, fascist socialism of Karl Marx, and Henry George’s milder, more Fabian socialism — that, nevertheless, carried within it the seeds of fascism, as would become evident in the social thought of Msgr. Ryan.
Ironically, in the celebrated debate between Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw — that Chesterton insisted was not a debate at all, but an investigation — Shaw kept insisting that there is no substantial difference between his, Shaw’s, version of Fabian socialism, and distributism. This is a position that today’s neo-distributists also take, but without many of them using the word socialism, Fabian, fascist, or otherwise.
To counter George’s argument against the legitimacy of title in land, Leo XIII stressed that private property in land is fully as legitimate as private property in any other form of capital: “[I]t is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels.” (Rerum Novarum, § 5).
The question of title was not, however, the main issue. The pope made it clear that it was the centerpiece of George’s program, the “single tax,” i.e., all or most profits from land ownership (and by extension any other form of capital) that makes georgism or any other form of presumably benevolent socialism unacceptable.
This includes the demand (an integral aspect of Keynesian economics as well as the programs developed by Msgr. Ryan) that the State tax for “social purposes.” Excess taxation for social purposes usurps the right of families and individuals to take care of themselves, and at the same time deprives them of the means of doing so. As the pope explained,
“The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether. The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair.” (Ibid., § 47.)
Thus, the remedy to “the social question” as Leo XIII saw it was widespread capital ownership: “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.” Ibid., § 46.) The pope’s program can be summed up in what we at CESJ call “the Four Pillars of a Just Market Society”:
• A limited economic role for the State: “There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.” (Ibid., § 7),
• Free and open markets within an understandable and fair system of laws as the most objective and democratic means for determining just prices, just wages and just profits — the residual after all goods or services are sold: "Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancinet than any bargain between man and man." (Ibid., § 45),
• Restoration of private property, especially in corporate equity and other forms of business organization: “A working man’s little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor. But it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels.” (Ibid., § 5), and
• Widespread capital ownership, individually or in free association with others: “The law . . . should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” (Ibid., § 46.)
There was, however, a fatal omission from Rerum Novarum, an omission that would be repeated in Quadragesimo Anno, and prevent a clear expression of the three principles of economic justice otherwise implicit in Catholic social teaching. That omission was the failure to realize that past savings are not the sole, or even the best source of financing for new capital formation. We will address the implications of this omission in the next posting in this series.