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A church for the poor?

New popes always bring a new direction to the Catholic church. It is over 120 years since the first of the Social Teaching encyclicals, Rerum Novarum, was issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. This was interpreted as, amongst other things, an assertion of the rights of both workers and property owners, and, importantly from our perspective, a condemnation of land value taxation. The latter led to the writing of a defence of land value taxation by Henry George, under the title of The Condition of Labour, and the presentation a copy of the book to the Pope. The main defect of Rerum Novarum is that it conflated land and capital under the heading of “property”, just as did the classic Marxist analysis. Taking it as a starting point, however, it follows logically that if property is a good thing, then everyone should have some, which is not going to happen if a few people have too much. That was the origin of the political movement called Distributism, as developed by Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton in the 1920s and 1930s. Its ideal could be summed up in the phrase “three acres and a cow”. That would certainly be better than the kind of economies which prevail almost everywhere today, although I would rather have my three acres at the north end of London Bridge than in the fells of Cumbria.

Further Encyclicals issued in 1931 by Pope Pius XI, and subsequently in the 1960s and 1991, emphasised that property owning brought with it duties to the community, including the idea of “stewardship”, though the particulars of these duties were never spelled out. The special nature of land was, however, referred to on several occasions but again, this was never been followed up as it should have been. The most recent Social Teaching encyclical, from Pope Benedict, Caritas in veritate, came out in 2009. This has received relatively little attention, but it takes the whole subject back to square one with an emphasis on justice. It is potentially a good foundation to develop a fresh body of teaching, but the trouble is that the Church’s experts generally come from a conventional academic background which obscures rather than clarifies. It would be unwise to expect too much but there is no harm in hoping that a pope who has declared for the poor will see that the Catholic church grasps the issue, and not before time.