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Pope Francis – whither Catholic Social Teaching?

Recent statements by Pope Francis have stirred up criticism and discussion of the attitudes of the Catholic church to poverty. In modern times, economic justice was first addressed in the Social Teaching documents Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, Quadragesimo Anno of 1931, and subsequently. The trouble is the subject was addressed inadequately. To make matters worse, like most things that have come from the Popes in the past century or so, the documents are not clear or to the point, but go all round it.

Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has failed properly to elucidate the fundamental question of property rights, from which poverty stems. There are those that own it and collect rent, and there are those that do not and work for wages and pay rent. The latter are like players in Monopoly, who join the game after all the squares are owned by one of the original players. Even if no-one had put houses or hotels on their sites, there would be almost nowhere they can go where they do not have to pay rent.

CST has always defended the right to private property. The trouble is that property is a weasel word. There is property which is the gift of God, and property which is the product of human labour, and no theory of political economy can address the issue of poverty without acknowledging the distinction. Marxism suffers from the same error, and most people who use the term “Capitalism” are doing it too. Leo XIII had no excuse. Following the publication of Henry George’s Progress and Poverty in 1879 – more than a decade before the Encyclical came out, the subject had been a matter of widespread public debate.

The exception to this criticism of CST is Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate of 2007, an unusually clear document which, exceptionally, goes right to the point, and states that charity must begin with justice. This effectively takes CST back to square one. Whether Francis will build on that remains to be seenl



The church has no business setting out an economic programme, but it does have a duty to state what, in political economy, is just, and what is unjust. It should most certainly not be creating a cloud of confusion over basic concepts like property rights, where it is necessary to distinguish between the gifts of God and the products of human labour.

CST fails through its definition of property. Property is comprised of both land and capital. The latter does indeed have rights. The artisan’s tools and the fisherman’s boat and tackle are rightly the property of their owners, since these artefacts have their origin in the labour of those who made them.

Land, however, is not capital. It is not the product of anyone’s labour and land ownership normally has its origin in seizure by force. In principle, it is contrary to morality, justice and scripture for someone to enclose an area of the surface of the earth and claim it as his in perpetuity (Leviticus 25). Private property in land is defended with statements like “the workers cannot make the wine if no one owns the field”, but this is untrue. Fields do not need to be owned by someone in order to make wine. The planter of the vine needs only to know that they he will be able to harvest the grapes. The precondition is secure occupation for a sufficient length of time.


Catholic Social Teaching has to acknowledge the distinction between property which is the gift of God, and property which is the product of human labour. The reluctance to do so seems deep-seated. It is argued that both property and labour are gifts from God; if generations of a family produced a great estate, why do we suddenly question the right of a son to own it and benefit from it? The father from Brideshead describing the generations of Marchmains who built the great estate.describes each generation: one dammed the river, the next drained the swamp, the next cleared the fields, and so on. The current head of the family has his rights vis a vis the work done, and the property accumulated, by his forefathers.

Or does he? When the God-made/human-labour distinction is made, we see that the great estate was enclosed from the commons by force and that the land in its natural condition was the swamp. That was and remains, the gift of God. All the improvements are indeed the product of human labour. The two need to be separated conceptually. Now almost all the improvements of which old Marchmain was talking have to be continually renewed, roughly speaking every 25 years. If they are not, the great estate will revert to its natural condition of swamp. The idea that it has been built up from generation to generation is less than the whole story.

It gets worse. Lord Marchmain and his ilk own most of central London, and anyone running a business there must pay what is in effect a private tax to these owners. It is also the case that some of these London estates came into the ownership of the aristocratic families by fraud, well documented in the case of the Duke of Westminster, who owns the most valuable parcels of land.

The Duke’s lands, held until the Reformation by Westminster Abbey, (it paid for the leper hospital which the monks ran)had been low-lying rough grazing. But as London spread, they became valuable. Then the municipal authorities put in roads, sewerage and drainage works (all requiring continual maintenance, and, in the case of the drainage system, pumping), and then, expensive infrastructure such underground railways and other amenities, all of which have to be kept in good working order. These services, provided by the community at large, are what makes the Duke’s estate valuable. If their operation was suspended even for a short period, the great London estates would quickly revert from being the most valuable neighbourhoods in London to badly-drained swamp where nobody would want to live or run their businesses.

We have here a gift of God in the shape of a few square miles of the surface of the planet, in a sought-after location, whose value is sustained by the presence and activities of the community. It makes these Lords the ultimate free-riders. It is time that Catholic Social Teaching was revised so as to acknowledge and condemn this systematic theft. That should keep Pope Francis and his successors busy for some time. If they do their job properly, it will also draw the fire of the faux-libertarian upon them.