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Pope Leo XIII’s error

I came across this in a blog recently. It is curious that the author should have chosen this passage from the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, because it is precisely here that the document was in error, and it has set the tone of Catholic Social Teaching ever since.

It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases. Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and, consequently, 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. Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.”

Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891

Rerum Novarum is in many respects an excellent document. But in this passage lies the fatal error. It is amongst other things, in conflict with Leviticus 25:23 “”The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me.”

It is also bad economics. Land ownership is as questionable as ownership of air, if that were possible, since land is a free gift of God to the whole of mankind.

It was particularly unfortunate as it left Catholics unable to answer the arguments of the socialists and helped to open the doors to the communist tyranny.

It also crippled what was one of the good fruits of RN, the distributist movement. Because of the views expressed in the paragraph you have quoted, the distributists were never able to put forward a fiscal and legislative framework which would have promoted and sustained a distributist economy.

Subsequent encyclicals have reviewed the whole issue of property rights and modified them, though inadequately. The latest, Caritas in veritate, has in some respects taken the subject back to square one.