Posted By Donald P. Goodman III On October 10, 2011 9:41 AM
Catholic social teaching is as old as Catholicism; the Scriptures themselves teach the basics of economic justice. ... However, formalized economic teaching from the Magisterium is a relatively recent thing; its pioneering document was that of the great Pope Blessed Leo XIII, Rerum novarum.
Rerum novarum has been received less than enthusiastically by modern economic thinkers; some, even Catholics, argue that it was based on ignorance5 or even that it has since been changed.6 Nevertheless, the correct attitude of the Catholic toward this great encyclical was enunciated early on by Pope St. Pius X, in his own encyclical Singulari quadam:
Therefore, in the first place, we proclaim that the duty of all Catholics is… to hold firmly and to confess fearlessly the principles of Christian truth, handed down by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, especially those which Our most wise predecessor explained in the encyclical letter Rerum novarum.7... Rerum novarum, and its daughter encyclicals from later popes, is the blueprint for Catholic economic thought, the schematic to which all our bricks and mortar must conform.
Rerum novarum was unpopular in some circles because it identified deeply rooted flaws in all the currently popular economic systems, particularly those called capitalism and socialism. ...
Pope Leo identified four primary problems with the prevailing economic situation: the lack of workingmen’s guilds; unrestrained competition; usury; and the concentration of property into few hands.19 All of these problems, though, really point to the last...[:] the overconcentration of productive property into the hands of a few, wealthy capitalists. This remains the defining characteristic of our current system. ...
And such market concentration is a definite problem, as the Pope himself pointed out. Indeed, the fact that “the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few” is a problem so severe that it has laid “upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”25 Nor is this mere hyperbole; as the great Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc observed, wealth is necessary to human existence, and “[t]herefore, to control the production of wealth is to control human life itself.”26 Capitalist society’s tendency toward the ever-increasing concentration of the means of producing wealth, then, is also a tendency toward the control of life by the owning few, exercised on the non-owning many. This limits the economic, and therefore political, significance of the bulk of the population while giving the few owners of productive property a great deal of power over the state.
The great pope ended his encyclical with an appeal to Catholics throughout the world:
We have now laid before you… the means whereby this most arduous question must be solved. Every one should put his hand to the work which falls to his share….27
And Catholics responded, attempting to imbue their societies, so corrupted by the revolution, with the principles of a Catholic social order. They devised systems which would apply those principles toward definite goals in particular societies. One such system acquired the name “Distributism.”
Distributism attempts to resolve these problems by recourse to an ancient principle of social interaction, distributive justice, ... [the] virtue “according to which a ruler or steward gives to each one according to his own worth.”29 The importance Distributism places on distributive justice is supported by Leo XIII himself, who taught that maintaining distributive justice toward all classes of society is “the first and chief” of a ruler’s duties.30
Distributism applies the principle of distributive justice to property, particularly to productive property. Pope Leo taught us that “[t]he law… should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners,”31 noting that “[m]any excellent results will follow from this; and, first of all, property will certainly become more equitably divided.”32 It is clear, further, that Pope Leo is speaking here of the distribution of productive property, not property simply, for he continues by arguing that this policy would greatly increase production, and the only type of property he specifically mentions is land, the epitome of the productive asset.33
The just distribution of productive property defines Distributism....34 While in a socialist society none are owners, and in a capitalist society only a few are owners, in a Distributist society most are owners of productive property. This is the defining characteristic of Distributism: the widescale distribution of productive property throughout society, such that ownership of it is the norm, rather than the exception. ...
Look for Part II next week.