4.2.3 RN, part 1: A natural right to private property (##4-15)

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Unit 4 Contents

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The first part of Rerum Novarum (RN) is a critique of socialism’s proposed remedy for the conditions workers face.  What was socialism’s remedy?  You will remember from Unit 2 that a defining feature of socialism is belief in transferring property ownership from private individuals to communal bodies, either state institutions or co-operative enterprises.  Pope Leo says, with much force, that to blame private ownership for the problem gets the diagnosis wrong and that the socialist solution would make it even worse.

He argues that each human being has ‘by nature’ – given the way God has created us to be, i.e., according to the ‘natural law’ – “the right to possess property as his own” (#6).  The basis for this right is the capacity of humans to use resources given by God in creation to produce things that benefit us.  This capacity involves the use of human reason and is one of the things that marks humans out from other animals (#6).

The most important point to recognize about this first part of Rerum Novarum is that Pope Leo saw private property, not as the cause of the problem, but as part of the solution.  What poor and exploited people need is things that are their own, that give a basis for material security.  This is why he was strongly opposed to socialism.  He puts the point with great force.

[I]t is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit [and] is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind… The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property. (#15)

This statement can be seen as a summary of the first part of RN.

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Optional reading (8pp)

Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum,

##1-15 (introduction and first part)

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The statement in the quotation above that common ownership “must be utterly rejected” is very strong.  Some people would argue that that statement is, at least if taken by itself, a bit misleading about what Catholic Social Teaching says overall.  This is because the principle of the ‘universal destination of material goods’, which you will recall was introduced in both Unit 1 and Unit 2 (2.2.9), appears to be in tension with it.

When Leo wrote in 1891, the principle of the universal destination of goods had not been articulated in the explicit way it was later, although it was implicit long before (notably in St Thomas Aquinas).  This principle insists that all ownership and use of goods ought to be, ultimately, for the common good, not just for the private good of the specific owners or users.  This principle is based on a belief that God has first given all the goods of creation to human beings together, before particular people have ownership of particular things.  Some would say that this gift to all humanity can be called a form of common ownership.

In fact, Leo XIII qualified his emphasis on private property later in RN, quoting St Thomas Aquinas:

“Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.  Whence the Apostle [i.e. St Paul] writes, ‘Command the rich of this world… to offer with no stint, to apportion largely’ [1 Tim. 6:17-18].” True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household… But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. (#22)

We shall come back to this issue in Unit 5, but for now we can simply note that in RN Leo strongly emphasized private ownership.  His main point was: this is not the problem, as socialists contended, but is part of the solution.

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Reflection

What do you think is the proper balance between, on one hand, insisting that people may own property privately because this contributes to overcoming poverty and, on the other, recognizing that God has given material goods to all humanity for the common good?

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End of 4.2.3

Go to 4.2.4 RN, part 2: The role of the Church in teaching and charity

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