The Catholic Thing
Of Workers and Property Print E-mail
By Pope Leo XIII   
Monday, 01 September 2014

There is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class. . . by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself. 

4. To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man's envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community. 

5. 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. . . .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.  . . .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. 

    The Iron Workers at Noontime by Thomas P. Anschutz (1880)

6. What is of far greater moment, however, is the fact that the remedy they propose is manifestly against justice. For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. This is one of the chief points of distinction between man and the animal creation, for the brute has no power of self direction, but is governed by two main instincts. . . .One of these instincts is self-preservation, the other the propagation of the species. Both can attain their purpose by means of things which lie within range; beyond their verge the brute creation cannot go. . . . But with man it is wholly different. He possesses, on the one hand, the full perfection of the animal being, and hence enjoys at least as much as the rest of the animal kind, the fruition of things material. . . .It is the mind, or reason, which is the predominant element in us who are human creatures; it is this which renders a human being human. . . . And on this very account - that man alone among the animal creation is endowed with reason - it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession. . . .

8. The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property. For God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man's own industry, and by the laws of individual races. Moreover, the earth, even though apportioned among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all, inasmuch as there is not one who does not sustain life from what the land produces. Those who do not possess the soil contribute their labor; hence, it may truly be said that all human subsistence is derived either from labor on one's own land, or from some toil. . . .

9. Here, again, we have further proof that private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature. Truly, that which is required for the preservation of life, and for life's well-being, is produced in great abundance from the soil, but not until man has brought it into cultivation and expended upon it his solicitude and skill. Now, when man thus turns the activity of his mind and the strength of his body toward procuring the fruits of nature, by such act he makes his own that portion of nature's field which he cultivates - that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality; and it cannot but be just that he should possess that portion as his very own, and have a right to hold it without any one being justified in violating that right. – excerpted from Rerum Novarum (1891)

         Pope Leo in an 1896 film

Pope Leo XIII (2 March 1810 – 20 July 1903), born Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci, was the fourth longest serving pope after St. Peter, Pius IX, and St. John Paul II. He died at the age of 93.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Myshkin, September 01, 2014
Pope Leo XIII was an intellectual giant. Thank you TCT for posting this excerpt. Can we hope that you'll post an excerpt from Aeterni Patris next January 28th?
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 01, 2014
“[T]he limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man's own industry, and by the laws of individual races.”

Indeed. As the great classical scholar, Charles Rollin (1661-1741), reminds us, “Theft was permitted in Sparta. It was severely punished among the Scythians. The reason for this difference is obvious: the law, which alone determines the right to property and the use of goods, granted a private individual no right, among the Scythians, to the goods of another person, whereas in Sparta the contrary was the case.”

You can see this principle everywhere enunciated in the French Revolution. Take Mirabeau (a moderate) “Property is a social creation. The laws not only protect and maintain property; they bring it into being; they determine its scope and the extent that it occupies in the rights of the citizens” So, too, Robespierre (not a moderate) “In defining liberty, the first of man's needs, the most sacred of his natural rights, we have said, quite correctly, that its limit is to be found in the rights of others. Why have you not applied this principle to property, which is a social institution, as if natural laws were less inviolable than human conventions?”
written by Carlos Helms, September 01, 2014
Greed: it is a terrible thing.
written by jenny, September 01, 2014
excellent point !!!!
written by Theodore Seeber, September 01, 2014
To support capitalism, it is not enough to merely affirm the good of Private Property, one would also have to affirm the abuse of Private Property- and this is something the Popes have never done.
written by Seanachie, September 01, 2014
Thanks for the refresher...haven't read this since an undergraduate Theology class many moons ago...reflects the essence of The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25).
written by Jon S., September 01, 2014
Re both this column and that of John Zmirak on August 30:

Catholic Social Teaching is not a myth, but it has become something of a mess because the Magisterium combines doctrine with social analysis and prudential judgments in its social teaching while rarely acknowledging it does so.

Catholic Social Teaching could be significantly cleaned up if the pope and bishops, both collectively and as individuals, always made clear in their teaching just what is doctrine, with which all good Catholics should agree, and what is either social analysis or prudential judgment, with which good Catholics may disagree.

The mess that Catholic Social Teaching has become would be furthered cleaned up if the Magisterium would concentrate on doctrine and thus teach the meaning of commutative justice, distributive justice, and general/legal/contributive justice. These terms are rarely used in Magisterial social teaching since Vatican II, and yet they form the essence of social doctrine.

It would also help if the Magisterium would teach on the connection between social doctrine and all other doctrines, such as Original Sin.

Instead the Magisterium engages far too much in social analysis and prudential judgments, which often results in the Magisterium attempting to exercise a social and economic expertise it simply doesn't have, and even results in the Magisterium practicing clericalism.
written by jason taylor, September 01, 2014
Theodore, I should think, by affirming the doctrine of Original Sin, they are affirming the abuse of Private Property as indeed they are affirming the abuse of everything else.
written by Gian, September 02, 2014
Hayek introduced the notion of "Several Property". From his perspective, what is necessary is not private property per se, but that the property should be widely distributed. This notion, akin to the distributism, did not become popular among conservatives, for understandable reasons.

True ownership, is a stable and public relation between a person and his property. The fluctuating and anonymous holding of financial assets, typical of this stage of financial capitalism, does not equate to true ownership and we see the evident fruits in lack of due stewardship and dissociation of man from reality.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author