Pope Francis’ Curious Encyclical
Pope Leo XIII

Pope Francis’ Curious Encyclical

Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti (Brothers All) offers an odd combination of timely and profound insights, flawed judgment, and an error in historical fact. The factual error is serious because it encourages those who are working to replace Democracy with Socialism. This essay, the first of a series, will examine that error.

Francis stated, “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” [Paragraph 120. Emphasis added]

In fact, Pope Leo XIII unquestionably recognized that right in his famous 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (RN). He wrote: “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.” [Paragraph 15. Emphasis added]

It is difficult to believe that both Pope Francis and his research assistants and editors are unfamiliar with Leo’s famous encyclical. After all, from its publication to the present it has been cited in other papal encyclicals and studied in undergraduate and graduate school theology courses, as well as in seminaries. The main reason scholars have given it such attention is its forceful rejection of Socialism’s opposition to private property! Rerum Novarum devotes no fewer than 20 sections to private property. Key points include the following:

“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. . . [In this way] 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 . . . 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 confusionin the community.” (Paragraph 4. Emphasis added)

“The authority of the divine law adds its sanction, forbidding us in severest terms even to covet that which is another’s: ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife; nor his house, nor his field, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is his.’” (Paragraph 11. Emphasis added. )

“It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten . . . [and] in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance.” (Paragraph 13. Emphasis added)

“First of all, there is the duty of safeguarding private property by legal enactment and protection. Most of all it is essential. . . [because] neither justice nor the common good allows any individual to seize upon that which belongs to another, or, under the futile and shallow pretext of equality, to lay violent hands on other people’s possessions.” (Paragraph 38. Emphasis added)

“We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners. Many excellent results will follow from this; and, first of all, property will certainly become more equitably divided.” (Paragraphs 46-47. Emphasis added.)

Note that Pope Leo did not ignore the perennial problem of unequal distribution of wealth, but argued that the solution was to increase ownership rather than redistribute wealth.

For decades, Leo’s successors affirmed his pronouncement on private property. But in time others expanded the concept of property beyond land and a dwelling to include companies and corporations, wages, investments and monetary assets. And in the Great Depression, the precipitous decline in prosperity altered the concept of charity. The provision of food, clothing, and housing to those in need became, not a matter of neighbor helping neighbor, but of government helping everyone. Programs like Social Security, the New Deal and, later, the Great Society came to characterize charity. More and more, people felt entitled to the benefits they received and voted for politicians who were generous with them. Pleased with that arrangement, the politicians felt no compunction about increasing taxes to continue it.

These changes in the social concept of charity gradually began to affect theological thought and find their way into papal encyclicals. At first the theological changes were ambiguous, as can be seen in the following quotations from Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (QA), 1931In each case, the emphasis has been added:

“Our Predecessor of happy memory [Pope Leo] strongly defended the right of property against the tenets of the Socialists of his time by showing that its abolition would result, not to the advantage of the working class, but to their extreme harm.” [Par. 44]

“[Yet] men must consider in this matter not only their own advantage but also the common good. To define these duties in detail when necessity requires and the natural law has not done so, is the function of those in charge of the State. . . . Therefore, public authority, under the guiding light always of the natural and divine law, can determine more accurately upon consideration of the true requirements of the common good, what is permitted and what is not permitted to owners in the use of their property. . . . That the State is not permitted to discharge its duty arbitrarily is, however, clear. The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away . . . [But] when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service. . . ; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them.” [Par. 49]

“To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice.” [Par. 58]

The public institutions themselves, of peoples, moreover, ought to make all human society conform to the needs of the common good; that is, to the norm of social justice.” [Par.110]

Socialism inclines toward and in a certain measure approaches the truths which Christian tradition has always held sacred; for it cannot be denied that its demands at times come very near those that Christian reformers of society justly insist upon.” [Par. 113]

“Whether considered as a doctrine, or an historical fact, or a movement, Socialism, if it remains truly Socialism, even after it has yielded to truth and justice on the points which we have mentioned, cannot be reconciled with the teachings of the Catholic Church because its concept of society itself is utterly foreign to Christian truth.” [Par. 117]”

Paragraph 44 seems to suggest that Pius XI’s encyclical is in harmony with Leo XIII’s. But then paragraph 49 not only opposes Leo’s “no seizing . . . under the pretext of equality”; it also blesses the State’s seizing of private property as “a friendly service” to property owners! Next, in paragraphs 58 and 110, Pius links the redistribution of property to “the common good” and “social justice.” Then, evidently unaware that he has been essentially advocating Socialism, he declares Socialism to be “foreign to Christian truth.”

Quadragesimo Anno may have been the earliest example of a major encyclical largely ignoring Leo XIII’s insightful—and indeed prophetic—assessment of Socialism, but it would not be the last. Part 2 of this essay will demonstrate the further influence of the new social concept of charity on Catholic teaching, specifically in the encyclicals of Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II.

Copyright © 2020 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero