by John Sharpe
Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists. —G. K. Chesterton
The Uses of Diversity, 1921
Those fortunate enough to be acquainted with the work of Southern Catholic novelist Walker Percy might be surprised to learn that it was not for his novels that Percy thought he would be most remembered. It was rather for his “semiotics”: his philosophical and scientific work on man’s language and use of symbols, not only in mundane communication, but also in the most profound intellectual acts of comprehension that have as their object the deepest realities of the universe. At its most radical, Percy’s work on language and symbolism deals with the essential nature of the created human intellect’s ability to penetrate – in however limited a way – to the depths of metaphysical reality. It is due to the profound significance of this question for all of reality as man confronts it that Catholics recognize the second person of the Trinity as the Word of God, by Whom all things were made.
As for the pressing question of what the Church thinks, and what we Catholics are to think, of capitalism, reference to Percy’s semiotics is surprisingly useful, if not plainly necessary. His vision of language posited the quite defensible hypothesis that any linguistic act (or “language event”) necessarily involves three parts: the speaker (or the “sign-user”), the sign used (usually a “word”), and the thing signified (or, the “object”). Without each of the three parts of this triad, not only can there be no communication (which is obvious enough), but there can arguably be no real grasp by the human intellect – which ultimately needs language – of reality itself. Thus the act of naming is an essential aspect of man’s ability to understand the reality of which he is a part;1 indeed, it would not be a stretch to see, as part of the dominion God commanded Adam to exercise over all earthly created things (Genesis i:28), his assigning of names to those earthly realities, and his consequent comprehension of them.2
The significance of properly naming things has been emphasized by a host of thinkers, ancient, medieval, and modern. St. Thomas raises the issue in the Summa when discussing the virtue of truth: “A person who says what is true, utters certain signs which are in conformity with things.”3 Note that the sign used must conform to the thing referenced, which assumes that the thing has some actual and independent reality – independent properties and characteristics, and an essence of its own that dictates what the word used must express if it is to be properly chosen. It was the achievement of nominalists going back to Occam to attempt a destruction of this linkage between words and the objective realities they signify – an achievement that Weaver decries in the introduction to his monumental Ideas Have Consequences.4
How much of the discussion of the Church’s attitude to “capitalism” depends upon what this “ism” means among those discussing it may be gathered from the radically different assessments made of it by many who, at bottom, actually seem to agree, notwithstanding their varying mode of expressing themselves. His Excellency signaled the problem, if tangentially, by saying, “In all discussions of ‘capitalism,’ it is crucial to define what one means by the word.” Contrary to these, however, who beneath apparent disagreement do in fact agree, are others who disagree not only about the words used to signify the reality, but also about the reality itself. It is therefore that third element of Percy’s triad – the reality that the sign used must signify – that we must discover vis-à-vis “capitalism,” in order to have in our possession both a yardstick with which to measure orthodoxy, and a scalpel with which to excise heterodoxy, so as to rectify our ideas about modern economic life. A rectification of thought that is an essential prerequisite, then, to doing what we ought.
In his characteristic way, Chesterton hit on both the problem of definition in general, and the definition of capitalism itself. The great English wit is worth quoting in full, for the light he sheds on the meaning of the vexing term and for the lightheartedness he brings to Percy’s not unimportant observations in the field of language study.
When I say “Capitalism,” I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: “That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists, roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage”. This particular state of things can and does exist, and we must have some word for it, and some way of discussing it. But this is undoubtedly a very bad word, because it is used by other people to mean quite other things. Some people seem to mean merely private property. Others suppose that Capitalism must mean anything involving the use of capital. But if that use is too literal, it is also too loose and even too large. If the use of capital is Capitalism, then everything is Capitalism. Bolshevism is Capitalism and anarchist communism is Capitalism; and every revolutionary scheme, however wild, is still Capitalism. Lenin and Trotsky believe as much as Lloyd George and Thomas that the economic operations of today must leave something over for the economic operations of tomorrow. And that is all that capital means in its economic sense. In that case, the word is useless. My use of it may be arbitrary, but it is not useless. If Capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If Capitalism means capital, everybody is capitalist. But if Capitalism means this particular condition of capital, only paid out to the mass in the form of wages, then it does mean something, even if it ought to mean something else.
The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital.5
GKC’s definition is precisely Pius’s (“that economic regime in which were provided by different people the capital and labor jointly needed for production” (Quadragesimo Anno (QA) §1016)), as it is, incidentally, Belloc’s (“a state of society in which a minority control the means of production, leaving the mass of the citizens dispossessed”7) as well. All of which is fine, so far as it goes. That the simple division, abstractly considered, of an economic operation into the provision of capital by one party, and the provision of labor by another, is neutral and not inherently immoral is admitted and plain to all reasonable observers, not least Pius XI (§102: the system “is not vicious of its very nature.”). For this reason even a popularly conceived “anti-capitalist” like Belloc could admit that “[n]o one can say that [industrial capitalism] stands condemned specifically by Catholic definition.”8
Nevertheless, how many commentators, looking at both QA and Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (RN), envision the Church to have in fact condemned “capitalism” by her pronouncements in both these encyclicals? Which means that these reliable thinkers certainly, and with good reason, believe that some thing signified by the term “capitalism” was indeed condemned, notwithstanding the “neutrality” of the system that Pius XI characterized as “not vicious of its very nature.” Msgr. Luigi Civardi, author of so many books on the Church’s social teaching and its salutary effect on the world, states plainly that RN “condemns the capitalistic system.”9 Bishop Emile Guerry for his part explained why “the Popes condemned liberal capitalism so severely” by saying that “the ‘social system’ itself [is condemned] where it is based on a concept of private ownership opposed to the community end assigned by God to the goods of the earth.”10 Amintore Fanfani, whose study of the “capitalist spirit” more than rivals the treatises of Weber and Tawney, declared that “there is an unbridgeable gulf between the Catholic and the capitalistic conception of life.”11 If, then, the neutral, almost “mechanical” system built on a division between labor and capital is not condemned by the Popes, what is it that they did condemn – and, more to the point, how does what they condemn relate to the thing, the third element of Percy’s triad, that most people mean when they say “capitalism”?
The careful reader will be ready to reply that all of the answers to the first part of our question are spelled out in precision and detail by Pius XI in QA, who, in exercising his ordinary magisterium, simply reiterated and more or less codified the common opinion both of his predecessors and of Catholic philosophical tradition. Condemned by the Pope is the social and moral philosophy that prevailed since the advent of industrialism, and which reigns still today (it is “an economic science alien to the true moral law” (QA §135; see also §§42, 43, 131)). Also condemned are the broader ideologies supporting rationalist economics (and highlighted by His Excellency at the beginning of his introduction): liberalism (§§14, 24, 26), individualism (§§46, 70, 89, 110), and materialism (§§120–1, 134). Condemned as well, at least implicitly, is the triumph of machine- and technology-worship, to the exclusion of the focus man should have on the “one thing necessary” and the other values that support such a focus (“dead matter leaves the factory ennobled and transformed, where men are corrupted and degraded”(§138)). Condemned, in the strongest terms, is limitless, free competition (§§89, 108–110), as is the resultant gross disequilibrium in the distribution of ownership (§§57, 60–63) and the massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few (§106). Condemned is the anarchist conception of the state which refuses to sanction any enforcement of the moral law (§135). Resulting from these condemned principles and practices, furthermore, is a condemned economic life that is “hard, cruel, and relentless,” producing crying evils, and leading to economic imperialism and a “noxious and detestable internationalism...in financial affairs” (§§3–4, 102–110, 134–135, 137).
Anyone who maintains that “capitalism” of itself escaped condemnation in QA would have to prove that the “thing” signified by the term as it is used today does not imply free competition, Enlightenment or classically liberal economic doctrine, the near worship of technology, the modern doctrine of individualism, the practical tyranny of international finance, and the concentration of productive property in relatively few hands. The “capitalism,” then, that was not condemned in QA was a theoretical “capitalism” of which eye has not seen nor ear heard (1 Cor. ii:9). One small point illustrates: in an article on Belloc’s economics from not too long ago, the writer, in offering his definition of “capitalism,” asserted that among its corollary “rights” to that of private property ownership are “the right to free competition in the marketplace” and the right of pursue profit with “no legal limit as to the amount of money that one can earn.”12 Notwithstanding the fact that by no means is it necessary that a right of private ownership imply these corollary rights as they are formulated (indeed, all modestly keen observers will note that these latter soon destroy the former right for all but the most powerful, i.e., the most wealthy), these so-called rights are categorically denied by the Pope at §§64, 89, 108, and 111. So much, then, for this kind of capitalism, with its alleged corollary rights, surviving condemnation by the Church! The point, of course, is that what the modern world understands “capitalism” to be – notwithstanding the theoretical, on-paper existence of an abstract, almost laboratory-esque notion that merely designates the collaboration in wealth creation of the provider of labor and the purveyor of productive property – necessarily implies ideological and practical realities that were indeed condemned in no uncertain terms by Pius XI, just as they were condemned under the label of “capitalism” by Fanfani, Civardi, and a host of Social Catholics and moral philosophers whose names in a list would literally fill the page. A “capitalism” that was not encompassed or included by the Pope’s condemnatory words in QA is a theoretical capitalism that has never existed and will never exist.13 What did then exist, and does now, more than ever, in terms of modern capitalism, was indeed “bad practice,” but the practice was condemned (“it violates right order”) in principle!14
It will help us better appreciate what Pope Pius XI was driving at by concentrating upon what he advocated, in addition to and in light of what he condemned in his encyclical. For while he refrains from setting forth in detail a point-by-point program for social and economic restoration (indeed this is the task of the laity who collaborate to develop and implement a “truly Christian social science” and conduct specific activities “in accordance with Christian social doctrine”15), he clearly articulates the attributes of a sane and healthy social economy that serve as stars by which to navigate in our quest to understand – and then to implement – the principles of a socio-economic order worthy of Catholic men and families.
QA is frequently understood to be a restatement of the most well known and hardly controversial Catholic moral principles in the field of economic thought (such as the right of workingmen to a just or family wage; the right of both labor and capital to a proper share – but not to all – of profits; the need to steer social philosophy away from the twin errors of individualism and collectivism; plus the utter opposition of Catholicism to Socialist doctrine). It is that, of course, as His Excellency highlights in the introduction. But across the encyclical’s paragraphs, a careful reader will observe a vindication, sometimes subtle, sometimes not, of two key, indispensable principles of political economy that have been and remain dear to the hearts of Social Catholics of all generations, even if they are not declared in concise statements (e.g., “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true Socialist”) that can be made almost platitudinous through repetition and without broader context. These two principles are: (1) the need, in a healthy and rightly ordered society, for a wide distribution of productive property, and (2) the importance of organizing economic activity in free “vocational groups” uniting the employers and employees of the various industries and professions.
The latter is perhaps less susceptible of rejection, insofar as it is so clearly stated. “The aim of social legislation must therefore be the re-establishment of vocational groups” (§84). It could not be more clear. Encompassed in an individual Guild or Corporation (yes, that’s what the Pontiff meant – for, following Leo XIII16 and St. Pius X,17 whose social teaching he declared in Ubi Arcano (UA) §60 to be in “full force” at the outset of his pontificate, he specifically laments the Guilds’ destruction at the hands of liberal individualism (§80)) will be both “employers and employees of one and the same group joining forces to produce goods or give service” (§85, emphasis mine), uniting not according to their status as supplier or procurer of labor (along familiar trades-union lines), but according to the functions they exercise in society (§84). Putting, as it were, the “crown” atop the corporative social order that he outlines in the paragraphs dealing with vocational groups, the Pope calls for the development of a true juridical order, with “social charity” as its “soul” and a State ready “to protect and defend it effectively” (§89). The sincerity of the Pope on this point was made only more obvious by his frank advocacy of Corporatism in Divini Redemptoris (§54), six years later.
As for the first of our two principles, it is capitulated in the declaration of Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (the “Magna Charta,” according to Pius XI, “on which all Christian activities in social matters are ultimately based” (§38)): “The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners” (RN, §46). That Pius XI throughout QA reiterated his predecessor’s call for development of what Fr. McNabb termed the “ownership system,” in opposition to the then- and still-prevailing “wage system,” is clear on a number of counts. Let us look at these to ensure that there is no mistaking the point.
By way of entering argument, we must establish that in §§44–66 the Pope is dealing with productive property, and not just with “wealth” or “goods” in general. And it is essential to do so, in case there be any doubts, and we leave our review of QA with the impression that the Pope wants gadgets, and not gardens, more widely distributed, to leave the gardens to remain concentrated in just a few hands. It might be tempting for some to claim that it is only the inadequate distribution of wealth for consumption that that the Pope laments and wants to see rectified. Except that such an interpretation would be wrong (as we shall see). And it would fail to strike the disease, by dealing only with a symptom – a symptom which is, in fact, debatable, as the spectacle of people in poverty toting cell phones, sporting $250 sneakers, and riding in fancified, tricked-out automobiles illustrates. Capitalist wealth-creators might be efficaciously forced to share a few of their profits, but none of this will address the essence of the problem as it has existed for centuries: the problem that, as G.K.C. put it, “most people only have wages because they do not have capital.”
That Pius XI is referring, throughout QA, to productive property is clearly proven in three ways.
First, if one looks at the logical progression of the portion of QA dealing with property (§§44–66), the discussion of the right of ownership (§§44–53) appears as a preamble for the treatment of the distribution of both ownership and the products and income that are the fruit of the property owned. Now the type of property that, combined with labor, creates products and income is by definition, productive property. Furthermore, the discussion that takes place at §§56–66 regards the distribution of wealth and income derived from the very property whose ownership by private individuals was just defended in those preceding paragraphs. So in even just general terms, there is no doubt, based upon the structure and the “narrative” progression of this particular section of the encyclical, that the property that is the subject of discussion here is of the productive kind.
The commentary on the encyclical by Nell-Breuning,18 its drafter, confirms the point, by noting clearly that the discussion in these paragraphs deals with, among other things, whether ownership as such is a title to income from the property owned (which it is); the kind of property at issue, therefore, is productive.
Finally, §§53, 54, and 56 make explicit reference to property upon which labor is expended, whether that property is one’s own or that of one’s neighbor.19 One man might hire another to work his land or his machine to produce new wealth, but not to work his food, drink, and his furniture, which all serve merely to satisfy a need or a want. Furthermore, at §53 there is the possibility of “some new form or new value” being produced by the labor of a man who works “as his own master,” directly implying that his labor is applied to some land or capital, because it is only in this way that new wealth can be created by labor. The kind of property thus referred to is necessarily productive property. Indeed, no other interpretation of these passages is remotely possible, since the whole discussion ultimately addresses how to reconcile the competing claims of capital and labor to not just wealth in general but also to the products resulting from the combination of labor with that wealth. So the property in dispute is precisely that kind that can create new wealth when labor is applied to it: namely, productive property.
Reference to the dispute between labor and capital leads to the second point. For, beginning at §44, Pius XI specifically defends a doctrine of private ownership against the claims of the Socialists. We take as our reference Socialism20 by the Jesuit Victor Cathrein, who states, authoritatively, that Socialism advocated “the transformation of all capital, or means of production, into the common property of society, or of the state, and the administration of the produce and the distribution of the proceeds by the state” (p. 17). The socialists saw in private ownership of productive property the necessary exploitation (by the private owners of capital) of laborers, whom they claimed were exclusively entitled to the proceeds resulting from the labor expended on the machines they worked. That Pius takes this as the “official” stance of Socialism, against which he is arguing throughout this section of QA, is overtly stated at §§44, 58, and 60, and at least implied at §§46, 48, and 49. In vindicating private ownership against the Socialists, the Pope is vindicating the private ownership of productive property, which was the only ownership contested in the first place (the Socialists saw exploitation in the private ownership of factories, not of forks). Pius’s explicit reference (§44) to the teaching of his predecessor makes the point even more clear, for Leo’s suggested solution of the social question takes private ownership as a “given” (“this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable” (RN §46)), against the Socialists’ proposals. Thus, both Popes, along with the tradition of the Church, in combating the trend of Socialism, resist a trend that would further the admitted evils of capitalism; namely, it would make all men merely wage-earners and “sharers” in income, earning a wage (and perhaps some dividends) for laboring on “community” property that they do not own (and that in fact no one in particular owns). Indeed, it is for the workingman, the artisan, the family head, the yeoman, and the peasant that the right of ownership is defended (“...the abolition of private ownership would prove to be not beneficial, but grievously harmful to the working classes” (§44)), and not so much for the “big capitalists” who, anyway, end up being taken to task for “long [being] able to appropriate to [themselves] excessive advantages” (§57). Hence we find numerous Social Catholic commentators who see Socialism as a fulfillment of capitalism and its errors, rather than, at bottom, an adversary to it,21 as well as a number of them who see the “other” way (for those who prefer not to say “third”), in opposition to both kindred “isms,” as the only philosophical and practical alternative to what are simply variations on the same wage-system theme, ordained to a single, materialist end.22
Third and last: the distinction clearly implied Pius in later paragraphs between comfort and propertylessness proves the point: for he is arguing both that the lot of workers has been somehow improved and that they do not own property. He refers to workers as “propertyless” at §§60 and 63 while admitting that their condition “has indeed been improved and rendered more equitable”; that they “can no longer be said to be universally in misery and want” (§62). He also admits the “formal difference between pauperism and proletarianism” (§63). One can possess an income from an employer that suffices to meet day-to-day expenses, for the purchase, in relative sufficiency and even abundance, of food, clothes, home furnishings, etc, without possessing a secure means of income that is immune from the “hand-to-mouth uncertainty which is the lot of the proletarian” (§64), an uncertainty that – the Pope will later argue – can only be remedied by ownership. If the Pontiff admits, however, that a propertyless worker can nevertheless live in equitable conditions, above pauperism, but still be a “non-owner,” what these workers do not own is productive property (land, tools or machines, raw materials, or liquid capital to be invested in such things), which provides a living, and not property for consumption, which only satisfies immediate wants or needs.23
Having established that the ownership in question in QA §§44–66 is the ownership of productive property, we now look at the Pontiff’s treatment of the distribution of ownership (which follows its mere vindication as a right in itself), to show that he was indeed aiming for a better, more widespread distribution. We take the argument in five parts.
First, the Pope decries the present distribution of property between the two classes, those possessing capital, and those possessing mere labor. Insofar as we have established above that, in general, the property that Pius is referring to throughout this part of the encyclical must be of the productive kind, his condemnation of the present state of property distribution must deal essentially with that kind of property.
Following his warning that “not every kind of distribution of wealth and property amongst men is such that it can at all, and still less can adequately, attain the end intended by God” (§60), he goes on to denounce as a “grave evil” (§61) “the vast differences between the few who hold excessive wealth and the many who live in destitution” (§61). More stridently, he then declares that “the immense number of propertyless wage-earners on the one hand, and the superabundant riches of the fortunate few on the other, is an unanswerable argument that the earthly goods so abundantly produced in this age of industrialism are far from rightly distributed” (§63). By denouncing the present distribution of “earthly goods,” the Pope prepares the way for the solution he will propose in the paragraphs that follow, as we see below.
With our second point we highlight the almost chronological approach the Pope takes in proposing a solution to the social question. His approach refutes any contention that might be made (in response, especially, to the first point above) that his remarks about the equitable distribution of wealth are restricted to the fruit of, or income produced by, productive property – i.e., that he is maintaining, in §§56, 60, and 61, that merely “profits” and “income” must be equitably shared. (Of course insofar as QA is partially a refutation of Socialism, it was necessary to reassert the right, long admitted by the Church, of the owners of capital to at least a portion of the income and profit generated by its employment; hence the discussion of the right disposition of capital’s proceeds.) The Pope indeed defends the right of capital to a share of income and proceeds, but in proposing that the non-owning workers become owners, his reference to the income and proceeds resulting from the combined effort of capital and labor is from that standpoint incidental, because he conceives of the proper distribution of income as a means to an end. The means of granting labor a larger share of income from productive activity are, in the mind of the Pope, ordained to achieving the end of making the non-owning workers into owners. This is clear from §§64 and 66 where the Pope demands an “ample sufficiency” of profits and fruits of production be provided to the wage-earner so that he may “acquire a certain moderate ownership.”
A close examination of the actual texts we have just cited, where the Pope demands the rectification of inequity in the distribution of income (irrespective of whether this rectification is a means or an end in itself – for arguably it is both), reveals that he also requires an adjustment to the inequity in the distribution of property in general.
For in §61, the Pontiff demands, yes, that each class “receive its due share” of profits, but he also maintains that in general – without reference only or specifically to income or the products of industry – “the distribution of created goods must be brought into conformity with the demands of the common good and social justice” (emphasis mine). The reference to social justice and the common good especially situates the Pope’s remarks within the framework of a discussion of that kind of property that provides people with a living, for it is the distribution of this productive property and how that distribution is handled in terms of a broad social institution – rather than just the availability of food and clothing to individuals or individual families – that is most bound up with the overall structure of society and the social order, and therefore properly discussed in terms of social justice and the common good.24 Two paragraphs later, the Pope contrasts, as we have seen, “the immense number of propertyless wage-earners on the one hand, and the superabundant riches of the fortunate few on the other” (§63), again without limiting his remarks only to income or products generated by the use of capital. Finally, in §64 the Pope expresses concern that without “efficacious remedies,” the “dispossessed laboring masses” in the newly capitalistic countries, along with the “immense army of hired rural laborers,” will remain “perpetually sunk in the proletarian condition” (emphasis mine).
Note the explicit reference to the propertylessness and “proletarian” status of wage-earners, propertylessnes that must refer to their non-ownership of productive property, and not their lack of the basic means of sustenance (i.e., property for consumption), which the Pope concedes elsewhere had been in certain areas mitigated and partially remedied since Leo XIII’s day. For it is the “condition” of not owning productive property that causes, as we have seen at §64, the “uncertainty” that is necessarily – the Pope almost offers a definition here – “the lot of the proletarian.” One has the sense here and elsewhere that the Pope means “proletarian” as an almost binary indicator of “status” (i.e., one is an owner or one is not), rather than simply as a descriptor of degree (i.e., that one doesn’t have enough material possessions, even if one has some).25 In fact this is the only way to read the Pope’s language, for no one could maintain that even the poorest of the “non-owning” masses did not possess some rags of clothing and some modest number of personal items. The point is, though, that this kind of ownership does not yield a living, while owning capital or land does so, when labor is applied to it. Confirming this interpretation is that fact that the Pope specifically calls, six years later, for efficacious methods to be applied to rectify the mal-distribution of property; he demands precisely that the methods adopted in furtherance of such an aim “will really affect those who actually possess more than their share of capital resources, and who continue to accumulate them to the grievous detriment of others” (DR §75, emphasis mine).
Third, running through QA, and appearing subtly in at least five different places, is the frequently neglected and unappreciated image of what without exaggeration we might call a frame of reference for the Pope’s broader discussion of ownership and property distribution. This is the man whose economic life of work and property are not disintegrated and divided, but rather united. Nell-Breuning posits, as an example, “the peasant who cultivates his own soil with his and his family’s labor” (p. 129). This ideal becomes, for the Pope, a foil for the masses who occupy the position of wage-earner: those who, in order to receive an income “derived from property” (as all income is, ultimately), “must approach an owner, offer his labor, and receive a remuneration for it.”26
The Pope briefly puts before us an image of the small proprietor in several places. One place is a reference to the title he may claim to the fruits of his labor (§53, emphasis mine): “The only form of labor, however, which gives the working man a title to its fruits, is that which a man exercises as his own master, and by which some new form or new value is produced.” The other is a reference point against which the non-owning laborers are compared (§56, emphasis mine): “…unless a man apply his labor to his own property, an alliance must be formed between his toil and his neighbor’s property….”
Now the need for a man who owns only labor to approach someone else who owns productive property, in order to seek employment and obtain income, arises precisely because the man does not own his own productive property. But, as we have already seen, the Pope specifically calls for ownership of property to be distributed among the class of laborers who presently do not own, even while he insists that “man is born to labor as the bird to fly” (§64).27 So he is aiming, at least in broad terms and to the extent feasible, at a re-union of work and property, of labor and ownership. Unless we are to believe – and this is both ludicrous, and distinctly refuted by §64 – that the Pope intends for the masses to come into ownership of proprietary and financial assets, such that they need not labor but can rather obtain income exclusively from property, the ideal envisioned, even though in the distance and a long ways off, must be the man who can apply labor “to his own property” (§56), as his own “master” (§53), so as to depend more upon himself and less upon the “uncertainty” (§64) of a wage built upon only the “alliance” (§56) between his toil and another’s property.
The small proprietor appears again at §72, where the Pope discusses the limits the capitalistic economy must observe in employing women and children. He rightly finds it “intolerable, and to be opposed with all Our strength,” that mothers of families be “forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the domestic walls to the neglect of their own proper cares and duties.” Now “gainful occupation” evokes employment for a wage, a necessity, as we have seen, principally for non-owning men and families. But Pius is far from condemning altogether the contribution of women and children to the home economy, just as he is far from condemning labor (even while he decries the proletarian status of the laborers). It is rather the homestead and the shop that are subtly offered as the ideal where “the rest of the family [can] contribute according to their power towards the common maintenance, as in the rural home or in the families of many artisans and small shopkeepers.” Here labor is joined to the family’s property, not to someone else’s. And again at §103 we find a reference, not to an individual, but to a whole social system that differs from that “in which were provided by different people the capital and labor jointly needed for production” (§101). As an example of this “[other] economic system” the Pope offers the peasant-owners, namely “the agricultural classes, who form the larger portion of the human family, and who find in their occupation the means of obtaining honestly and justly what is needful for their maintenance” (§103). And finally, when wrapping up a concluding section of the encyclical calling for a renewal of Christian principles and Christian charity, the Pontiff places before us a Model Who, though He spent His life “in labors” (§128), was not employed by the “Schwartz Lumber Conglomerate,” but Who had full share of ownership in “Joseph & Son, Proprietors”: namely, “Him Who, being in the form of God, chose to become a Carpenter among men, and to be known as the Son of a Carpenter” (§140).
As for the fourth of our arguments in defense of Pius XI’s call for a wider distribution of ownership of productive property, let us simply call attention to his clear language demanding that workers become owners. The “necessary object of Our efforts” is “the uplifting of the proletariat” (§62), an “uplifting” that, we have seen above, necessarily involves changing their status from non-owning workers to owners. “Efficacious remedies [must] be applied” (§62) to ensure that rural laborers do not remain “perpetually” in the “proletarian condition.” To accomplish this, the Pope calls for an “ample sufficiency” of the fruits of production to be supplied to the workingmen, so that, as we noted earlier, “they may increase their possessions” and become “freed from that hand-to-mouth uncertainty which is the lot of the proletarian” (§64). Finally, and convincingly, at §66 Pius demands that “the propertyless wage-earner be placed in such circumstances that by skill and thrift he can acquire a certain moderate ownership.”
Nell-Breuning’s gloss here is instructive, confirming this interpretation. He states the hard truth that to realize the Pope’s plan it may be necessary to make large estates available to “small and independent families.” His comment is striking and forthright, especially so because it makes clear that the Pope’s vision in calling for “ownership” is one that involves making men and families into independent proprietors, working their own productive property:
But is it the Pope’s intention to have his energetic measures cover the expropriation of large estates in order thus to create the means for the support of small and independent families? The answer is that this passage is silent in this respect. Therefore we should not attempt to interpolate a meaning it does not contain. We can merely ask ourselves whether we can speak of “efficacious” measures at all, if we renounce expropriation in principle, even as a last resort. We will also have to remember that, in discussing property, the Pope assigned extraordinary authority to the state whenever a genuine need of common welfare is involved. We also have to consider the fact that the Pope declares justified the so-called socialization of “certain forms of property” in certain circumstances (114). Considering all this, we can see no objections to the demand for expropriation of estates in order to make the rehabilitation of the agricultural wage-earners possible, provided of course, that such action is taken only after strict and very careful considerations.28
Nell-Breuning’s other important observation here regards the footnote, at §72, to Pius XI’s Casti Connubii. Our commentator (and he was in a position to know) maintains that this reference was meant to call attention to the Pope’s doctrine on marriage, specifically regarding the wages needed by the head of a family for its support. “The Pope is anxious not to be understood,” Nell-Breuning writes,
in the sense that, as a result of a law of nature, the family of the worker must live on the wages of the head of the house. It is by no means a natural condition, or one demanded by nature, that the family shall have no other means of support than the wage income of its father and head. Neither is it the will of nature or its Creator that the other members of the family permit themselves to be supported by the working head of the family without contributing their share for the common support. Here, too, our ideas are easily influenced by the picture of the wage-earners of metropolitan industry where indeed – except for the steadily decreasing activities of the housewife – the family members have no reasonable opportunity to contribute to the family support. Here we have actually the condition where the wife works in an office or factory, while the children from early youth are engaged in some trade; or the wife is limited to a little coking and sewing in a wretched tenement, while the children loaf in the house or on the street unless taken care of at a playground. Under such conditions which are, however, not natural, but most unnatural, the family has no other source of income than its father’s wages.29
If this all-too-familiar scene is not what Pius wishes to advocate in calling for wages high enough to support the family and its head, then we must return to the “rural home or…the families of many artisans and small shopkeepers,” specifically offered by the Pope as the example of a situation where the family does have a means of support beyond “the wage income of its father and head.” But the key here is the need for ownership of the property the family needs to generate an alternative “means” of support, and to enable its members to participate in the creation of wealth necessary for a life of modest material sufficiency and dignity.
Fifth, and finally: QA’s explicit references, in the area of distribution of property ownership, to the demands made by the predecessor of Pius XI and author of Rerum Novarum confirm beyond all doubt that family ownership of productive property is precisely is being advocated. Five times, over as many paragraphs, Pius XI refers specifically to what Leo XIII proposed as a way of both endorsing his own recommendations and vindicating and renewing Leo’s proposals. It is Leo XIII, says Pius, who urged “the uplifting of the proletariat” as the “necessary object of Our efforts” (§62). Leo’s injunctions “have lost none of their force or wisdom for our own age.” Pius XI’s calls, which we have just examined, that workingmen obtain an “ample sufficiency” so that they may rise out of their non-owning status; that they be “freed from….hand-to-mouth uncertainty which is the lot of the proletarian”; that they may be enabled to “support life’s changing fortunes” and pass on “some little provision for those whom they leave behind them” (§64); all of these are ideas that were “not merely suggested, but stated in frank and open terms” by Leo XIII. Finally, the Pope writes that the need for the “propertyless wage-earner…[to] acquire a certain moderate ownership” was “already declared by Us, following the footsteps of Our Predecessor” (§66).
And what were those footsteps that Pius intended to follow in?
One: The father of every family is enjoined in RN to “provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten” and to enable them “who carry on, so to speak, and continue his personality, [to have] all that is needful to enable them to keep themselves decently from want and misery amid the uncertainties of this mortal life.” Fair enough. But how? “[I]n no other way,” says Leo XIII, “can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance” (RN §13, emphasis mine).30 Note the explicit parallel between this and Pius’s concern for what a workingman needs to pass on to his family.
Two: In Leo XIII’s own words:
If a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income. Nature itself would urge him to this. 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 (RN §46, emphasis mine).
Many excellent results will follow from this; and, first of all, property will certainly become more equitably divided. For, the result of civil change and revolution has been to divide cities into two classes separated by a wide chasm. On the one side there is the party which holds power because it holds wealth; which has in its grasp the whole of labor and trade; which manipulates for its own benefit and its own purposes all the sources of supply, and which is not without influence even in the administration of the commonwealth. On the other side there is the needy and powerless multitude, sick and sore in spirit and ever ready for disturbance. If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the consequence will be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over, and the respective classes will be brought nearer to one another (RN §47, emphasis mine).
The fact that Pius XI makes an explicit allusion at §62 to RN §47 (see his use of the phrase “a share in the land”) makes irrefutable the contention that the Pope intended to adopt, vindicate, and re-promulgate these “injunctions” of his predecessor, both “salutary and imperative.”
Just as the explicit evocation of Leo removes all trace of doubt as to what Pius XI was calling for, should any have remained, the evocation of both Leo and Pius by Pope Pius XII in his memorial commemoration of Rerum Novarum offers a hindsight confirmation of our interpretation of Pius’s message in QA, far more authoritative than any gloss based merely on a close reading of the encyclical’s text and a few commentaries, no matter how reliable. In Pius XII’s June 1, 1941, Pentecost radio discourse, he provides “directive moral principles on three fundamental values of social and economic life...animated by the spirit of Leo XIII and unfolding his views.”31 Two related points made throughout his elaboration of these “directive moral principles” are to our purpose here in confirming the social message of his predecessor. The first is relevant to our consideration of the advantage of small proprietorship that is subtly implied by Pius’s call for the liberation of the non-owning worker from the “uncertainty” of dependence upon a wage, along with his endorsement of the contribution made to family upkeep, “as in the rural home or in the families of many artisans and small shopkeepers” (§72), by family members working on their property rather than someone else’s. On this head Pius XII repeatedly emphasizes that the purpose for the family’s private possession of productive property is to “secure for the father of a family the healthy liberty he needs in order to fulfill the duties assigned him by the Creator regarding the physical, spiritual, and religious welfare of the family.”32 Note the convergence between Pius XII’s call for the “healthy liberty” of the family and the demand of his immediate predecessor for liberation of non-owners from wage-earning “uncertainty.” And there is a similar dovetailing between the mutual approach of Pius XII and Leo XIII, who both view the need for the private possession of productive property as rooted primarily in the duty of a father to properly provide for all aspects of his family’s welfare. Pius XII notes this duty elsewhere in his discourse, confirming beyond doubt his clear conception of this reality, and his insistence upon it.33
The second point, relating to what Pius XII calls “the insistent call of the two Pontiffs of the social Encyclicals,”34 deals with the family’s plot of land – the smallholding – as that which nearest approximates to the ideal form of productive property possessed by the family, necessary for safeguarding its liberty to pursue and fulfill its economic, social, moral, and spiritual duties: “Of all the goods that can be the object of private property, none is more conformable to nature, according to the teaching of Rerum Novarum, than the land, the holding on which the family lives, and from the products of which it draws all of part of its subsistence.”35 The successor of Pius XI goes to far as to state, “in the spirit of Rerum Novarum,” that “as a rule, only that stability which is rooted in one’s own holding makes of the family the vital and most perfect and fecund cell of society....”36 Leo XIII’s demand that individuals be enabled to look forward to obtaining “a share in the land,” and Pius XI’s allusion to it, give substance to the continuity of aim that animates Catholic teaching on this point and inspired Pius XII’s confirmation of it, enabling us, in hindsight, to establish with precision the content of Quadragesimo Anno in this regard.
There is much more to Pius XI’s monumental social encyclical than its take on capitalism, work, and property, as His Excellency rightly highlights. But perhaps for the needs of our time these aspects are properly emphasized. With QA as our guide, we can think with the Church about that “thing” that moderns mean when they say “capitalism,” while we worry less about the label. We will support the idea of a Guild System, so clearly promoted in this and other social encyclicals. And we will work to foster as best we can in our own little circles, in our own families, at least, if not elsewhere, a wider distribution of ownership of productive property, striving both to see and to realize the ideal re-integration of work and property, where a man’s labor – which is obligatory on most all of us – is combined with his property rather than someone else’s. Let us become, with the doctrine of the Popes to inspire us, the peasant proprietors; the independent tradesman; the employee-owners; the self-employed entrepreneurs of a resurgent Christendom.
Given the outlook of Pope Pius XI on this question, it would not be gratuitous to see in his encyclical a word of encouragement for the Distributists (whose land movement he lauded as a “most praiseworthy enterprise” in a letter from then Cardinal Pacelli), the Corporatists, the Solidarists, and so many others of Social Catholic conviction who sought to understand the role of private ownership of productive property in society, to clarify it, and to mark its duties and limitations in view of the common good of society. “Most helpful therefore and worthy of all praise,” the Pope writes, “are the efforts of those who, in a spirit of harmony and with due regard for the traditions of the Church, seek to determine the precise nature of these duties, and to define the boundaries imposed by the requirements of social life upon the right of ownership itself or upon its use” (§48).
Of course no one would have the parochial temerity to call Pius XI a “Distributist.” Nevertheless, he laments the mal-distribution of productive property; defends its private ownership so far as to wish that more people had it; sees the solution to the plight of the employed masses in wage-earner “ownership”; insists that the right of property must conform to the needs of the common good, and must therefore be subject to regulation by the public authority in its interest (§§49–50); and expects, finally, that after following his program “the production and acquisition of goods [and] the use of wealth…will within a short time be brought back again to the standards of equity and just distribution” (§139, emphasis mine). So what, then, would we call him, especially in light of his principled, if unintentional, sanction of the outline for reform offered some years later by an English historian in a little essay called Restoration of Property?
Meanwhile, let Pius rouse our spirits for the battle ahead with the closing thoughts of QA. We must avoid, he says, as “valiant soldiers of Christ” who are ready to “strain every thew and sinew” (§148), modernism of the moral, social, and juridical kind (§46),37 lest we fall victim to a schizophrenia that cuts off social thought and public life from day-to-day Catholic duty, prayer, and worship – a “cleavage” in the conscience later condemned by the Pope as “a scandal to the weak, and to the malicious a pretext to discredit the Church” (DR, §55). Instead, we will reach outside our ramparts and invite the cooperation of all men of good will to apply Catholic principles (§98), adapting to modern needs the unchanging and unchangeable doctrine of the Church (§19). We will develop and thrust into public view a truly Christian social science (§20), and convince well-intentioned but erroneous social reformers that their just demands are more cogently defended by the Church and promoted by Christian charity (§118). We will avoid contributing to the calumny that the Church is on the side of the rich (§§44, 127) by ignoring her social teaching or, worse, by hiding immoral economic practice under her name.38 And, finally, because “nowadays the conditions of social and economic life are such that vast multitudes of men can only with great difficulty pay attention to…their eternal salvation” (§132), we endeavor “unremittingly” to reform society according to the mind of the Church (§128), imitating and attaining to the marvelous unity of the divine plan, which “the Church preaches” and “right reason demands” (§139).
As for the “final say” on work and property, perhaps we may be permitted to see in the words of the Carpenter of Nazareth regarding Holy Matrimony a lesson that is instructive here as well: “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder” (St. Matt. xix:6).