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I have to apologize for the sensationalist tone of the title. I just want to highlight the fact that some ultra-conservative Catholics in the US and elsewhere have developed the bad habit common to some of our military and police of red tagging anyone who is speaking and acting for the poorer members of society. I am referring to an article I have just read entitled “I’m Catholic. Can I Disagree with Pope Francis on Property?” by John Horvat II, a leading Catholic Conservative in the U.S. who wrote a best seller “Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society.” To be sure, Mr. Horvat has been helping the Catholic Church in the U.S. spread more widely the social doctrine of the Church. He also has been a major critic of many immoral policies of the U.S. Government that have been accentuated under the presidency of Joseph Biden such as abortion, same-sex unions, and contraception. Unfortunately, however, he has grossly misunderstood the teachings of Pope Francis in his recent social encyclical entitled Fratelli Tutti (All My Brothers and Sisters), especially as regards the social role of private property.
Let me quote the passage in which he accuses Pope Francis of veering towards communism: “The pontiff asks his readers to consider ‘re-envisaging the social role of property.’ He would like to see great societal changes in America and the West. He believes the world’s goods belong to everyone and must be shared to ensure the proper dignity of all. That sounds vaguely similar to communism. His broadsides against the market and ‘consumerist’ economic models leave little doubt that he is not calling for a few system tweaks but a massive paradigm shift. Catholics need to know how to respond to this pontifical demand lest it sink the West into a Marxist tyranny that denies property rights.” In my opinion, Mr. Horvat has seriously misinterpreted the meaning of the key word “re-envisage.” The last thing in the mind of Pope Francis is to abolish private property. In fact, not even the communists in China today believe in abolishing private property, which is now legally protected in that giant country after the market-oriented reforms introduced by Deng Xiao Peng in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Perhaps, the only countries remaining in the world where private property is not allowed are North Korea and Cuba.
The Chinese are very pragmatic people. When they saw the dismal failure of the abolition of private property in the farming sector through the communes, the leaders who came after Mao Zedung introduced the so-called “responsibility system” under which farmers were allowed to own land and produce whatever they wanted on it as long as they contributed a certain portion of their produce to the State. Private ownership soon spread to capital, intellectual property rights, factories, office buildings, residential and commercial facilities. Unwittingly, they saw proof that if you allow individuals to exercise their human right of individual economic initiative, you unleash their creative and entrepreneurial talents which result in the production of myriad of goods and services useful to the population. Pope Francis is no less perceptive than the communists. He appreciates very much the contribution of private property, which makes free markets possible, to the outstanding success of many developed countries over the last century or so.
In fact, let us read portions of “Fratelli Tutti” in which he suggests the “re-envisaging” of the social role of property.
In Paragraph 120 of the document, he quotes St. John Paul II: “Once more, I would like to echo a statement of St. John Paul II whose forcefulness has perhaps been insufficiently recognised: ‘God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all is members, without excluding or favoring anyone.’ For my part, I would observe that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social role of all forms of private property.’ The principle of the common use of created goods is the ‘first principle of the whole ethical and social order’. It is a natural and inherent right that takes priority over others. All other rights having to do with the goods necessary for the integral fulfilment of persons, including that of private property or any other type of property, should—in the words of St. Paul VI—‘in no way hinder this right but should actively facilitate its implementation.’ The right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the universal destination of creed goods. This has concrete consequences that ought to be reflected in the workings of society. Yet it often happens that secondary rights displace primary and overriding rights, in practice making them irrelevant.” This passage makes it clear that the views of Pope Francis on the social role of poverty are in complete consonance with at least two of his predecessors: St. John Paul II and St. Paul Pope VI.
In fact, even Mr. Horvat himself adds another Pope to the list showing the continuity of teachings of the Roman Pontiff on the subject of private property. In his article protesting the views of Pope Francis as a pontifical demand that may “sink the West into a Marxist tyranny that denies property rights,” he quotes Pope Pius XI who in 1931 issued the second social encyclical after the pioneering one of Pope Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum in1898). In Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI recognizes the “twofold character of ownership, called usually individual or social according as it regards either separate persons or the common good. For the theologians have always unanimously maintained that nature, rather the Creator Himself, has given man the right of private ownership not only that individuals may be able to provide for themselves and their families but also that the goods which the Creator destined for the entire family of mankind may, through this institution, truly serve this purpose. All this can be achieved in no wise except through the maintenance of a certain and definite order.”
It must be emphasized that in the traditional teachings of the Popes for the last 132 years since the first social encyclical appeared in 1898 (Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII), it has always been made clear that private property is only a secondary right subject to the two primary principles of the universal destination of goods and the principle of subsidiarity. The principle of subsidiarity, which in turn is based on the root of all human rights—the inherent dignity of every human person—states that what can be achieved efficiently and effectively by an individual, a family or a small group should not be taken over by a higher body, least of all by an all-powerful State. This principle gives the task of attaining integral human development for all to the free activities of individuals and the smaller units of society. Only when they are unable to attain on their own their integral development will they need help from higher groups and communities and ultimately the State in attaining such public goods as peace and order, public works, public education and public health. The other side of the coin, however, is the principle of solidarity, which states that by his very nature every human being is obliged to contribute to the common good in the use of his God-given talents and resources. In this respect, the common good is not “the greatest good for the greatest number”—a maxim that can lead to the persecution of a minority by an erring majority. For example, even if a popular referendum should arrive at the decision of the majority that society has the right to euthanize ageing and sick people, such a vote will never justify the killing of even one sick person. Instead, the social doctrine of the Church defines the common good as a social or juridical order which enables every single member of society, without any exception, to attain his or her fullest integral human development. This integral human development refers to all the dimensions of the human being: economic, political, cultural, social, moral and spiritual. (To be continued).