The recent stand-off between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church is producing an effect that may prove to be more historically significant than the immediate battle over freedom of religion. A problem that has been growing within the Church for decades has finally burst into the light: the conflict between Church leaders and a significant portion of the flock on the subject of political freedom.
This conflict, which has caused so many Catholics to question their leaders, and alienated many decent and thoughtful people from the Church altogether, has, paradoxically, been transformed from perpetual flame to raging inferno by the bishops’ recent courage in the face of Obama’s insouciant rejection of freedom of conscience. By standing up to leftist authoritarianism for once, the bishops have engendered enthusiastic support; they have also invited some long-overdue challenges from thoughtful Catholics.
Rick Santorum fired the opening salvo, charging that the bishops “had it coming,” given their previous approval of Obamacare. The theme has broadened into a general discussion of the Church’s sorry recent history of supporting egalitarian policy and principle around the world. In a powerful new polemic, Paul Rahe has captured the hitherto muted tone of so many Catholics who regard the U.S. Founding as a landmark in the struggle to realize practical human dignity worthy of the ideals of the great Catholic moral teachers. The overriding tone of Rahe’s lengthy account of the Church’s breach of faith with the faithful: disillusionment and long-suppressed anger.
As I have argued in a recent article, things need not have come to this. No faith has a grander intellectual tradition of supporting human freedom than Catholicism. The Church’s greatest philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, is one of the clearest voices for a system of human law grounded in the limited purpose of defending individuals and property.

Distributive JusticSome within the Church—knowing that it is a serious violation of the faith to disavow the teachings of a saint—have attempted to evade St. Thomas’ great achievement in practical philosophy by disputing the standard reading of his theory of law, on the grounds that the Angelic Doctor also advocates “distributive justice.” Without delving into all the details of Aquinas’ adaptation of Aristotle’s theory of justice, suffice it to say that the attempt to use the Thomistic notion of “distributive justice” to suggest that St. Thomas would have been sympathetic to egalitarian economic policy is derived from two terrible misrepresentations: one on the meaning of “distributive,” the other on the meaning of “justice.”

So mired is modern society in the language of the Left, that the very word “distribution,” used with regard to wealth and property, implies “equal distribution.” But “distribution” is not the same as “redistribution.” The latter is socialism’s coercive presumption; the former is an abstract idea, carrying no specific content regarding the proper or best distribution.
Likewise, the notion of “justice.” Outside the realm of crime and punishment, the word now carries almost exclusively a leftist implication; we think of “social justice,” i.e. coercive corrections of alleged oppression.
In fact, “distributive justice,” as St. Thomas uses the term, implies neither economic equality, nor the struggle against oppression. For Aquinas, a distribution of goods or responsibilities within a community is “just” if everyone has what is due to him. This definition is somewhat abstract because St. Thomas is seeking to explain the concept of the virtue of justice, not to establish specific rules for bringing about just results. What he does make quite explicit, however, is that distributive justice is not achieved by quantitatively equal distribution, as people are not equal in what is due to them. They differ in natural ability, acquired skill, level of effort, and in a variety of other ways that render equal distribution unjust. This fact alone shows that St. Thomas would be an avowed enemy of all coercive attempts to bring about economic equality. Such efforts, even apart from violating his theory of limited laws, would violate his notion of distributive justice, which he expressly says is not a matter of equal “quantity,” but of “proportion” (to everyone his due).
How did Catholic political advocacy travel so far away from St. Thomas without its leaders at any point openly disavowing the Thomistic teachings that had been so central to the development of the modern Church? In other words, how did the Church reach the point of actively promoting public policy, and practical societal outcomes, that flat-out contradict the teachings of St. Thomas?

The beginnings of an answer are found in an 1891 document, the encyclical “Rerum Novarum (Of New Things)” of Pope Leo XIII. Leo XIII was a great champion of St. Thomas, and strongly advocated the revitalization of Thomism as the primary source of Catholic wisdom and practice. And yet, the title of this encyclical was “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.” As those words so regrettably suggest, one of the Church’s longest-reigning popes, and one of its most powerful intellectual forces in modern times, had followed much of the European intelligentsia of his time in adopting the fashionable language of Marxism, instinctively dividing the human race into classes based on economic relations, and specifically in terms of “owners” and “workers.”

Nevertheless, the document is not what one might imagine. Had a twentieth century pope issued an encyclical with the title “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor,” one would know exactly what to expect from the content: a thinly veiled espousal of socialist economic ideals and policies, mitigated only by a disavowal of the atheism of Leninism, Maoism, Castroism, or what have you. Pope Leo’s encyclical, however, is altogether stunning—no mere lip-service rebuke to socialist ideals, but a spirited theoretical attack on the very premises of socialism, and a brilliant defense of two notions that had not received such strong Catholic voice since St. Thomas and William of Ockham: limited government and property rights.
Nevertheless, the encyclical begins by taking the Marxist bait:
“[S]ome opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class…. [B]y 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…. 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.”
Might not the same words have been written by Engels, Trotsky, Mao, Guevara, or any one of a thousand tin-pot dictators and Christian social justice activists?
The same, however, cannot be said of Leo’s next point:
“[Socialists] hold that by… 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… emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.”
And here, startlingly, begins a defense of private property so clear in its reasoning, and so doctrinally consistent in its Thomism, that it ought to be read during every homily at every Sunday mass in America between now and November 6th, 2012.
Pope Leo’s demolition of socialism

First, regarding the motivation for work, Leo incisively outlines the case for individualism:
“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. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; 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…. But it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels. 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.”
Could Milton Friedman have stated the case more forcefully? And Pope Leo’s demolition of socialism is not finished. Merely arguing that freedom supports and respects the natural motives of human achievement is not enough; one must also make the ethico-political case for liberty. Thus, Leo continues (if you are a Catholic, I hope you are sitting down—if you are a member of the clergy, pinch yourself before reading further):
“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.”
Animals, Leo explains, are invested by their nature with the capacity to satisfy their basic needs by instinctive interaction with their immediate environment, whereas man must depend upon his reason. And due to this fact, “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….

“For man, fathoming by his faculty of reason matters without number, linking the future with the present, and being master of his own acts, guides his ways under the eternal law and the power of God…. Hence, man not only should possess the fruits of the earth, but also the very soil, inasmuch as from the produce of the earth he has to lay by provision for the future…. There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body….

“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….

“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.”

Here we have a developed theory of inviolable property rights. And if you want the Catholic argument against the assumptions underlying Obamacare, EPA regulations, and today’s whole smorgasbord of socialist disdain for natural rights the world over, Pope Leo follows with this:

“So strong and convincing are these arguments that it seems amazing that some should now be setting up anew certain obsolete opinions in opposition to what is here laid down…. Those who deny these rights do not perceive that they are defrauding man of what his own labor has produced…. Is it just that the fruit of a man’s own sweat and labor should be possessed and enjoyed by anyone else? As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor.”

In sum, Pope Leo XIII offers the Catholic case for property rights: A man’s labor and time are his life; hence, the wealth and product resulting from his labor and time are natural extensions of his very life. To deny his right to these results is to deny his right to his own life—that is, to deny his ownership of himself. And that, as Leo makes clear, is the essence of socialism, and a direct violation of God’s will:
“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 #####, nor anything that is his.’ (Deut. 5:21)”
He further explains the social results of allowing the leftist argument to insinuate itself into policy—an account that seems remarkably prescient today: “And in addition to injustice, it is only too evident what an upset and disturbance there would be in all classes, and to how intolerable and hateful a slavery citizens would be subjected. The door would be thrown open to envy, to mutual invective, and to discord; the sources of wealth themselves would run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry; and that ideal equality about which they entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the levelling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation.”

Pope Leo’s argument along these lines runs for some fifteen beautiful paragraphs, comprising, in sum, a magnificent paean to freedom—to real, practical freedom on this earth—and offers to American Catholics tired of their Church’s political weakness a reason for renewed pride in their faith, and proof positive that there need be no conflict between their Catholicism and their constitutionalism.

And then, lamentably, things begin to go horribly wrong.

The explicit argument remains consistent in defending property rights, but the tone changes as Leo focuses on the question with which he began, namely how to alleviate the “misery and wretchedness” of “the teeming masses” who live a life “little better than slavery.” For brevity, I offer a compendium of tell-tale language from the latter half of the encyclical:

“Of these duties, the following bind the proletarian and worker….” “[I]t is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have a right to use money as one wills….” “And the more that is done for the benefit of the working classes by the general laws of the country, the less need will there be to seek for special means to relieve them….” “Justice… demands that the interests of the working classes should be carefully watched over by the administration….” “[W]hen there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.”

Though repeatedly reverting to his earlier plea for the respect of natural rights, there is a strain of nascent leftism in these later statements. On their face, they are presented as calls to Christian charity, and explicitly distinguished from legal duties; however, the language is increasingly imbued with the kind of class warfare talk that, though not intended by Leo, inexorably tends towards notions of social justice that seem to require the state to “do something.” And the indeterminateness of what the state is required to do, or how exactly one would know when its actions have achieved their purpose, is the heart of the problem, and the germ of the Church’s gradual shift towards a position ever-more aligned with “proletarianism.”

Finally, Leo, one the Church’s last great defenders of liberty and natural rights, offers this:
“Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.”
Regardless of Leo’s subsequent qualifications, the principle here is clear, as is the fundamental theoretical error. The principle is that the state ought to have the authority to ensure “sufficient” wages for the workers. The problem with this, as we now know all too well, is that the abstract and malleable nature of this use of the concept “sufficient” lends itself to infinite reconsiderations based on relative conditions of the moment. Here, following the common nineteenth century folly elevated to the level of philosophy by Marx, particular conditions of a transient moment of history are assumed to be the natural and inevitable result of “capitalism” and “greed,” and hence in need of a legal remedy, not in the form of greater economic freedom, but rather of less.
The beauty of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical lies in his extraordinary defense of natural property rights

Just as history has proved Marxist economic theory utterly mistaken, so this aspect of Pope Leo’s reasoning is based on false premises regarding the nature and internal logic of the free market. With his heart so completely in the right place, Leo nevertheless falls prey to the basic theoretical error of socialist notions of class, mistaking logical distinctions between abstract categories (rich and poor, employers and employees) for inevitable and permanent distinctions between actual human beings—that is, assuming that relative socio-economic conditions obtaining between men at this moment can admit of no alteration without the intervention of benevolent government.

The beauty of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical lies in his extraordinary defense of natural property rights. Its weakness, unfortunately, is Leo’s implicit acceptance of the most fundamental misrepresentation of socialism: the idea that the free market is not the natural condition of men exchanging with one another for mutual benefit, but is, rather, “capitalism,” a man-made “system” of economic relations. Once this notion is accepted—that freedom is just another flawed “system”—the seeds of ever-increasing government limits on freedom have been sown. (I explain this issue here.)

The two strains of Leo’s argument are irreconcilable. The pope himself seems always drawn by the force of his own reasoning to reassert property rights, and resist socialism in practice, even while accepting its economic lexicon in theory. More recent Church leaders, throughout the hierarchy, have shown an increasing tendency in the opposite direction. However, the wisdom of Leo’s natural rights theory remains current and convincing, while his proletarian lingo now strikes only false notes, and seems a terribly unfortunate superimposition upon an otherwise sparkling plea for freedom and Christian charity.

Catholicism has been forced by circumstances to return at last to the crossroads to which Pope Leo XIII led it, and to choose its future path. If the lessons of the intervening century are to have any bearing on the decision, the Church might choose the better path this time.

Catholicism and Freedom: A Moment of Truth