Private Property in Rerum Novarum

Prof. Michael F. Hull, New York


The Church’s teaching regarding private property has been a voice crying in the wilderness against the perverted and pervasive thought of so many in modernity who would reduce man to a slave of the state. Stealing a man’s property and preventing the acquisition thereof collapse man, the family, and human society into nothing more than means of production. Pope Leo XIII read the signs of the times in the nineteenth century with uncanny clarity. Leo saw the underlying errors and evils of Marxism, communism, and socialism. His foresight in Rerum Novarum (May 15, 1891) is astounding. One hundred years after Rerum Novarum — with the great advantage of hindsight and having seen the enslavement and slaughter of millions of God’s people under the collectivist banner — Pope John Paul II wrote Centesimus Annus (May 1, 1991), in part, as "a ‘look back’ at [Rerum Novarum] in order to discover anew the richness of the fundamental principles which it formulated for dealing with the question of the condition of workers" (CA, no. 3).

The primary among those fundamental principles is articulated simply and clearly by Leo: "Every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own" (RN, no. 6). The very purpose for which man works is to secure property for himself with the reasonable expectation that such property will remain his own. The earth and its fruits are God’s gifts to mankind (Genesis 1:28–30). It is only with the investment of labor that the earth’s fruits are brought forth by man, "so it is right and just that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor" (RN, no. 10).

Aware of the political and sociological turmoil of his day, wherewith some classes mistakenly believed themselves to be at enmity with others, Leo cautioned all to be mindful of distributive justice and Christian charity: "the true worth and nobility of man lie in his moral qualities, that is, in virtue; that virtue is, moreover, the common inheritance of men, equally within reach of the high and low, rich and poor; and that virtue, and virtue alone, wherever found, will be followed by the rewards of everlasting happiness" (RN, no. 24).

Leo warned that "the labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The [civil] law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many of the people as possible to become owners" (RN, no. 46). Leo foresaw that the seizing of private property by the state places mankind on a slippery slope to absolutism, to a statist collectivism. The legitimacy of any government depends on its ability to protect man, the family, and human society; and the state may never appropriate to itself their proper competences (RN, nos. 14 and 35).

Following Leo’s prescience and insight, John Paul reminds us that man’s obligation to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow presumes his right to do so (CA, no. 43). The usurpation of private property, still one of the great dangers of our time, is contrary to natural and divine law. As Holy Scripture teaches, "the laborer is worthy of his wage" (1 Timothy 5:18; cf. Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Corinthians 9:14 and James 5:4).