In Hope of a Catholic Economic System: Part III

This is the final installment of this series. Parts I and II were previously published on Catholic Exchange.

Point 4: Private property is an inviolable right yet one that must work in tandem with the larger and general good of the community, in conjunction with points 5 (subsidiarity) and point 6 (solidarity).

Private property is an irrevocable right in a fair and just economy and society. Furthermore, a person has natural right to what he produces. If you have made the strawberry ice cream by your work and ingenuity, it is yours, it belongs to you, and you may consume it or sell it for profit as you see fit. Just as people have a right to living spaces that are theirs, the necessary privacy prerequisite to freedom, they have a right to the products they produce. This is right and just, this is subsidiarity, here an intellectual localism that that which springs from these hands not those belongs to these and not those. [1]

But yet solidarity soon enters into this two-sided, authentically whole, equation. No matter how singular your effort was in making, perhaps “designing” and “creating,” the strawberry ice cream, it’s doubtful, if not impossible, that you did it fully alone. It was probably others who gathered the ingredients, made the machines with which you made the ice cream, packaged the product, so on and so forth. Everyone getting his just due here fulfills the moral economy based on real people, not caricatures, supported by fair wages and fair shares properly acknowledging what is private property, and what has come from and must be distributed back to the community for the common good.

If this sounds simple enough, why do so many employers pay their employees such horrible wages? Why is there so much greed? Why so many laws and loopholes seemingly designed to funnel as much money into the coffers of the few at the expense of the many? Why, unlike our strawberry ice cream which is made from the best ingredients and to the highest rung of quality—because our moral economy knows real people and their families will be eating this treat—are there so many garbage products on the market?

The balance between private property and subsidiary-driven localism with the communal good is as true for products as it is for living spaces and land ownership. “Every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own,” Pope Leo XIII says. “This is one of the chief points of distinction between man and the animal creation…not just self-preservation and propagation of species but more, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession; he must have not only things that perish in the use, but those also which, though they have been reduced into use, continue for further use in after time.’  Furthermore, the pope says, stating the issue plainly: “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.” [2]

There are, however, limits to this right. Leo XII points out that St. Thomas Aquinas said it was  both “lawful” for man to hold private property and “necessary for the carrying on of human existence.” But when the question turned to how one’s private goods and wealth should be used, Leo, building on Aquinas, writes, “the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: ‘Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.’”  [3] John Paul II builds on this insight in Centesimus Annus, stating:

The original source of all that is good is the very act of God, who created both the earth and man, and who gave the earth to man so that he might have dominion over it by his work and enjoy its fruits (Gen 1:28). God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone. This is the foundation of the universal destination of the earth’s goods. The earth, by reason of its fruitfulness and its capacity to satisfy human needs, is God’s first gift for the sustenance of human life. But the earth does not yield its fruits without a particular human response to God’s gift, that is to say, without work. It is through work that man, using his intelligence and exercising his freedom, succeeds in dominating the earth and making it a fitting home. In this way, he makes part of the earth his own, precisely the part which he has acquired through work; this is the origin of individual property. Obviously, he also has the responsibility not to hinder others from having their own part of God’s gift; indeed, he must cooperate with others so that together all can dominate the earth.[4]

Both communists and capitalists fall sort of this tripartite ideal regarding subsidiarity, solidarity, and private property vis a vis the common good. Communists reject subsidiarity in favor of a centralized, bloated bureaucracy that in enriching a select few works against solidarity, swallowing up private property and crushing into dust any conception of the “good,” forget common. And yet capitalists, even as the lesser of two evils, reject subsidiarity by never finding a local business or shop they won’t willingly sacrifice to the big business box store, thereby crushing the local community solidarity necessary for healthy, thriving towns and townships. They too, the capitalists, are less concerned for the common good than the bottom line. And, lest you think that capitalists respect private property, I ask you: do they? “I am well aware that the word ‘property’ has been deified in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists,” G.K. Chesterton said, many years ago. “One would think, to hear people talk, that the Rothschilds and Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property; because they are enemies of their own limitations…it is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate; just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.” Or, like Calvin is reported to have once said, and, take note, the following might be the first and last time I favorably quote a Protestant: “Wealth is like manure; it works best when it is spread, but stinks when it is in one big pile.” [5]

Ok, so what?

A recap-plus – the plus being a final call for those who might know this moral science, economics, so much better than I do, to attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together, for the betterment of their own, local communities and maybe then for the betterment of us all.

First, to recap on our Palouse Co-Op Proposal six theme approach, a healthy, and truly third way economic paradigm shift away from the communist and capitalist poles requires a distinctively moral approach to economics with the person and family at the center respecting labor and the land. Those two together form the sina que non of authentic social and financial progress, a system respecting private property and individual freedom to the maximum without compromising the necessary submission to the common good willed by God, this delicate balance fulfilling the subsidiarity and solidarity pillars of Catholic social teaching.

Furthermore—plus one—in response to some of the problems mentioned above, we should, as Medaille argues, do the exact opposite of that which is in practice now and afflicts us: “so then,” Medaille writes, “in place of a claim of a physical science, we should re-moralize the markets. In place of globalist claims we should re-localize the economy. In place of capitalist claims, we should re-capitalize the poor… the small farm, and the small businessman.” [6] Furthermore—plus two—we should teach these principles to our ourselves and our children, until they become as second nature and reflexively natural as “America” and “capitalism” are now linked, and elect officials who think locally and will act locally, act in the best interests of their local communities, the actual people they represent instead of the faraway special interests whose bidding they jump to do. Furthermore—plus three, the final plus—behold the genius of the co-op model in its ultimate essence, the only co-operative philosophy worth speaking of, a true co-operation between the workers and the bosses. Capitalism and communism are each based on class warfare and hatred, on enmity between laborers and management. It does not have to be this way.

As Medaille writes, “The simplest way to overcome the opposition between capital and labor is simply to dissolve the difference between the two, to make the workers the workers the owners of the capital they create.” John Paul II goes further and claims that an economic system’s moral legitimacy and intrinsic authenticity depends upon “if in its very basis it overcomes the opposition between labor and capital.” Labor and capital united, all of us in it together, solidarity, the common good, the family, a just and real wage for a real person always in need of justice. Leo XII notes “the law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” [7]

That’s it, and that’s all. Those six principles plus direct mirror action, doing the right thing by doing the precise opposite of the wrong things we’ve been suffering to date, plus good teaching and good laws, i.e. good elected officials who actually do the local people’s will, plus the elimination of imaginary strife between labor and capital, between workers and employers. For when all share risk and the hope of reward, when all know they will sink or swim together and that bad decisions will hurt real people in the real places the leaders themselves live and love, then we can hope to make some progress in this ever-confusing, confounding, and always puzzling facet of society and life.

First, and most importantly, we must be convinced that something more than communism and capitalism is possible. That what can be worthy be to called a “Catholic Economic System” is possible.

Then, we try.

[1] Medaille, Towards a Truly Free Market, 117.

[2] Leo XII, Rerum Novarum, 6, 15.

[3] Leo XII, Rerum Novarum, 22.

[4] John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 31.

[5] Medaille, Towards a Truly Free Market ,124.

[6] Medaille, Towards a Truly Free Market, 238-239.

[7] Medaille, Towards a Truly Free Market, 135, 134, Leo XII, Rerum Novarum,  46.


Author of a novel entitled The Holdout (Adelaide Books, 2018) and a Civil War history Catholic Confederates (Kent State Univ. Press, 2020). Thermonuclear Mirth, a novel, is under contract and forthcoming with Arouca Press. A collection of essays, The Hippo Lectures, stemming from talks given at St. Augustine's, is completed and in circulation. Selected fiction has appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, Riddle Fence, Nashwaak Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Eclectica Magazine, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, New English Review, The Southern Distinctive, PILGRIM, Bull: Men’s Fiction, Black Bear Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The MacGuffin, The Scriberlus. Selected articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Catholic Historical Review, The Polish Review, the Journal of Southern History, the Journal of Southern Religion, and Idaho Magazine. Future research will be concentrated on writing a comprehensive Great War history about people on the Palouse. Earned his PhD in history from Mississippi State University. Currently teaches in Washington State University’s School of Design + Construction, the WSU department of history, and in the University of Idaho's College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences. Previously taught in the history department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has played baseball collegiately, professionally in Europe in the Czech Republic and Belgium, and for the Polish National Team. He is fluent in English, Polish and French with ability in Russian and Italian.

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