God vs. Private Property?

My article, “Hysterical Christian-Haters for Property Rights” got a fair amount of attention from people craving some kind of rational conversation about that lynchpin issue of modern liberty — property rights, that is, not Christian-hating. Every time I write about property, however, there are always a few holier-than-thou progressives lurking in the weeds to say, “But Christianity is against private property ownership.” If they are clever enough, they might even mention a few Gospel episodes, or something about camels passing through the eyes of needles, to support their point.

To be honest, I’m never sure what point they think they are making, other than to get under the skin of religious conservatives by asking, in effect, “Wasn’t God a socialist?”

Well, no, or not to the best of my knowledge. But since the progressives making these kinds of arguments are mostly non-believers who are just as likely to mock Christianity itself as to mock Christian conservatives, I think it would almost be a category mistake to defend the biblical God against charges that He is or was opposed to private property ownership, since that is not really the charge the progressive muckrakers are making. What they are really saying is that Christianity (the religious belief system as practiced by mortals) is, properly understood, a progressive idea.

Since the mockers never seem to provide any evidence for this claim beyond their specious interpretation of a doctrine which they themselves do not believe has any truth value, but is merely an antiquated social practice, I suggest the only reasonable answer to their sophistry, if any is needed, is to look at what actual Christian leaders have said about matters related to private property in the past. That is to say, how did the most important figures among actual believers in the faith interpret their own “belief system” on this question?

That many recent Christian leaders of all stripes have leaned toward the socialist interpretation is undeniable. But that this latest trend indicates anything more than transitory figureheads unworthy of their posts flirting with fashionable politics, whether out of intellectual weakness or due to the temptations of (perceived) power, is far from obvious — especially in light of the obvious break this late Christian trajectory entails relative to the positions of earlier, graver representatives of the faith.

I will not pretend to be able to trace the details of this leftward trajectory through the modern history of all the major Christian churches, although I suspect most of the individual cases would be roughly analogous to one another. I do know, however, that in the case of the church in which I was raised, namely the Roman Catholic Church, the shift may be encapsulated in a most remarkable transitional document, namely Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, “Rerum Novarum,” from 1891.

This strange document is an exceptional example of the Catholic tradition on private property, identifying it as not merely acceptable to Christianity, but as essential to living the true Christian life, on many levels.

It is also, however, an early example of the Church’s strained and awkward effort not to distinguish itself fully from the academically-fashionable, German-inspired, progressive political philosophy which was beginning to poison the political wells of the late-nineteenth century Western world. I therefore cite this strangely schizophrenic encyclical as the great moment of untruth for Catholicism, the beginning of the end of the Church’s role in helping to establish the moral conditions of modern liberty — even as it is intermittently a strong declaration of those very conditions.

I wrote about this encyclical, oddly enough, in connection with the 2012 Republican primaries. (Remember when a GOP primary could still involve the discussion of fundamental philosophical questions? The GOP establishment and their friend Donald Trump certainly hope you don’t, because they clearly intend never to let that happen again.) 

I refer you, therefore, to my analysis of this document, and of the question of the Catholic Church’s historical position on property rights, “Catholicism and Freedom: A Moment of Truth.”

For further discussion of the issue of property rights in general, I suggest “The Last Line of Defense: Property.”

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