A Comparison of Henry George's
Economic Theory of Justice with
the Catholic Church's Social Teachings
Concerning the Right to Private Property in Land
[A paper delivered at the Council of Georgist
Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 2004]
Without diluting the difficulties that exist between the Georgist
position on private property in land, and the Catholic Church's social
teachings, on the same subject, there are some surprising similarities
between the basic principles advocated by both. Recent documents, in
particular those developed after Vatican II, are of particular
interest to the followers of Henry George.
The Vatican II document "The Pastoral Constitution of the Church
in the Modern World:
Gaudium et Spes" (proclaimed 7 December, 1965), extended
and defined the meaning of the common good. The common good is
which is the sum total of social
conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals,
to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily.
The document also emphasised that all created earthly goods were to
be shared fairly. This would include land, all natural resources, and
those things produced by one's labour. Pope John Paul II, was a
participant at the council and assisted in the writing of key
documents.4 He has first hand knowledge of the spirit of Vatican II,
its intent, and importance of the Church's role in the modern world.
John Paul II's social encyclicals renew and update the themes of the
economic, ethical, and social realities of "New Things",
which include a response to the worker question, poverty, and social
injustice.5 John Paul II was in an unique position to comment on these
social questions. He lived under two Totalitarian regimes: the Soviets
and the Nazi's. His pontificate saw the fall of communism or as he
calls it "Real Socialism": the political and economic system
he experienced in his native Poland. He is a renowned advocate of the
dignity of the human person, the rights of workers and the oppressed.
What do the Catholic Church and the popes have to say about land?
Catholic social teachings and John Paul II's encyclical letter Centesimus
Annus: On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerwn Novarum (1991), are
of relevance to Georgists. Henry George's book The Condition of
Labour: An Open Letter to Leo XIII, published in 1891, was a
critique of the Church's first social encyclical Rerum Novarum.
In it, George severely criticised the Church's view that one had a
natural right to private property in land. He systematically exposed
the failure of the encyclical to address the true cause of poverty,
that is, private property in land. Also, in George's opinion, Rerum
Novarum did not provide a sufficient remedy for the eradication of
poverty and other social problems. George had friends and adversaries
within the Catholic Church. The tone of his writings reflect the
respect he had for the office of St. Peter. However, this did not stop
him from thinking the Catholic Church had got it all wrong. In fact,
it inspired him to broadcast his views on landownership, private
property, and land value taxation to a wider audience of believers.
The purpose of the open letter to Leo XIII was not to debate, but to
define his own views. Quoting from a letter he wrote to his son, Henry
What I really aimed at, "he
informed his son," is to make clear brief explanation of our
principles, to show their religious character, and to draw a line
between us and the socialist. I have written for such men as
Cardinal Manning, General Booth and religious minded men of all
The Georgist movement needs to do the same thing today. They need to
reach out to all men and woman of good will. The dream that Henry
George had of a more just society must not die. It may be obscured by
time and circumstances, but it is alive in his writings and the
actions of people who desire a better world, one not racked by poverty
and the misuse of God's gift to humanity: land.
A century later the question must be asked. Is there some
compatibility between the philosophy of George and Catholic social
teachings on the land question. My purpose is to highlight Catholic
social teachings in the areas of property rights, the common good and
justice. My proposition is that justice demands that Christians and
all people of good will put their differences aside and look for
common ground on matters concerning the land question and poverty.
Both Henry George and Catholic social teachings agree that natural
law and justice are the foundation of property rights. George was
fervently opposed to the concept of private property in land. Catholic
social teachings wholeheartedly support it. However, George and his
principles were never directly condemned in Catholic social
encyclicals. This leaves open the possibility of dialogue when
considering land, economic justice and the common good.
I emphasise 'directly condemned'. It is true that Henry George
believed Rerum Novarum was written as an attack on his social
and economic theory. It could be argued, that since George's purpose
was to differentiate his theory of natural and economic justice from
the socialist model; the fall of communism may have actually helped
his cause. George was not a socialist and his adversaries do him an
injustice to class him as one. Today, Georgism must accurately define
its mission and insist that land reform, and the introduction of a
land value tax system, is neither collectivist nor absolutely
individualistic. It is a doctrine in accord with the Christian
principles of natural law Justice, and social development. In the
economic and ethical realities of landownership, George's guiding
light was the Golden rule "do unto others as you would have them
do unto you." It is a maxim that one ought to keep in mind in our
Catholic social teachings
Three important points should be remembered when discussing Catholic
- First, the Church does not offer any 'technical solutions' to
land management and taxation. No economic or political system is
specifically promoted. However, human dignity and the Church's
ministry must be respected at all times.
- Second, the Church's way is not a 'third way' between
collectivism and primitive capitalism. Neither is it an ideology.
"Its main aim is to interpret [economic and social] reality"
in accordance with Gospel teachings.
- Third, "the goods of this world are originally meant for
all". There is a "social mortgage" that needs to be
taken into account when considering private property. Land and
created goods each have both an individual and a social
The idea of a social mortgage, in relation to land, its use, and
property rights, has a familiar ring to Georgist ears. Was not George
advocating the same thing, with the collection of the economic rent,
with the expression in Progress and Poverty 'give to the
individual what belongs to the individual, and to the community what
belongs to the community'. The Church's preference is proclamation,
rather than condemnation. Similar to Henry George, the Church wants to
show how to do good and avoid evil.
The arguments I make will be based on two areas that are of mutual
concern to Catholics. They are: natural rights and land; and justice
Natural rights and Land
George and Catholic social teachings are in agreement that land is a
gift from God to all humankind from generation to generation. Equal
rights to land is based on the dignity of the human person. Work is
both personal and necessary. It is through land and work that one
provides for one's daily needs and wants. The universal destination of
earthly goods requires stewardship of and respect for God's gift. The
claim of Catholic social teachings is that individual rights must
always be subordinate to community rights. John Paul II writes in his
Encyclical "On Human Work" the right to individual ownership
or property is not absolute:
Christian tradition has never upheld
this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has
always understood this right within the broader context of the right
common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right
to private property is always subordinate to the right to common
use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.
How one is to determine the rights to individual property and common
property is what seems to separate George and Catholic social
teachings. It may be one that is not insurmountable. Both believe that
it is by work that we attach one's natural right to property and that
is the way we can call a thing our own. For example, if I plant a
crop, build a house, or bake a loaf of bread one has a moral and a
legal entitlement to it. Does the same principle apply to land? Land
meaning the natural materials, forces, and opportunities of
Unlike George, Catholic social teachings does not differentiate
between private property in land and private property in productive
goods. George says that private property in land is a violation of
natural law. Land is common property and private property rights
cannot be attached to it. Catholic social teachings is based on the
fundamental principle, as stated in Rerum Novarum, that while
it is true that land is a gift given to all, individual property in
land (here the Church means agricultural land) is in accordance with
natural law. Rerum Novarum and other encyclicals talk of the "inviolability
of private property" rights. But these rights are not
absolute. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the "world's resources"
must be used wisely. Selfishness must not impede the aim of the common
Solidarity and justice
John Paul II identifies the justification for land ownership to the
act of work. In his 1991 encyclical
Centesimus Annus, commemorating the one hundredth anniversary
of Rerum Novarum, he seems to be in agreement with George that
land speculation is unjust, especially when it deprives others of a
Ownership of the means of production,
whether in industry or agriculture, is just and legitimate if it
serves useful work. It becomes illegitimate, however, when it is not
utilized or when it serves to impede the work of others, in an
effort to gain a profit which is not the result of the overall
expansion of work and the wealth of society, but is rather the
result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation or
the breaking of solidarity among working people, (ft. 87: see John
Paul II's Laborem Exercens: On Human Work, no. 14, "Work
and Ownership".) Ownership of this kind has no justification,
and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.
How are these abuses to be addressed? Those concerned about the
impact of urban decay and urban sprawl may see in John Paul II's
observations that land-use must take into account the needs of the
community. Especially, when misuse of land deprives others of work.
Legitimate public authorities have a responsibility and duty to guard
the common good. The principle of "solidarity" is a one of
the cornerstones of Catholic social teachings. It has a twofold
purpose: promote the idea of Christian friendship and charity between
individuals; and fraternity between communities, both locally and
George believed that land value taxation is the way to achieve a
balance between individual and communal rights. Vacant city lots could
be put to better use, for example, for affordable housing, when the
tax system limits inefficient land speculation. Social reforms which
created better living conditions for the less fortunate in society
would be justified under the principle of 'solidarity'. Modifying
existing tax laws to emphasise the best use of land would be
compatible with Catholic social teachings. As long as taxes were not a
burden on any particular group or class.
Agrarian reform is also advocated by Catholic social teachings. The
Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace report: Towards A Better
Distribution of Land (1997), acknowledges the human and social
problems created by the concentration and misappropriation of
land. This is especially true in Third World countries, but does
not exclude the concerns of all those living in more developed
countries. Again, those possessing land must not view it as
exclusively theirs: Section 23 of the document reads:
The underlying nature of creation is
that of being a gift from God, a gift for all, and God wants it to
remain so. God's first command is therefore to preserve the earth in
its nature as a gift and blessing, not to transform it into an
instrument of power or motive for division.
The report goes on to say that the possession or ownership of land
(private property) is not "unconditional" and it "entails
some very precise obligations". Large land holdings are "illegitimate"
when they are "poorly cultivated, or simply left uncultivated for
speculation". It is morally wrong to deprive people of the
necessities of life and the capacity to access nature's bounty:
In the social teachings of the Church,
such latifundia go against the principle that "the world is
given to all, and not only to the rich." so that "no one
is justified in keeping for the exclusive use what he does not need,
when others lack necessities." (footnote no. 28: Paul VI,
Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 1967, no. 23.)
George did not believe that the equal distribution of land would
eradicate poverty. This being said, he was in favour of a wider
distribution of land. There seems to be enough common ground so that
Georgists and Christians can co-operate to achieve this goal.
Henry George writes in The Science of Political Economy:
The government of the universe is a moral government,
having its foundation injustice. George talks a lot about
justice and how it is to be achieved. The traditional definition of
justice quoted by Catholic philosophers and moral theologians can be
found in the writings of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Justice
The habit whereby a man renders to
each one his due by constant and perpetual will.22 And goes on
further to say that: Justice is the virtue of the good citizen.
In Catholic social teachings, justice is applied three ways: through
communative, legal, and distributive justice, and constitute a social
whole. Communative justice governs the exchange between individuals
and where contracts are freely entered into to with strict respect to
one's rights. Legal justice is what the individual owes to the
community. Distributive justice is what the community owes to the
George writes about justice in relation to natural law and social
progress. Tax is a matter of human law and would thus fall under the
title of legal justice. It is what the individual owes "in
fairness" to the State. A land value tax would be an example of
this. A land value tax is also linked to the distributive justice. The
disbursement of public revenues in proportion to one's needs is an
application of distributive justice. It is what the community
regulates or owes to the individual.
An argument may be made that the present system of taxation is unjust
because it does not comply with the principle of justice. Communative
justice, that is, legally and freely entered into, and binding
contracts, is called into question with the payment of economic rent
to landowners. Is it a fair and equal transaction in relations to
one's rights? Or are your rights violated by the landowner demanding
the community portion of the economic rent. Distributive justice may
be breached when the community does not have the revenue to invest in
the social development of the community. A good many Catholic moral
theologians would most likely disagree with me on this, but it is one
Fr. Edward McGlynn of New York was suspended from his public priestly
duties for 4 years for supporting and advocating George's remedy.
In the first part of the last century Catholic moral theologians have
published articles and books criticising George and his "Single
Tax". Of note is the Swiss born Jesuit Scholar Father Victor
Cathrein (1845-1931) and American Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869-1945).
But time has dimmed the name of Henry George and this may be a
blessing in disguise. The demise of "Real Socialism",
concern for the environment and natural resource management, and the
failure of governments to stop urban decay, provide affordable housing
and public transportation, may create the atmosphere were Georgist
philosophy is once again at the forefront of social consciousness.
Henry George had many Catholic followers, especially amongst the
working poor of Europe and the United States. Politically the "Catholic
vote" is still of importance in the United States, especially in
a presidential election year. For example, a headline in the New York
Times, dated 20th April, 2004, read: "Conservatives Try to
Exploit Catholic Democratics' Views". The Catholic constituency
does not have a united position on land reform and taxation, property
rights, or how to tackle social problems. But the time is ripe for
Georgists to promulgate their views amongst those Christians
advocating social justice for all. "Gerry Barr, the president and
CEO of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, a
coalition of organisations working in Canada and overseas to end
global poverty", wrote a recent article in "The Ottawa
Citizen" newspaper on development, charity, and poverty.27 He
chides governments and individuals for thinking charity alone will
help developing nations, he writes:
The problem isn't lack of knowledge or basic skills but
access to resources (be it fishing grounds or equipment) or fair
market system (to sell their catch)
Access to land and fair markets are still important issues today. On
key principles Catholic social teachings and George do coincide. There
is still the difficulty of the concept of private property in land,
but this should not stop Catholic, Christian, and Georgist dialogue.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
- The Second Vatican Council was
opened by Pope John XXIII at St. Peter's basilica in Rome. 2,450
churchmen attended and other Christian churches sent observers.
The first session opened on the 11 October 1962, and continued for
four years until 1965.
- Vatican Council II:
Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations (Northport, New York:
Costello Publishing Company, 1996), general editor Austin
Flannery, O.P., "Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the
Modern World: Gaudium et Spes, pp. 162-282.
- Vatican II, "The Church
in the Modern World: Gaudium et Spes", no. 26, p.
- Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul
II, Sources of Renewal: The Implementation of Vatican II
(San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishing, 1979) originally
published in Polish in 1972, English translation by P.S. Falla.
- Three of John Paul II's
encyclicals will be the focus of the discussion: John Paul II,
On Human Work: Laborem Exercens, On the Ninetieth Anniversary
of Rerum Novarum (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1981); On
Social Concern: Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, On the Twentieth
Anniversary of Populorum Progressio ( Boston: Pauline Books
and Media, 1987); On The Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum
Novarum: Centesimus Annus (Boston: Pauline Books and Media,
- Henry George, The Land
Question and related writings (New York: The Robert
Schalkenbach Foundation, 1982) Part III, "The Condition of
Labour: An Open Letter to Pope Leo XIII", originally publish
in 1891, preface to 1982 edition, p. viii.
- Collectivist in the sense of
Marxist collectivism. Individualism in that promoted by the
meaning of Liberal Capitalism or primitive Capitalism.
- John Paul II, On Social
Concern: Sollicitudo Socialis, no. 41, p. 77. The Church
does not have technical solutions to offer for the problem of
underdevelopment as such as Pope Paul VI already affirmed in his
encyclical, (footnote no. 69: Populorum Progressio, no.
13) For the Church does not propose economic and political systems
or programs, nor does she show preference for one over the other,
provided that human dignity is properly respected and promoted,
and provided she herself is allowed the room she needs to exercise
her ministry in the world.
- John Paul II, On Social
Concern: Sollicitudo Socialis, no. 41. 7, p. 78. The Church's
social doctrine is not a "third way" between liberal
capitalism and Marxist collectivism, nor even an alternative to
other solutions less radically opposed to one another: rather it
constitutes a category of its own. Nor is it an ideology,
but rather the accurate formulation of the results of a
careful reflection on the complex realities of human existence, in
society and international order, in the light of faith and of the
Church's tradition. Its main aim is to interpret these
realities, determining their conformity with or divergence from
the lines of the Gospel teachings on man and his vocation, a
vocation which is at once earthly and transcendent; it aim is thus
to guide Christian behaviour. It therefore belongs to the field,
not of ideology, but of theology and particularly moral
- John Paul II, On Social
Concern: Sollicitudo Socialis, no. 42. 5, p. 81. It is
necessary to state once more the characteristic of Christian
social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant
for all. (footnote no. 78: Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes no.
69, pp. 248-249; Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, no. 22;
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theo, II-II, Q. 66, a. 2.) The right
to private property is valid and necessary, but does not nullify
the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a
"social mortgage," (footnote no. 79: Address at the
Opening of the Third General Conference of the Latin American
Bishops, January 28, 1979) which means it has an intrinsically
social function, based upon and justified precisely by the
principle of the universal destination of goods. Likewise, in this
concern for the poor, one must not overlook that special form
of poverty which consist in being deprived of fundamental
human rights, in particular the right to religious freedom and
also the right to freedom of economic initiative.
- John Paul II, On Human
Work: Laborem Exercens, "Work and Ownership", 14. 2,
- Henry George, Progress and
Poverty (New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 2001), p.
- George, Land Question,
Appendix Encyclical Letter of Pope Leo XIII on The Condition
of Labour, official translation of Rerum Novarum, page
118, paragraph 18. Our first and most fundamental principle,
therefore, when we undertake to alleviate the condition of the
masses, must be the inviolability of private property. This laid
down, We go on to show where We must find the remedy that We seek.
- Aquinas, Summa, II-II,
q. 66, a. 2. "Is it legitimate for individual men to possess
a thing as their own?" Reply: "Man has a two fold
competence in relation to material things. The first is the title
to care for and distribute the earth's resources. Understood in
this way, it is not merely legitimate for a man to possess things
as his own, it is even necessary for human life, and this for
three reasons ..."
responsibility is better than common responsibility.
This first part relates to productive goods. The next part to the
economic meaning of land: "Man's other competence is to use
and manage the world's resources. Now in regard to this, no man is
entitled to manage things merely for himself, he must do so in the
interest of all, so that he is ready to share them with others in
case of necessity. This is why Paul writes to Timothy, As for
the rich of this world, charge them to be liberal and generous."
2. Individual responsibility is more orderly.
3. Peace is more assured.
- John Paul II, On the
Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Noverum: Centesimus Annus, no.
43. 3, p. 64.
"Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Towards a
Better Distribution of Land: The Challenge of Agrarian Reform",
Presentation, p. 1/28.
- Justice and Peace, Towards
a Better Distribution of Land, no. 23, p. 10/28.
- Justice and Peace, Towards
a Better Distribution of Land, no. 30, p. 12/28.
- Justice and Peace, Towards
a Better Distribution of Land, no. 32, p. 13/28.
- Justice and Peace, Towards
a Better Distribution of Land: "Promoting a wider
distribution of private property", no. 37, p. 14/28. The
report recommends that agrarian reform can be achieved by public
1) in juridical
terms, in order to ensure the adoption of laws to uphold and
protect the effective distribution of private property: (ft 37:
wise laws - reference to RN #30)
2) In terms of economic policies, in order to facilitate"
an increase distribution of private ownership and of durable
goods, of homes, of farms, of one's own equipment in enterprises
and farms of family size, of shares in middle size and large
farms" (ft 38: reference to John XXIII Met M #102)
3) in terms of tax policy, in order to ensure continuity of
ownership of material goods within the context of the family,
(ft 39: reference to Pius XI QA # 49) public authorities ..."burden
private property with such exorbitant taxes as to impoverish it."
- Henry George, The Science
of Political Economy (New York: Robert Schalkenbach
Foundation, 1992) p. 451.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theo.,
II-II, q. 58, a. 1.
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theo.,
II-II, q. 58, a. 6.
- Catechism of the Catholic
Church (New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1995) no. 2411, p.
638-639. Contracts are subject to communative justice which
regulates exchanges between persons in accordance with strict
respect of their rights. Communative justice obliges strictly; it
requires a safeguarding of property rights, paying debts, and
fulfilling obligations freely contracted. Without communative
justice, no other form of justice is possible. One distinguishes
communative justice from legal justice which concerns what the
citizen owes in fairness to the community, and from distributive
justice which regulates what the community owes its citizens in
proportion to their contributions and needs.
- In the Catholic tradition
legal justice is governed both by human law and natural law.
- Alfred Isacsson, Edward
McGlynn: Studies Marking the Centenary of his Death,
(Tarrytown, New York: Vestigium Press, 2000?) p. 83. Suspended
October-November 1886 and again from November 1886 to December
1892. See Robert V. Andelson (editor), The Critics of Henry
George, Vol. I and II, and Mason Gaffney, "Henry George
and Dr. Edward McGlynn and Pope Leo XIII."
- Article and by-line in The
Ottawa Citizen, Saturday, July 10,2004, "Charity Alone
Won't Help Poor, Sick Children", p. B7.