Updated: Dec 4, 2022
The Origins of Distributism
On May 15th, 1891 Pope Leo XIII published his encyclical on Capital and Labor entitled, “Rerum Novarum,” which translates to “Of New Things.” Up until this point, Laissez-Faire capitalism had been the primary economic structure in the West for a few centuries. Unlike our current Keynesian form of capitalism (which I will expound upon later), Laissez-Faire capitalism looks down upon government interference in the economy. This led to the consolidation of money and power in the hands of the few while the vast majority of the populace lived in abject poverty. In response to the failings of Laissez-Faire capitalism, the idea of socialism began to take rise across western society.
Pope Leo XIII
In response to the growing threat of socialism, Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” outlined the issues that resulted from the West’s implementation of Laissez-Faire capitalism and why socialism was not an applicable remedy for such issues. He also lays out a set of principles to address the problems of Laissez-Faire capitalism that align with traditional church teachings. These principles inspired a group of Englishmen, led by G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, to start the distributist movement.
Hilaire Belloc (Left) and G. K. Chesterton (Right)
Sadly, the distributist movement lost out to a new form of capitalism proposed by John Maynard Keynes. This form of capitalism is what America still uses today and is often referred to as Keynesian economics or Keynesian capitalism. Keynes proposed an economic framework that promoted greater government intervention in economic affairs while keeping the current concentration of productive property in place. As a result, governments would tax the wealthy to fund programs that gave monetary assistance to the poor.
Although Keynes’ proposal seemed to address the problems that came with Laissez-Faire capitalism, it only kept the poor in a state that was tolerable enough for them to remain subservient while keeping the fundamentally unjust elements of Laissez-Faire capitalism in place.
This prompted Pope Pius XI to write a follow up to Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” 40 years later entitled “Quadragesimo Anno” or “In the 40th Year” in 1931. Pope Pius XI’s encyclical dove deeper into why both capitalist and socialist systems were fundamentally flawed. The warnings in both of these encyclicals, however, were ignored by the rest of the world as money, power, and ownership continues to consolidate in the hands of the few while the poor and working classes have become increasingly reliant on government assistance to survive.
Pope Pious XI
“If by capitalism is meant, not diffused ownership of property, but monopolistic capitalism in which capital bids for labor on a market, and concentrates wealth in the hands of the few, then from an economic point of view alone, the Church is just as much opposed to capitalism as it is to communism.” — Ven. Fulton Sheen, Communism and the Conscience of the West
An Economy Built on Ethics
Distributism is an economic system built upon an ethical framework that prioritizes people over monetary or material gain. This ethical framework stems from the originator of Distributism, the Catholic Church.
Since its existence, the Catholic Church has had a vested interest in man living out his temporal life in a way that allows him to achieve eternal salvation.
“…all salvation comes from Christ the Head, through the Church which is his Body” — (CCC 846)
The Church’s interest in temporal things includes man’s political and economic life, both of which are governed by principles of justice. As spoken about in previous articles, both capitalist and socialist economic systems attempt to separate ethics from their systems, leading to corruption and injustice. By participating in either of these two economic frameworks is in itself a hinderance to the pursuit of salvation.
The Church, therefore, has lauded Distributism as an ethical alternative to these two systems. In the next section, passages from numerous Papal encyclicals will help demonstrate how the core principles of distributism have been promoted by the church over the past century and how these principles align perfectly with church social teachings.
Passages Relating to Distributism from Papal Encyclicals
Pope Leo, XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891)
That right to property, therefore, which has been proved to belong naturally to individual persons, must likewise belong to a man in his capacity of head of a family; nay, that right is all the stronger in proportion as the human person receives a wider extension in the family group.
If a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income. Nature itself would urge him to this. We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.
Many excellent results will follow from this; and, first of all, property will certainly become more equitably divided.
Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (1931)
The riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all, which Leo XIII had praised, will be safeguarded; in other words, that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate. By this law of social justice, one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits.
To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice.
Therefore, with all our strength and effort we must strive that at least in the future the abundant fruits of production will accrue equitably to those who are rich and will be distributed in ample sufficiency among the workers.
Pope Pius XII, Radio Message (Sep. 1, 1944)
But, above all, the Church strives to make private property become — according to the plans of Divine Wisdom and nature — an element of the social order, a necessary presupposition for human initiatives and a stimulus for work. All this must be turned toward the advantage of the temporal and transcendent goals of life, and, therefore, toward improving the liberty and dignity of man created in the likeness of God, Who, from the beginning, determined that man should use the material creation for his own advantage.
The worker should be offered the possibility to acquire goods as personal property. What better stimulus can you give to him than to encourage him to work hard, to save money and to be sober in order to do so, especially when so many men and peoples, having lost everything, have no other resource today than their capacity to work?
Pope St. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra (1961)
Now, if ever, is the time to insist on a more widespread distribution of property, in view of the rapid economic development of an increasing number of States. It will not be difficult for the body politic, by the adoption of various techniques of proved efficiency, to pursue an economic and social policy which facilitates the widest possible distribution of private property in terms of durable consumer goods, houses, land, tools and equipment (in the case of craftsmen and owners of family farms), and shares in medium and large business concerns. This policy is in fact being pursued with considerable success by several of the socially and economically advanced nations.
Increase in production and productive efficiency is, of course, sound policy, and indeed a vital necessity. However, it is no less necessary — and justice itself demands — that the riches produced be distributed fairly among all members of the political community. This means that everything must be done to ensure that social progress keeps pace with economic progress. Again, every sector of the economy — agriculture, industry and the services — must progress evenly and simultaneously.
Pope St. John Paul II, Laborem Exercens (1981)
Thus, merely converting the means of production into State property in the collectivist system is by no means equivalent to “socializing” that property. We can speak of socializing only when the subject character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everyone else. A way towards that goal could be found by associating labour with the ownership of capital, as far as possible, and by producing a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social and cultural purposes; they would be bodies enjoying real autonomy with regard to the public powers, pursuing their specific aims in honest collaboration with each other and in subordination to the demands of the common good, and they would be living communities both in form and in substance, in the sense that the members of each body would be looked upon and treated as persons and encouraged to take an active part in the life of the body.
Pope St. John Paul II, Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987)
We are therefore faced with a serious problem of unequal distribution of the means of subsistence originally meant for everybody, and thus also an unequal distribution of the benefits deriving from them. And this happens not through the fault of the needy people, and even less through a sort of inevitability dependent on natural conditions or circumstances as a whole.
Of course, the difference between “being” and “having,” the danger inherent in a mere multiplication or replacement of things possessed compared to the value of “being,” need not turn into a contradiction. One of the greatest injustices in the contemporary world consists precisely in this: that the ones who possess much are relatively few and those who possess almost nothing are many. It is the injustice of the poor distribution of the goods and services originally intended for all.
Pope St. John Paul II, Centessimus Annus (1991)
In the light of today’s “new things”, we have re-read the relationship between individual or private property and the universal destination of material wealth. Man fulfils himself by using his intelligence and freedom. In so doing he utilizes the things of this world as objects and instruments and makes them his own. The foundation of the right to private initiative and ownership is to be found in this activity. By means of his work man commits himself, not only for his own sake but also for others and with others. Each person collaborates in the work of others and for their good. Man works in order to provide for the needs of his family, his community, his nation, and ultimately all humanity. Moreover, he collaborates in the work of his fellow employees, as well as in the work of suppliers and in the customers’ use of goods, in a progressively expanding chain of solidarity. 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 rather is the result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation or the breaking of solidarity among working people. Ownership of this kind has no justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.
Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (2009)
Despite some of its structural elements, which should neither be denied nor exaggerated, “globalization, a priori, is neither good nor bad. It will be what people make of it.” We should not be its victims, but rather its protagonists, acting in the light of reason, guided by charity and truth. Blind opposition would be a mistaken and prejudiced attitude, incapable of recognizing the positive aspects of the process, with the consequent risk of missing the chance to take advantage of its many opportunities for development. The processes of globalization, suitably understood and directed, open up the unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale; if badly directed, however, they can lead to an increase in poverty and inequality, and could even trigger a global crisis. It is necessary to correct the malfunctions, some of them serious, that cause new divisions between peoples and within peoples, and also to ensure that the redistribution of wealth does not come about through the redistribution or increase of poverty: a real danger if the present situation were to be badly managed.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si (2015)
The rich and the poor have equal dignity, for “the Lord is the maker of them all” (Prov 22:2). “He himself made both small and great” (Wis 6:7), and “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Mt 5:45). This has practical consequences, such as those pointed out by the bishops of Paraguay: “Every campesino has a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish his home, work for subsistence of his family and a secure life. This right must be guaranteed so that its exercise is not illusory but real. That means that apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets.”
Yet we can once more broaden our vision. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community.
“On the Eve of Sundown” Gregory Frank Harris
Through Distributism, we as a society can promote widespread ownership across the populace, enabling more people than ever the ability to access and benefit from productive property. Through the wisdom of the Holy Fathers’ encyclicals, it is evident that the distribution of goods and property amongst the widest number of people possible fulfills God’s intentions for human work and the demands of earthly justice. By adopting the core beliefs of Distributism (i.e. subsidiarity, the importance of the family, and widespread ownership), we can work towards a society that lives the way God intended and ultimately our own salvation.