We have been reading John Paul’s 1981 encyclical on human labor, Laborem exercens, which was a commemoration of the 90th anniversary of Rerum novarum. There are interesting resonances with earlier thinkers that we will, we hope, have time to draw out later. However, for now, we present this lengthy excerpt on private property as, perhaps, a mere provocation:
The historical process briefly presented here has certainly gone beyond its initial phase, but it is still taking place and indeed is spreading in the relationships between nations and continents. It needs to be specified further from another point of view. It is obvious that, when we speak of opposition between labour and capital, we are not dealing only with abstract concepts or “impersonal forces” operating in economic production. Behind both concepts there are people, living, actual people: on the one side are those who do the work without being the owners of the means of production, and on the other side those who act as entrepreneurs and who own these means or represent the owners. Thus the issue of ownership or property enters from the beginning into the whole of this difficult historical process. The Encyclical Rerum Novarum, which has the social question as its theme, stresses this issue also, recalling and confirming the Church’s teaching on ownership, on the right to private property even when it is a question of the means of production. The Encyclical Mater et Magistra did the same.
The above principle, as it was then stated and as it is still taught by the Church, diverges radically from the programme of collectivism as proclaimed by Marxism and put into pratice in various countries in the decades following the time of Leo XIII’s Encyclical. At the same time it differs from the programme of capitalism practised by liberalism and by the political systems inspired by it. In the latter case, the difference consists in the way the right to ownership or property is understood. 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 subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.
Furthermore, in the Church’s teaching, ownership has never been understood in a way that could constitute grounds for social conflict in labour. As mentioned above, property is acquired first of all through work in order that it may serve work. This concerns in a special way ownership of the means of production. Isolating these means as a separate property in order to set it up in the form of “capital” in opposition to “labour”—and even to practise exploitation of labour—is contrary to the very nature of these means and their possession. They cannot be possessed against labour, they cannot even be possessed for possession’s sake, because the only legitimate title to their possession—whether in the form of private ownerhip or in the form of public or collective ownership—is that they should serve labour, and thus, by serving labour, that they should make possible the achievement of the first principle of this order, namely, the universal destination of goods and the right to common use of them. From this point of view, therefore, in consideration of human labour and of common access to the goods meant for man, one cannot exclude the socialization, in suitable conditions, of certain means of production. In the course of the decades since the publication of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, the Church’s teaching has always recalled all these principles, going back to the arguments formulated in a much older tradition, for example, the well-known arguments of the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas Aquinas.