05 January, 2021

On the Foundations of Distributism: Property, Family, Politics, Economy. Part 1

The following is the English version of part one of an article/interview by Thomas Storck, “Sui Fondamenti del Distributismo: Propriet√†, Famiglia, Politica, Economia,” published in Bollettino di dottrina sociale della Chiesa, July/Sept. 2020, pp. 73-84.

For information on the Italian publication, see here.

The root of distributism can be traced back to the Social Doctrine of the Church, nevertheless distributism is not the Church's social doctrine. Can you clarify what is the relationship between these two realities?

To put the matter simply, distributism is an attempt to give a more concrete application to the Church's social doctrine, an application which is at the same time entirely faithful to it. There are two related reasons why such an effort to give a more precise application to Catholic social doctrine, is necessary, or at least desirable.

The first stems from the fact that the Church's social doctrine, elaborated over one hundred years and addressed to the entire world, necessarily must have a certain indefinite quality. The economy of rural Ireland or Spain, say, in 1891, the year Rerum Novarum was issued, is not the economy of contemporary Germany or the United States. Yet the encyclicals and other documents of the Church's social magisterium must be able to speak to the very different conditions of all these economies. And this it does very effectively, both by laying down fundamental principles of economic justice, as well as by more specific proposals, even if these latter may need further adaptation to varying circumstances. But all of this social doctrine requires intelligent study and application in light of circumstances of time and place, something which Leo XIII himself called for.

Of course, it is important to recognize that Catholic social teaching cannot be reduced to a few platitudes, such as Be just, or Help the poor, as some contemporary neo-liberal publicists try to do. But it does mean that one cannot simply pick up the encyclicals and extract a set of proposals which a political party could offer at the next election. Even the more specific policies which the popes have advocated, such as the establishment of occupational groups or guilds, something which both Pius XI and Pius XII especially stressed, require a concrete legal and institutional structure which necessarily will differ from country to country. The rather complex German system of co-determination (Mitbestimmung), for example, which following a specific suggestion of Pius XI, provides for significant worker participation in the management of corporations and very effectively embodies the spirit of Catholic social teaching, could probably not just be replicated simply anywhere without important modifications that reflect the varying legal systems and work cultures of different nations.

The second reason why some kind of concrete application is necessary is because of the abundance of matters which the pontiffs have treated in their social documents. For example, the fundamental principle of distributism was enunciated by Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, "The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many people as possible to become owners" (no. 46). Yet how this should or could be done, and what relationship such small property ownership ought to have to the economy as a whole - for example, to enterprises that by their very nature require large workforces and intensive capital investments - is left an open question which will require political prudence in order to implement it in any specific society.

The popes were primarily laying down moral principles for the economies actually existing at the times they wrote. Thus Pius XI devotes a section of Quadragesimo Anno to evaluating Italy's then fascist economy, obviously something of chiefly historical interest now, while in Centesimus Annus St. John Paul II discusses in depth the global capitalist economy in light of the recent collapse of the Soviet bloc. Thus while the fundamental moral principles of economic justice are timeless, the popes were not engaged in writing theoretical treatises on economic morality. Even Pius XI, who exhibited perhaps the most interest of any pope in offering a systematic presentation of the functioning of a just economy, was primarily interested in responding to the grave crisis of the Great Depression and the threat of Communism. But distributists are seeking to set forth an economic system or a set of economic proposals which are more than a commentary on or a critique of present conditions, and which can compete intellectually with the capitalist paradigm. Our intent is to offer proposals which, while requiring adaptation to the widely varying conditions of different continents and countries, is based on fundamentals, on man's need for external goods and services, and hence on the necessity of economic activity to supply these goods and services, and on the principles of justice and political prudence which allow economic activity to work for the common good and common prosperity. Distributism stresses certain elements of Catholic social teaching, not because it disregards or neglects other aspects, but in order to formulate a more concrete plan which could be translated into an economic and social program.

If we examine the other serious attempt to apply modern Catholic social teaching we can see the necessity for this more clearly when we note the obvious similarities between it and distributism. This other attempt was Solidarism, a system formulated by a remarkable German Jesuit, Heinrich Pesch (1854-1926). As a young seminarian Pesch spent the years 1885 to 1888 near Liverpool in England because Bismarck's Kulturkampf had driven religious orders out of Germany. In England Pesch witnessed the exploitation and degradation of the working class by industrial capitalism which made him resolve to devote his life as a priest to the social apostolate. He authored a number of works on the social question, his chief work being the monumental Lehrbuch der Nationalökonomie, which appeared in five volumes between 1905 and 1923.

Both solidarism and distributism were formulated in response to the new social and economic order created by capitalism and industrialism that had triumphed in Europe and elsewhere during the nineteenth century. What was unique in capitalism, or more correctly, in the classical liberalism that stood behind capitalism, was the notion that the economic order was divorced from its place in the hierarchy of values that had hitherto been seen as the organizing principle of all of social life. Economic life, and consequently greed for gain, were now seen as legitimate and free from all but the most rudimentary ethical restraints. Prohibitions against force and fraud, narrowly defined, were pretty much the only misdeeds which the apologists of the new order recognized.

Both distributism and solidarism, on the other hand, since they are rooted in Catholic social thought, perceive that the economy must serve mankind as a whole and that economic activity must be part of the hierarchy of human goods, not an independent thing divorced from its place in social life, to be pursued according to the desire and cleverness of each individual economic actor, motivated solely by a desire for unrestricted gain. Pesch stated this principle at the outset of the Lehrbuch, when he wrote that "man must always and everywhere be the subject and end of the economy."[i]

If solidarism and distributism are compared one will find that the differences between them are chiefly a matter of emphasis. As such, they both witness to the fact that all serious attempts to apply Catholic social doctrine will resemble each other much more than they will differ. Both systems take their program from Pope Leo's Rerum Novarum, the solidarists from the passage "capital cannot do without labor nor labor without capital," (no. 19), and distributists from the passage I have already cited, "The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many people as possible to become owners" (no. 46). But just as there is no contradiction in the mind of Leo XIII who wrote both these statements, so there is little contradiction in the fundamental thought of Pesch on the one hand, and of Belloc and Chesterton on the other. In fact, there is a clear convergence with regard to how both systems treat important economic points, such as property or employment and wages. With reference to property, for example, Pesch wrote of "the need to do away with the individualistic concept of private property,"[ii] and that "property is not an end in itself...but it is only a means designed to provide for mankind in a manner appropriate for the well-being of the individual, the family, and political society."[iii]

Although the original distributists placed great emphasis on private property and the freedom which property ownership affords to families, likewise the distributist understanding of property was fundamentally the same as that of Pesch. The limits on private property for the sake of the common good which Belloc and Chesterton, as well as contemporary distributists, have championed, presuppose that property ownership is a right only when it is consistent with the common good. Property has a purpose, the support and sustenance of families, and indirectly of the whole society; it is not a free-standing right to amass as much as possible with no reference to the common good. Because of this understanding, distributists have suggested a variety of means to break up large concentrations of property, such as Hilaire Belloc's suggestion to use graduated taxation to force the division of large concentrations of property.[iv] And of course this is hardly alien to Pesch's thought. There are even passages in Pesch which could have come from the pen of Belloc or Chesterton: "While socialism calls for the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, the motto of solidarism is: increase the number of owners!"[v]

Another crucial point where the two systems can be compared is the question of employment and wages. Here Pesch considered that for the most part the employer/employee relationship would continue even in a just economy. He was concerned to insure that workers received a just wage and that owners and workers were bound together by solidarity, both in spirit and in concrete institutions such as occupational groups which sought to embody the spirit of justice and charity fundamental to Catholic thought on society. Belloc and Chesterton, for their part, often spoke as if they thought that every worker would become an owner, so that the owner/worker relationship would disappear. But as we saw above Pesch could go so far as to say that "the motto of solidarism is: increase the number of owners!" And on the other hand, Chesterton and Belloc recognized that it was likely impossible to do away entirely with large entities requiring large workforces. In The Outline of Sanity, when Chesterton wrote about possible means for achieving a distributist economy, he included "the gradual extension of profit-sharing [or] the management of every business...by a guild or group...."[vi] Neither he nor Belloc were absolutists in insisting that every individual or family must own its own small farm or small business.

The point of this is to show that Catholic social teaching does require a fleshing out, an elaboration, to make clear how its chief points can be translated into actual policies and institutions, and secondly, to show that every attempt to do so, every attempt, that is, which takes the Church's social doctrine seriously, will exhibit many more similarities than differences and as a result make clear that social doctrine does have a solid content and that specific proposals can be deduced from it which translate into real world economic policy.
Part 2 can be found here.

Printable version


i. vol. 1, book 1, p. 18. All references to Pesch are to the translation of the Lehrbuch in ten volumes made by the late Dr. Rupert Ederer and published by Edwin Mellen Press as Lehrbuch der Nationalökonomie/Teaching Guide to Economics, c. 2002.

ii. vol. 2, bk. 1, p. 264.

iii. vol. 1, bk. 1, p. 277.

iv. See Belloc's The Restoration of Property (New York : Sheed & Ward, [1936] 1946), especially pp. 69-72, 93-118.

v. Pesch, Lehrbuch, vol. 4, book 2, p. 299. Emphasis in original.

vi. In The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, vol. 5, Ignatius Press, 1987, p. 97. Belloc in The Restoration of Property makes similar proposals. See p. 88.

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