We have come to know and expect that whenever the pope writes or says anything of significance, he will earn the ire of professional provocateurs. Now, in the eighth year of Francis’s papacy, there’s a certain comforting predictability about the to-and-fro between his expression of Church teaching and the ensuing outrage. We saw this happen when Francis was quoted out of context in his support for civil unions. Also, Taylor Marshall took issue with the number of times Francis used a particular word or phrase in his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, as if this were some secret code that one could use to assess its orthodoxy.
Likewise unsurprising were the comments of those who, with an air of authority, betrayed their lack of charity towards the pope. One issue in particular that has arisen concerns “private property.” Phil Lawler, noted author of Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis Is Misleading His Flock and other works, composed a five-tweet thread and an article for Catholic Culture in which he claimed that it was “simply impossible to square the Pope’s statements with those of his predecessors.” The problematic statement? Lawler writes, “Pope Leo says the right to private property is inviolable; Pope Francis says it is not inviolable.”
This is a reference to the following statement in the Pope’s new encyclical, which is largely a quote from his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’. Francis writes in Fratelli Tutti:
I would observe that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property”.
This statement can be contrasted with Pope Leo’s statement in Rerum Novarum:
The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.
Commonly, though erroneously, referred to as the “climate change document,” Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical included many restatements of Church teaching on the economy and the just ordering of society. When Ladauto Si’ was published, Lawler commented on the same statement Francis later quoted in Fratelli Tutti. Yet, Lawler didn’t make the connection to Leo’s Rerum Novarum at that time. Lawler wrote in 2015:
In Catholic social teaching, the right to private property is essential, but it is not absolute. Since all material resources should serve the common good, and since anyone in possession of valuable property is ultimately indebted to God for his blessings, the wealthy few have a moral obligation to use their resources in ways that serve the poor. The “social mortgage,” then, is roughly equivalent to the principle of noblesse oblige; with money and power come certain implied obligations to the community.
It appears that over time Lawler has changed his mind about whether Francis’s comments on private property can be considered a restatement of Church teaching. The key issue today is Lawler’s fixation on the word “inviolable.” One pope says private property is not inviolable while another says it is. How can we reconcile this apparent contradiction? Leo is referring to the role of private property in securing the common good. In other words, private property serves a purpose. While the right to private property is a legitimate right, one that Francis himself acknowledges, it is not the primary right. Leo would not disagree.
Recall that Leo wrote expressly against the claim that private property ought not to exist at all—i.e., against communism. In Rerum Novarum, however, Leo further wrote about the state’s role in securing conditions that best advance the possibility for integral development, particularly for the poor, and defended the state’s taxation authority to achieve those ends. These statements are simply irreconcilable if one adopts Lawler’s rigid interpretation of the word “inviolable.” Properly understood, the right to private property is indeed inviolable, but with certain qualifications and under certain conditions. For instance when private property owners renege on their responsibility to assist the poor, the state has an obligation to “remedy the evil,” according to Leo.
Thus, there are claims upon the right to private property, as well as corresponding responsibilities and obligations. Both Francis and Lawler (in 2015 and 2020) acknowledge this when they explicitly reference St. John Paul II’s description of a “social mortgage.” That phrase appeared in his 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. Without using the word “inviolable,” John Paul described this right ordering between the universal destination of goods and private property:
It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant for all. The right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a “social mortgage,” which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods.
Giving Lawler the benefit of the doubt we might concede that Francis erred by claiming the Church has never taught the inviolability of private property. Clearly it has, as discussed above. But at best, this historical argument about how a particular word has been used over time is akin to Taylor Marshall’s unsound criticism. More importantly, it is utterly blind to the fuller context of these statements. The apparent contradiction is strictly superficial and once we understand that, it does not deserve further attention.
Ultimately, Francis upholds Church teaching in Fratelli Tutti, saying:
The right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods.
Readers seeking to explore this beautiful teaching may be interested in reading some expert commentary. For example, the National Catholic Register covered this issue in at least two articles. The first was an interview with David Cloutier of the Catholic University of America. Asked whether Francis and Leo are in conflict, Cloutier responded:
Oh, certainly not. It’s a clear ordering of principles, which is to say that the right of private property is the ordinary way in which we exercise the universal destination of goods. We give people property so that they can be stewards of it. … It is a moral error when I think “This is my property, and I can do what I want with it.” That second part — “I can do what I want with it” is the moral error. No, in fact, to have property is to have responsibility and to think about how to constructively use that property for the good of all.
The second article was another survey of other expert views on the matter who agree that Francis is in line with the Church’s tradition on the matter. In this article, Lawler is quoted as a dissenting “other voice” alongside a representative of the Tradition, Family, Property organization, which has been active in cultivating support against Vatican II and Pope Francis.
The rigid thinking and reactionary propaganda, characteristic of a certain segment of the Catholic commentariat, could have been avoided. In 2015, Lawler’s piece on Laudato Si’ was remarkably insightful, capturing even the way Francis wrote poetically about the beauty of creation and our role in it. But Lawler’s 2020 article on Fratelli Tutti is superficial and adds nothing to any serious discussion of the encyclical. His faulty analysis will likely cause confusion and mislead his fellow Catholics about actual Church teaching.
In the same way that Taylor Marshall’s word-search criticism was unconstructive, there is little to be gained when critics do nothing more than point out superficial contradictions between two Church documents and claim that only one can be right. More often than not, as seen also in the study of Scripture, seeming contradictions are indicative of our own failure to understand each text in its context. Let us seek greater harmony by focusing on the greater teaching underpinning both texts.