Private Property
by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
March 2004

“Basic to peace, order, and progress is the security of private property. On this account Pope Leo XIII . . . in his celebrated encyclical, Rerum Novarum . . . developed at length arguments in behalf of private property. ‘The law, therefore, should favor ownership,’ he wrote, ‘and its policy should be to induce as many people as possible to become owners.’ Many excellent results will follow from such a governmental policy. First of all property will be more equitably divided. Many of the economic and social evils of our day go back to the fact that the distribution of wealth is not more equitable. ‘Wealth . . . must be so distributed amongst the various individuals and classes of society,’ emphasizes Pope Pius XI in his encyclical on the Reconstruction of Social Order, ‘that the needs of all . . . be thereby satisfied.’”

This commentary on the importance of private property and the need for government to make sure it is equitably distributed, sounds like it could have been recently said by Pope John Paul II. In fact, it was written in 1937 by Aloisius J. Muench, then Bishop of Fargo.

Bishop Muench’s primary concern was the loss of family farms and the loss of control and equity farmers had in their operations. Sixty-seven years later, the problem has worsened probably beyond Bishop Muench’s worst imagination. We have only a fraction of the number of farmers we had in 1937 and those remaining are increasingly under the direct and indirect control of creditors, marketing operatives, government programs, and trade agreements.

The truth about private property and distribution of wealth discussed by Bishop Muench reaches beyond matters of agriculture. One wonders what he would have thought about the concentration of ownership in today’s world, like that which exists in broadcast media, telecommunications, computer technology, retail, banking, food processing, publishing, and transportation. Whatever the type of industry, service, or property, the ever-increasing trend toward greater ownership by fewer persons raises serious questions of justice. If ownership of private property enhances peace, order, progress, and the stability of families, denial of that ownership threatens peace, order, progress, and families.

When Bishop Muench spoke about how many of the evils of his day were related to the inequitable distribution of wealth he was probably referring to economic injustices. I think, however, that today he would recognize that such concentration of wealth leads to other evils as well. Several watchers of media ownership, for example, have noted that incidents of obscenity and indecency have increased correspondingly with media ownership concentration. Local ownership is typically more respectful of communities’ values.

There may also be a connection – at least spiritual – with concentrated ownership and the culture of death. Key to the acceptance of greater concentration of ownership is the idea that property rights are absolute and the belief that greater efficiency is always good. John Paul II, however, in his encyclical The Gospel of Life, identifies both of these ideas as contributors to the culture of death.

Addressing the problem of concentrated ownership is difficult. For one thing, lower prices and greater efficiency sometimes do result from concentration. It is difficult for people to look beyond these benefits and see the more hidden, but sometimes disastrous, social and spiritual costs.

Secondly, too many in our country look at any policy fostering greater distribution of wealth and property as an undue infringement upon liberty and, worse, a form of socialism. Catholic social teaching makes clear, however, that the matter is not so black and white. The Church recognizes that, like collectivist socialism, unbridled economic activity threatens legitimate ownership of private property and, consequently, families.

Finally, there is hesitancy, even among those aware of the problem, to challenge a system so deeply entrenched in our society. It seems easier to rally behind short-term fixes, even if they address only the symptoms of the problem.

For inspiration, we should look at Pope John Paul II. Always the prophet of hope, he calls us to go to the root of problems and deal with the systemic issues. I think Bishop – later Cardinal – Muench would agree.