To my surprise and delight, Acton Power Blog somehow came across my old article on John Locke and Catholic Social Teaching. In it, I examined the influence of Locke’s two treatises of government on the political encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII. That was back in 2010, and I caused no shortage of controversy at The American Catholic, a blog I used to contribute to. The blog was massively restructured since then, however, so many of the old posts are gone. I was promised a detailed argument as to why it was utterly absurd to claim that Locke influenced CST, but my critic decided to divide what seemed like a dissertation-length refutation into 17 parts (or something) and we never got to the meat of it. Some cranky Distributists complained about it too.
A few typos and editing errors aside, I still like the piece today. It wasn’t long after I wrote that piece that I had to step away from Catholic writing for a while for reasons I couldn’t even begin to explain and probably wouldn’t interest you anyway. As a result I never followed up the analysis and deepened it as I had originally intended. I’ll offer a few thoughts here.
I feel like Rerum Novarum was, in a special way, a gift from God. It has the prestige of being the original Papal encyclical on social teaching. But what makes it special is that it is also the only encyclical that truly affirms the natural right to private property (among other natural rights), the proper role of the state in the context of such rights, the issue of forced charity, and the moral responsibilities not only of businessmen but of laborers as well, a part almost always overlooked by Catholic leftists since it condemns all non-religious trade unions and insists that individual moral responsibility is essential to personal economic well-being. Even Murray Rothbard recognized it as a fundamentally pro-capitalist and libertarian encyclical.
Other than a brief affirmation of free markets in JP II’s encyclical Centesiums Annus, CST would quickly thereafter become somewhat hostile to free market capitalism. Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno takes an authoritarian and regimented approach to economics, condemning the claim that free competition leads to the best economic outcomes (empirically it does). Just about everything Paul VI said about economics was similarly anti-market. JP II was a bit better, B16 was somewhat harder to pin down, and Francis is just about the worst Catholic libertarians could hope for. Without Rerum Novarum to fall back on, CST would be a pretty dismal landscape for economic liberals.