Leo XIII’s Rerum Novaum was the first in what became a tradition of papal encyclicals on the “social question.” Successive pontiffs reflected on this topic according to their specific context. For example, one hundred years after Rerum Novarum, John Paul II wrote Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”). The continuity of the tradition of the social encyclicals is evident in this document, as the following passage from paragraph 30 illustrates:
In Rerum novarum, Leo XIII strongly affirmed the natural character of the right to private property, using various arguments against the socialism of his time. This right, which is fundamental for the autonomy and development of the person, has always been defended by the Church up to our own day. At the same time, the Church teaches that the possession of material goods is not an absolute right, and that its limits are inscribed in its very nature as a human right.
John Paul II also notes how this theme was picked up later in the tradition, most notably at the Second Vatical Council in Gaudium et Spes,
The Successors of Leo XIII have repeated this twofold affirmation: the necessity and therefore the legitimacy of private ownership, as well as the limits which are imposed on it. The Second Vatican Council likewise clearly restated the traditional doctrine in words which bear repeating: ‘In making use of the exterior things we lawfully possess, we ought to regard them not just as our own but also as common, in the sense that they can profit not only the owners but others too…’
The tradition of Catholic Social Teaching continues to bear out the importance of “rights and responsibilities” with regard to private property. A grave responsibility to care for those in need emerges from the “legitimacy of private ownership.”
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Assistant Professor, Religious Studies