Distributism is usually known as an economic theory advanced primarily by Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. They themselves, however, claimed that this theory was rooted in the social teaching of the Church, especially Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, the Church’s first two major social encyclicals. Distributism remains controversial, as many people accuse it of advocating for an altered form of socialism. Rather, it has been put forward as a mean between the extremes of Communism, which eliminates private property, and Capitalism, which concentrates property in the hands of a few.

Essentially, distributism advocates for an economic and political system which creates favorable conditions for the distribution of property and capital into the hands of as many people as possible. It does not seek to collectivize property or to favor ownership only by the wealthy, but rather calls for family owned businesses and local economics. Understood in this general way, we can see how the ideas underlying distributism are rooted solidly in the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. To show this, I will simply quote relevant passages from social encyclicals (and one radio address) for your own consideration.

Pope Leo, XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891)

  1. That right to property, therefore, which has been proved to belong naturally to individual persons, must likewise belong to a man in his capacity of head of a family; nay, that right is all the stronger in proportion as the human person receives a wider extension in the family group.
  1. If a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income. Nature itself would urge him to this. We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.
  1. Many excellent results will follow from this; and, first of all, property will certainly become more equitably divided.

Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (1931)

  1. The riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all, which Leo XIII had praised, will be safeguarded; in other words, that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate. By this law of social justice, one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits.
  1. To each, therefore, must be given his own share of goods, and the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice.
  1. Therefore, with all our strength and effort we must strive that at least in the future the abundant fruits of production will accrue equitably to those who are rich and will be distributed in ample sufficiency among the workers.

Pope Pius XII, Radio Message (Sep. 1, 1944)

But, above all, the Church strives to make private property become – according to the plans of Divine Wisdom and nature – an element of the social order, a necessary presupposition for human initiatives and a stimulus for work. All this must be turned toward the advantage of the temporal and transcendent goals of life, and, therefore, toward improving the liberty and dignity of man created in the likeness of God, Who, from the beginning, determined that man should use the material creation for his own advantage.

The worker should be offered the possibility to acquire goods as personal property. What better stimulus can you give to him than to encourage him to work hard, to save money and to be sober in order to do so, especially when so many men and peoples, having lost everything, have no other resource today than their capacity to work?

Pope St. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra (1961)

  1. Now, if ever, is the time to insist on a more widespread distribution of property, in view of the rapid economic development of an increasing number of States. It will not be difficult for the body politic, by the adoption of various techniques of proved efficiency, to pursue an economic and social policy which facilitates the widest possible distribution of private property in terms of durable consumer goods, houses, land, tools and equipment (in the case of craftsmen and owners of family farms), and shares in medium and large business concerns. This policy is in fact being pursued with considerable success by several of the socially and economically advanced nations.
  1. Increase in production and productive efficiency is, of course, sound policy, and indeed a vital necessity. However, it is no less necessary—and justice itself demands—that the riches produced be distributed fairly among all members of the political community. This means that everything must be done to ensure that social progress keeps pace with economic progress. Again, every sector of the economy—agriculture, industry and the services—must progress evenly and simultaneously.

Pope St. John Paul II, Laborem Exercens (1981)

  1. Thus, merely converting the means of production into State property in the collectivist system is by no means equivalent to “socializing” that property. We can speak of socializing only when the subject character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everyone else. A way towards that goal could be found by associating labour with the ownership of capital, as far as possible, and by producing a wide range of intermediate bodies with economic, social and cultural purposes; they would be bodies enjoying real autonomy with regard to the public powers, pursuing their specific aims in honest collaboration with each other and in subordination to the demands of the common good, and they would be living communities both in form and in substance, in the sense that the members of each body would be looked upon and treated as persons and encouraged to take an active part in the life of the body.

Pope St. John Paul II, Solicitudo Rei Socialis (1987)

  1. We are therefore faced with a serious problem of unequal distribution of the means of subsistence originally meant for everybody, and thus also an unequal distribution of the benefits deriving from them. And this happens not through the fault of the needy people, and even less through a sort of inevitability dependent on natural conditions or circumstances as a whole.
  1. Of course, the difference between “being” and “having,” the danger inherent in a mere multiplication or replacement of things possessed compared to the value of “being,” need not turn into a contradiction. One of the greatest injustices in the contemporary world consists precisely in this: that the ones who possess much are relatively few and those who possess almost nothing are many. It is the injustice of the poor distribution of the goods and services originally intended for all.

Pope St. John Paul II, Centessimus Annus (1991)

  1. In the light of today’s “new things”, we have re-read the relationship between individual or private property and the universal destination of material wealth. Man fulfils himself by using his intelligence and freedom. In so doing he utilizes the things of this world as objects and instruments and makes them his own. The foundation of the right to private initiative and ownership is to be found in this activity. By means of his work man commits himself, not only for his own sake but also for others and with others. Each person collaborates in the work of others and for their good. Man works in order to provide for the needs of his family, his community, his nation, and ultimately all humanity. Moreover, he collaborates in the work of his fellow employees, as well as in the work of suppliers and in the customers’ use of goods, in a progressively expanding chain of solidarity. Ownership of the means of production, whether in industry or agriculture, is just and legitimate if it serves useful work. It becomes illegitimate, however, when it is not utilized or when it serves to impede the work of others, in an effort to gain a profit which is not the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society, but rather is the result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation or the breaking of solidarity among working people. Ownership of this kind has no justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.

Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (2009)

  1. Despite some of its structural elements, which should neither be denied nor exaggerated, “globalization, a priori, is neither good nor bad. It will be what people make of it.” We should not be its victims, but rather its protagonists, acting in the light of reason, guided by charity and truth. Blind opposition would be a mistaken and prejudiced attitude, incapable of recognizing the positive aspects of the process, with the consequent risk of missing the chance to take advantage of its many opportunities for development. The processes of globalization, suitably understood and directed, open up the unprecedented possibility of large-scale redistribution of wealth on a world-wide scale; if badly directed, however, they can lead to an increase in poverty and inequality, and could even trigger a global crisis. It is necessary to correct the malfunctions, some of them serious, that cause new divisions between peoples and within peoples, and also to ensure that the redistribution of wealth does not come about through the redistribution or increase of poverty: a real danger if the present situation were to be badly managed.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si (2015)

  1. The rich and the poor have equal dignity, for “the Lord is the maker of them all” (Prov 22:2). “He himself made both small and great” (Wis 6:7), and “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Mt 5:45). This has practical consequences, such as those pointed out by the bishops of Paraguay: “Every campesino has a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish his home, work for subsistence of his family and a secure life. This right must be guaranteed so that its exercise is not illusory but real. That means that apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets.”
  1. Yet we can once more broaden our vision. We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral. Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community.

Conclusion

Distributism strikes a balance between two principles of the Church’s social teaching: the universal destination of goods and the defense of private property. Creating the condition for more widespread private ownership enables more people to participate in the goods of the earth, which God destined for the common good of all. This collection of texts has made it very clear that the Church does indeed teach that the distribution of goods and property fulfills God’s intentions for human work and the demands of earthly justice. There is much more to be said as to why this is the case and to how this should be done, particularly creating an environment which favors ownership, small business, and a stronger local economy. Hopefully, these texts will inspire you to learn more about how our work can and should fulfill God’s plan for our own work and how we can help others to realize the same.

  • DLink

    Interesting article but in practice I have seen it work properly only by the monks who make the Christmas fruit cakes and even they have their challenges. Since all economic theories are supposed to address human need, possibly it would be of best effect to concentrate on assisting those who need help in functioning on their own. Providing relief to the unable is a totally different matter and should be treated as such.

  • MRL123

    So, how does this work in the real world we live in today? Great theory, but what does it really mean? How do we get from here to your “there”?

  • Chris C.

    Distributism is unsuitable for the development, manufacture, and distribution of large consumer goods to a large number of people. There won’t be family businesses manufacturing jet airliners, automobiles, household appliances, or building roads, bridges, and railroads. The Distributist model might work only on small scales. For anything needed to make and market products to sizable economies it is wholly inadequate. Advocates of Distributism can point to no success stories beyond a few successful co-ops. Further, when most folks realize they’ll have to work far longer hours, for far less money at least initially, and with far less security; they learn to love free market capitalism all the more. What worked with medieval guilds won’t work now.

  • ArthurMcGowan

    Here is the entirety of Catholic Social Teaching:

    Honor they father and thy mother.
    Thou shalt not kill. (murder)
    Thou shalt not commit adultery.
    Thou shalt not steal.