A postmodern school of Catholic economics now presents its teachings on private property with a dazzling ability to make contradictions. It is at once Thomistic and Keynesian; religious and ecological; international and tribal. The school’s advocates are the new property destroyers that employ means to undermine the institution without directly attacking it.
This amorphous mass of ideas defies definition. Thus, the debate does not resemble the structured doctrines of times past, when even socialists followed a certain logic. This perspective is best described by Czech poet-president Václav Havel when he once defined postmodernity as a world “where everything is possible, and almost nothing is certain.”1
A Model of Economic Chaos
This postmodern description helps explain the economic chaos found in many books, forums and publications, especially in the Pope Francis era. Young economists from all over the world gather together, for example, in the so-called Economics of Francesco forums (primarily online), where they are “engaged in a process of inclusive dialogue and young, vibrant, global change, moving towards a new economy.”2
Pope Francis presented a set of nine “economic commandments” involving property in a forceful 38-minute video presentation featured at the fourth World Meeting of Popular Movements in October 2021. His encyclicals Laudato Sí and Fratelli Tutti envision a world where property rights are fluid and community-based.
Books like Anthony Arnett’s 2022 work, Cathonomics: How Catholic Tradition Can Create a More Just Economy, attempt to bridge tradition and postmodernity. Such works integrate social justice proposals, green new deal goals and Keynesian economic theory into traditional Catholic property models. However, the ripped fabric of these diverse views fails to form one seamless garment.
These postmodern models still claim to represent the marginalized, forgotten and powerless. However, new members of its now-global proletariat include the LGBTQ movement and a sentient Earth that “cries for justice.” Like most postmodern mixtures, it fails to attract the masses who cannot understand its esoteric jargon, shocking contradictions and detachment from reality.
Working in Sync with the Liberal Establishment
Thus, the new property destroyers appeal to the establishment they wish to destroy. This amazing contradiction appears in the form of an enthusiastic corporate echo of Pope Francis’s call. The social justice warriors work in sync with powerful Davos-driven secular, financial and non-governmental organizations. Figures like pro-abortion Jeffrey Sachs rub elbows with Vatican officials at events in Rome.
This effort unites the radical elements of the two greatest powers on earth: the Church and the liberal global establishment. Indeed, in this postmodern yet uncertain setting, all is possible.
This new attack on property differs from the past when Marxists carried out land confiscations and mass murders of owners. Today’s revolutionaries do not force their way into society at the point of bayonets—not yet, at least. Instead, they infiltrate the culture and destroy property’s religious and metaphysical underpinnings. The goal is not to suppress property but to deprive it of its reason for being. Thus they create conditions whereby property will fade away.
Working Inside the Context of Historical Processes
This evolution of the attack upon private property must be put in the context of historical processes. The noted Catholic intellectual and man of action, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, traces the destructive actions of the enemies of the Church into a struggle, which he called the Revolution (with a capital R). This Revolution’s goal is to destroy Christian civilization in all its manifestations. It must be opposed by a Counter-Revolution.3
Starting from the Renaissance, this single Revolution consists of four main events in Western history: the Protestant Revolt, the French Revolution, the Communist Revolution and the Fourth (Sexual or Postmodern) Revolution. Each of these revolutions impacted the notion of property.
Thus, this postmodern school is but the latest and logical development of the Revolution. This discussion will be limited to the transition of the left’s old attacks on private property inside modernity to the present postmodern one, especially as manifested by the Catholic left.
Thus, there are three points to discuss in this new dialectic.
The Church’s Defense of Private Property
The first is to review the Catholic Church’s teaching about property. The Church has always defended private property finding ample Scriptural justification in the Old and New Testaments.4 The Church has also condemned abuses of this right and praised voluntary poverty as an evangelical counsel for those seeking a higher perfection.
Traditional theologians have consistently declared private ownership to be just and necessary. Indeed, the Church teaches it is a natural right that cannot be taken away. Property is a given proposition upon which everything else is built. It is expressed by the maxim that privatas possessiones inviolate servandas (private property is to be preserved inviolate) found in Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum.
Leo XIII also defended the justice of private ownership in several other encyclicals against the unjust socialist attacks upon the institution. Saint Pius X, in his Motu Proprio: Fin dalla prima nostra of December 18, 1903, declares that “Private property is under all circumstances, be it the fruit of labor or acquired by conveyance or donation, a natural right, and everybody may make such reasonable disposal of it as he thinks fit.”5
Replying to the Social Questions Raised by the Industrial Revolution
The modern debate over property focused on social questions raised by the destructive effects of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. As a result, the Church vastly expanded Her teaching to consider the many attacks upon property, especially from the sociological and economic perspectives.
The Church fearlessly denounced the abuses of property. However, she also discussed with great clarity the nature of property, how it might be acquired, its foundations in natural law, its limitations and the universal right to acquire property. The Church saw private property as an element of order that allowed social institutions like the family, the community, the economy and the State to flourish. Property is providential in that it teaches people to think about the future. It makes planning possible since it involves material accumulation in anticipation of shortages.
Property is essential for the practice of virtue and the pursuit of truth. Justice by which each is given that which is due implies a division between mine and thine found in property. Charity to others is physically expressed in the voluntary distribution of property to the needy. By its undeniable physical existence, property affirms objective reality and being. It imposes consequences on acts.
When the battle took place in the context of virtue, truth and objective reality, the Church was equipped to deal with and win this debate.
The Postmodern Shift
Postmodernity changed everything.
Thus, the second point consists in realizing that the debate is no longer in the context of the social questions. It has moved outside the economic and political considerations that prove private property to be the source of prosperity and favor the practice of virtue. The postmodern notion of property has moved into realms where objective reality is not needed or desired.
According to postmodern thought, most people live inside so-called metanarratives that arbitrarily assign meaning and purpose to life. A metanarrative is any grand, all-encompassing story, text, archetype or history that provides a framework upon which experiences and thoughts may be ordered and validated. It is a guiding belief, “truth” or consensus that binds people together in society.
In this context, the Church and Christian civilization are metanarratives that legitimize a vision of life. Other metanarratives might include a market economy, scientific method, modern education or even socialism. These metanarratives often contain smaller narratives that meld together into vast systems.
Postmodernism does not embrace metanarratives but “deconstructs” them. It seeks to free individuals of these predetermined, unchosen structures by questioning their legitimacy. It deprives them of meaning so that the individual loses faith in them. Thus, institutions are destroyed by apathy, not violence, torpor, not passion, whim, and not deliberation.
This method ushers in the present world of self-identity, fluidity and fantasy that is overthrowing traditional morality.
Postmodernity is also informed by existential thought like that of Jean-Paul Sartre, which holds that “existence precedes essence.” Sartre believed that each person exists like an empty shell. The person fills this shell with experiences in which each develops an individual essence or nature. Thus, there can be no known and unchangeable human nature; it is a construct that must be suppressed. Freedom consists of freeing oneself from imagined essences or constructs that tie one down in reality. It facilitates the creation of each individual’s own reality, nature and identity.
Property as an Obstacle to Postmodernity
Thus, postmodernity is hostile toward structures that anchor people to reality. In the middle of modern metanarratives is the unavoidable obstacle of private property. It cannot be ignored since it is interwoven with every major institution of the West. Property is the locus of tradition, family and social life. It is the foundation of wealth and the economy. Property is the anchor of objective reality since it is where physical existence happens and gives objects context and meaning.
Postmodern concepts of property deconstruct it by stripping it of its context and purpose. They deprive property of its secondary social function, which benefits all of society. Postmodernity deprives property of its embedded relationships and empties it of meaning.
That is to say, property is inextricably interwoven into human society. The communist keeps those who want access to property from having it. The postmodern revolutionary prevents those who have access to property from wanting it.
The Emptying Out of Property
The assault on the essence of private property already began in the modern period when markets turned it into a commodity without strong intangible values or embedded social relationships. Real property, especially land, was no longer a point of anchorage or sanctuary from which a family might develop but a mere meeting place of wills engaged in their quest for gratification.
Modernity further destroys property by attacking the notion of place. It imposes a common universal culture without reference to place, where music, food, fashions and entertainment are increasingly the same. The frenetic intemperance of the pace of daily life serves to uproot the notion of a healthy localism where inhabitants become sensitive to a place and develop natural preferences for a locale’s panoramas, climate, or foods.
Thus, it robs people of the poetry, legend and myth surrounding those places that give them context and meaning. The result is a society that, to use the harsh words of Charles Reich, “has obliterated place, locality and neighborhood, and given us the anonymous separateness of our existence.”6
This emptying out of all tangible things was foreseen by Marx, who did not see the dictatorship of the proletariat as the final end of his dialectic process. He envisioned a more radical transformation of society in which all social constructs must be stripped away, all myths overturned, leaving only stark existence.
In his Communist Manifesto, the postmodern dream is already insinuated when Marx said about the radical changes of his time that “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men, at last, are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow man.”7
The Advent of the Nothing-Man
The final matter to be discussed is the application of postmodern ideas to society and the Church.
Postmodernity takes this emptying out of property started by modernity to the extremes by creating a new human type that desires to be what might be called the nothing-man.
In times past, people belonged to movements with specific goals and doctrines around which they built logical frameworks. Now, this desire to be something is notably absent. People escape the existential question of purpose by wanting to be nothing. Hence, the nothing-man.
The nothing-man is born of the explosion of the passions wrought by the sexual and political revolutions that dismantled the restraints that ordered society. These revolutions accelerated and facilitated ever more intense and anti-natural gratifications and sensations. The consequence is the destruction of self-interest, self-preservation and the need for property.
The desire to be free from the restraints of “Western” reason, logic and order trumps everything. Deprived of a framework, individuals question even the concepts of identity and unity. The only thing that remains is extreme intemperance, where all is oriented toward the emptiness of intense pleasures and self-destructive sensations. It is the glorification of nothing—and no place.
The Nothing-Society Destroying the Desire for Property
The nothing-man necessarily gives rise to a nothing-society. It consists of a minimal association with others that facilitates the practice of frenetic intemperance alone or together with others. Like the nothing-man, the nothing-society would be without wisdom, unity and purpose. The role of property would be minimal, resting in giant networks that facilitate the quest for nothingness.
The nothing-man takes his hatred of restraint so far that he prefers to base everything upon pure illusions rather than face reality. Hence, the absurd attempt to create identities, genders and experiences leads to nihilism.
The nothing-man still utilizes classical socialist programs of income distribution and welfare. However, nothing-society’s attack on property takes the form of adopting non-possessive and generalized sharing models over ownership options. It can involve subconsumerism and “de-growth” policies that deny legitimate progress and glorify tribal simplicity.
The metaverse is an example of this destructive process that will allow users to immerse themselves in absurd virtual worlds of their own designs. This new universe of unrestraint provides a perfect platform to promote a property-less experience-driven economy.
The Catholic Left Favors Postmodern Structures
The postmodern school of Catholic economics fits into the vision of a nothing-society. It favors policies that break down modernity’s economic structures. Its advocates, aided by Davos-driven NGOs and corporations, seek a paradigm shift that would invite people to abandon social and moral models of restraint and “accompany” those who practice what were once considered sins.
The new property destroyers of the Catholic left aim to empty property from its context in society. They do this through policies already in place and manifest themselves in the following ways.
- There are constant appeals to reject modernity’s “consumerist” models and adopt more primitive and even tribal lifestyles closer to nature, as idolized by the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region held in Rome in 2019.
- Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti calls for “re-envisaging the social role of property.” The central argument of this “re-envisaging” is the overemphasis of the valid principle of “the universal destination of created goods” by making it the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order.”
- The promotion of a “culture of encounter” has led Pope Francis and the Catholic left to advocate that Western countries should be open to an unlimited (and catastrophic) policy of immigration that can open the door to Islamic radicals.
- In his encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis calls for a “new balance” by utilizing vague labels like “exclusion economy,” the “idolatry of money,” and “social inequality” to favor systemic change.
- A constantly reoccurring theme in the Economy of Francesco initiative is the division of the world into rich and poor or conflicts generated by identity politics. Instead of harmonizing society, these efforts seek to highlight class struggle as a means of realizing social justice.
- The green new deal eco-agenda is the official policy of this current that seeks to eliminate coal and oil, promote “de-growth” and destroy modern economies with ecological utopian goals based not on science but ideological environmental models.
A Devastating Vision
In these ways, the attack upon property continues unabated in the West. It is not enough to fight for property using old formulas, valid though their arguments may be. Such efforts will fail because the focus will increasingly be on a postmodern rejection of property.
Should this vision prevail, it will devastate the world. Property anchors society to reality and thus is an obstacle to the deconstructed worlds that postmodernity generates. Those who do not value property, which is the product of their labor, will be more easily enslaved by their passions.
The postmodern paradigm proposes an anti-morality and an anti-truth that will take society to perdition. It challenges and revolts against the order created by God.
The Role of the Church
The Catholic Church is uniquely equipped to deal with the postmodern threat to property. This is because the focus is no longer on outside structures that buttress the institution, crucial though they might be. Postmodernity questions the existential nature of things.
Thus the focus of the needed change must be in man himself. The Church can reconstruct those deconstructed narratives that link the Creator and humanity. Her presentation of the good, true and beautiful points to transcendental and sublime realities. Her call to internal order triggers moral conversions that will later restore society. The nothing-man can be filled with grace.
This is the only way to recovery. Everything else points to an eerie, postmodern world where all evil is possible and almost nothing good is certain.
Photo Credit: © Timothy – stock.adobe.com
4. Two commandments defend the right of private property: Thou shall not steal, and Thou shall not covet their neighbor’s goods. New Testament references can be found in Matthew 19:18-19, Mark 10:19, and Romans 13:9.
6. Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1970), 7.
7. As quoted in Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 21.