How John Locke Influenced Catholic Social Teaching

It isn’t often that John Locke is mentioned in discussions of Catholic social teaching, unless it is to set him up as an example of all that the Church supposedly rejects. After all, Locke is considered one of the founders of a liberal and individualist political tradition that was rejected by the papacy in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, a closer examination of both Locke’s Two Treatises of Civil Government (FT & ST) and the papal encyclical that set modern Catholic social teaching in motion, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (RN), reveals that Locke was not a pure “individualist” as many have assumed, nor was Rerum Novarum a categorical rejection of all things “individual.” Rather, both Locke and Leo XIII craft their basic political arguments — especially with respect to the right to private property — based on the same assumptions about natural law, natural right, and Christian obligation.

Though it is evident from the texts themselves, the agreement between Locke and Leo is also a historical fact. In 2005, Manfred Spieker, a professor of Christian Social Thought at the Universität Osnabrück in Germany, cited the influence of Locke on three of the men who drafted the text of Rerum Novarum. He writes,

Luigi Taparelli, Matteo Liberatore, and Tommaso Zigliara, who prepared the social encyclical Rerum Novarum for Pope Leo XIII, also relied on John Locke’s property theory. Two aspects exert substantial influence on this first and ground-breaking encyclical: Locke’s individualism and work as the criterion for legitimacy of the right to private property. (Journal of Markets & Morality, Volume 8, Number 2)

Because Spieker refers here to “Locke’s individualism,” some detractors have attempted to argue that while Locke may be present in the parts of Rerum Novarum pertaining to private property rights, there is no Locke to be found at all later in the encyclical, particularly when Leo turns to St. Thomas Aquinas on how property is to be used. But these two agree on this subject as well.

On a final note before proceeding: I am not attempting to recast Locke as a crypto-Catholic who aligned perfectly with the Christian natural law tradition, though he does incorporate it into his political theory. Nor am I arguing that Locke’s political theory and Leo’s social doctrine are identical in every detail; if we moved much further past the topics examined here, we would find substantial disagreements. One cannot simply read the Treatises and find Catholic social teaching waiting to be chiseled out of the text; but one can read Rerum Novarum ­– and, to fill in some gaps, Immortale Dei (ID) as well — and find a solid support pillar in the Treatises.


Natural Laws and Rights

Locke, along with other social contract theorists, is often criticized for his account of the “state of nature,” his term for the time before the formation of political societies. The criticism often lies in a misinterpretation of this state of nature as both individualistic and anarchistic, which is rightly said to have never actually existed.

The real importance of positing a state of nature is to set the stage for natural rights: If man exists before the state exists, then the state is the rational creation of man. It exists to provide him with something, rather than man existing to provide something for the state. Thus, both Locke and Leo hold that not only individual men, but their families and even households, exist prior to any political community (ST, 2; RN, 12-13). It is significant that Leo writes: “The rights here spoken of, belonging to each individual man, are seen in much stronger light when considered in relation to man’s social and domestic obligations” (RN, 12). The rights of individual men and of families are inexorably bound.

Why men would give up their natural liberties to live under a government is explained through both natural law and natural right. For Locke and Leo, the natural law obliges both self-preservation and the preservation of others, beginning with his family and extending out toward the rest of society (ST, 6 & 78; RN, 44 & 13). But this law can only be obeyed if men have the means to provide for themselves the necessities of life. It is from this necessity that the right to private property arises.

If we grant for the moment that there is a natural right to private property, there is by no means a guarantee that it will be secure in an ungoverned society. Therefore, God, in both Locke’s and Leo’s account, wills that men form political societies in order to secure, protect, and stabilize the rights needed to carry out the obligations of the law of nature (ST, 135; ID, 3). Locke and Leo both hold, moreover, that as God is the author of nature, the laws of nature are ultimately the laws of God. To aid in this obligation, God creates us with a “natural instinct” to exit a state of nature and form political societies (ST, 15 & 77; ID, 3). Finally, though the particular form of government may be the rational creation of man, suited to his particular needs, all authority flows from God, and no human law can contradict God’s law (ST, 135-136; ID, 4).


Private Property Rights

So we see that the right to private property is ultimately derived from necessity. In the Christian natural law tradition, and especially in the work of Aquinas, private property is justified mostly on the pragmatic social grounds set forth by Aristotle in his Politics, though a derivation from individual necessity is also present (Summa Theologica, Part II-II, q.66, Art. 7, Obj. 2). Locke does not bring Aristotle into his account of private property at all; nor does he rely on his predecessor Hobbes, who finds no right to property at all in a state of nature, it coming into existence only when there is a sovereign power to protect it. Thus Locke’s theory of property is unique, combining elements of traditional natural law with his own innovations. It is also the theory that is manifestly at work in Rerum Novarum.

Because the law of nature obligates men to preserve themselves, their families, and others, they need a way to justly acquire private property before the creation of any state. The “problem” Locke faces, and that Leo also addresses in Rerum Novarum, is that God grants the world and all of its fruits to men in common.  Therefore it isn’t immediately obvious how an individual man could claim a portion of this common gift as his own.

The solution unfolds in a number of logical steps: First, God also gives men reason. For both Locke and Leo, because reason sets men apart from the animals, it then follows that he must have a way to not only possess things temporarily, as an animal would, but to possess things permanently. This is so that man, as Leo puts it, may “procure the means of developing his mental and moral faculties,” which animals obviously do not have (ST, 25-27; RN, 8; ID, 3). The next step in the argument invokes the principle of self-ownership, though it is evident that this does not negate God’s ownership, which Locke also accepts (ST, 6). It simply excludes other men.

Now we arrive at how property is rightfully acquired:

Every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to . . . . (ST, 27; emphasis added)

Leo arrives at the same point, from the same premises:

Now, when man thus turns the activity of his mind and the strength of his body toward procuring the fruits of nature, by such act he makes his own that portion of nature’s field which he cultivates — that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality; and it cannot but be just that he should possess that portion as his very own, and have a right to hold it without any one being justified in violating that right. (RN, 9; emphasis added)

It is simply undeniable that these accounts of private property rights are identical in every respect. Not only do we have historical evidence to suggest as much, but the words of both men make it clear. And the agreement does not stop on this point; Locke and Leo also further justify their position by pointing to the fact that almost nothing in nature becomes useful to man until it is labored upon by man (ST, 40; RN, 9).


Private Property Use

Readers who are familiar with Rerum Novarum will likely recall that Leo, having established the right to private property, also offers instructions on how it is to be used in a social context. Critics such as C. B. Macpherson, who views Locke through the prism of “possessive individualism,” might say that this use is irrelevant to Locke, as he says nothing more about the right use of property in the Second Treatise. This is far from the only possible view of Locke, however, as Jeremy Waldron has ably demonstrated in his book God, Locke & Equality. We hardly need such a detailed demonstration, however, if we simply read Locke’s account of charity in the First Treatise.

For both Locke and Leo, the use of private property is ultimately dictated by Christian moral obligations. In a remarkable way, though, the very same obligations that entitle a person to private property also entitle him to charity. The only relevant difference is in the justification: a general, basic necessity versus an extreme necessity. The first the premise is the basis for the just acquisition of private property; the second is the basis for the just demand for charity.

In Rerum Novarum, Leo quotes Aquinas in order to make his central point regarding the use of property: “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need” (RN, 22).

He goes on to state:

But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law. (RN, 22; emphasis added)

Locke’s treatment of charity is set down in the midst of his refutation of Robert Filmer, specifically the notion of “Adam’s monarchy” — which, in Locke’s view, taken to its fullest implication, would mean that one sovereign ruler might have dominion over the entire world and all the fruits of the earth. To Locke, this implication is horrific, for it would further imply that this despot “may deny the rest of mankind food, and so at his pleasure starve them, if they will not acknowledge his sovereignty and obey his will” (FT, 41).

Anticipating the argument he will go onto make in the Second Treatise, Locke rather finds it more plausible that God, having given the command to “increase and multiply,” would give all men a right to private property. Again we see the rights of the individual bound up with the obligations that that individual has toward his family. Locke develops his argument further in a passage that deserves to be quoted extensively:

But we know that God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all, has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot be justly denied him, when his pressing wants call for it . . . .

As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise . . . . (FT 42, emphasis added)

Once again, we see Locke in total concert with Leo. In cases that do not rise to the level of extreme need, neither Leo nor Locke would insist that the state forcibly confiscate private property in order to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. But it is clear that extreme need can give a man a just claim to the surplus property of another, over and above what is needed to live. And just as it has been tried on the basis Rerum Novarum, others have attempted to find the justification for a welfare state in Locke’s account of charity.

It may finally be noted that, contrary to what the most agitated critics of Locke have often claimed, that there is one more point of convergence between Leo and Locke, and it is on the conditions for labor to be considered just. Whether it comes from neo-Marxists such as Macpherson or Catholic traditionalists such as Christopher Ferarra, Locke is often accused of having invented a justification for the abuse and exploitation of labor. This is in alleged contradiction to Leo, who defended the rights of the worker and insisted upon just wages. Here is Leo: “If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice” (RN, 45).

And here is Locke, in the same section on charity quoted above:

And a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity, to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief God requires him to afford the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat, offer him slavery or death (FT, 42).


Government’s Legitimate Role

I once believed that Pope Leo XIII’s social encyclicals, if they did not call for a welfare state, could at least be read in such a way to justify that principle. Rereading Rerum Novarum in the light of Locke’s influence, however, it is not possible to sustain this interpretation. On a deeper level, it is clear that Locke and Leo were ultimately dealing with the same issue: setting the boundaries on the scope of government’s legitimate role via natural rights. This was also the issue that was addressed in the Declaration of Independence. It is by the doctrine of natural rights that men preserve both their dignity and security in society, for not only do these rights exist independently of the state, never to be abrogated by it, but the very reason the state exists is to defend them (RN, 51). That Leo would ultimately approve of this Lockean argument is unsurprising, given that he was addressing the claims of socialists and communists who would abolish private property and establish totalitarian regimes that recognize few if any boundaries between the citizen and the state.

In Locke’s and Leo’s treatment of charity, however, it is also made clear that the right to private property coexists with an obligation to give charitably, and even a right to theft in cases of extreme want. In the short term, this may justify some sort of safety net for the unemployed and those unable to care for themselves. But may we not ask whether or not a free economy would generate a level of wealth and prosperity that would almost entirely eliminate the sort of extreme poverty that would morally justify theft — and whether it has in fact done so in many nations already?

There are fewer uncharitable assumptions made in politics as often as the accusation that the advocates of freer markets are acting out of selfishness. If market economies based upon the protection of private property and driven by competition and technological innovation tend to reduce the cost of goods and services over time, then surely none will benefit more than the poor.


For quotations of works cited in this article, visit this link.


Joe Hargrave is an adjunct professor of political science at Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Arizona.

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