The Question of Henry George's Writings

John Cardinal Gibbons
Archbishop of Baltimore

[A letter written from Rome, To His Eminence Cardinal Simeoni,
Prefect of the Holy Congregation of the Propaganda, 25 February, 1887]


I have had already the honor of presenting to your Eminence my views on the social question which agitates America, especially regarding their relations with the Knights of Labor. But recently another form of social discussion has developed connected with the doctrines of Mr. Henry George, an American writer identified with the working classes. And since my arrival at Rome I have heard discuss the idea that the writings of Henry George would be placed on the Index. After having meditated well on the subject, I believe it is my duty to submit to your Eminence the reasons why l must point out that a formal condemnation of Henry George's books would be neither opportune nor useful.

1. Henry George is by no means the inventor of the theory that he maintains respecting the right of property to the land. In his major book Progress and Poverty he precisely cites the teachings of Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill, two of the principal writers of England. And in the English periodical the Contemporary Review of November 1886, a distinguished professor cites them even more fully, to demonstrate, as he says it, that Mr. George is merely a plagiarist of these celebrated authors. But? it seems to me that the world will judge him rather singularly if the Holy See will attack the works of a humble American artisan, in lieu of attacking his great masters. And if there is some who think that it will therefore be the duty of the Holy See to pronounce a judgment on Spencer and Mill, perhaps it would be prudent before hand to consult their Eminences Cardinals Manning and Newman on the expediency of such an action.

2. It is proper to remark that Henry George's theory differs from that which is ordinarily called communism or socialism. Because, as Father Valentin Steccamella has displayed it very well in his work on communism, published by the press of the [College of the] Propaganda in 1882, that the latter involves "the abolition of private property and the collectivization of all property into the hands of the state." But, whoever has read Henry George's books has to recognize that he does not teach nor wish that at all. On the contrary, he upholds absolute property of all the fruits of human energy and work even if they have been increased to great riches acquired either by work or by heredity. It is only regarding the land itself that he would like to limit the individual's property by an extension of the supremum dominium [supreme domain] of the state and respecting this he has expressly said that by no means would he dispossess the actual owners, but that our system of taxation would simply change so that the taxes would come from the land and not from the fruits of human labor. One therefore sees that in the practical form in which the controversy presents itself to the American public, it is simply a question affecting governmental power over the individual possession of the land. And besides this, there is the following to note:

a) Whoever closely studies the question of the relation of the state to the right of the possession of land, as it has been treated by Father Steccanella and by other Catholic writers on how taxation laws have been regulated and of the support for the poor in several countries, and especially in England, cannot scarcely fail to understand that it is a very complex question, subject to a great deal of diverse circumstances of time and place and they have not as yet been resolved by a decisive decision.

b) The question is already before the American public as a political problem arid in an arena of such practice it will soon discover its termination.

c) Because Mr. George himself recognizes that it is solely the legislative power of a country which could operate such an arrangement of affairs: and it is quite sure that there will never be a Congress nor a legislature which would vote a change of such profound social relations, nor would a president approve of it.

d) In a country like ours, which is not at all a country of doctrinaires and visionaries, speculative theory will not be dangerous, nor would live a long time after after its practical application will have been rejected; and one could allow it, in complete assuredty, to die by itself.

3. Certain recent events in our country have caused a very profound and very extensive popular excitement having close relations with this question. Because your Eminerce understands better than myself how much it is necessary that we take care not only to speak the truth, but also to carefully choose the time and the circumstances of saying it, so that our action will produce salutary results and not disastrous ones. It appears therefore evident that even if there had been certainly cause for a condemnation, this would not now be the time to express it.

4. Finally, it could be prudent here that to apply the moral principle which counsels not to express a judgment whose consequences would probably be contrary rather than favorable towards the proposed laudable purpose. Because I maintain it for certain that such would be the result of a condemnation of Mr. George's works. This would give them a popular importance that they would never have otherwise had and excites an appetite for curiosity which would make them sell in thousands of copies, and which would then immensely extend their influence which the condemnation would seek to restrain and prevent.

Another word, with a practical people like the Americans, in whose nature bizarre and impractical ideas soon find their grave, it seems to me that prudence suggests allowing the absurdities and falsities to die by themselves, and not to run the risk of giving them an importance, and an artificial life and force by the intervention of the Church tribunals.