Fr. H. A. Reinhold – Collective Ownership is Collectivism? (1941)

Fr. H. A. Reinhold

[From Reinhold’s Timely Tracts in the Catholic journal Orate Fratres]

[Reinhold, H. A. Timely tracts: Collective Ownership is Collectivism? Orate Fratres, No. 5]

In my Seamen’s Club we have city light, i.e., light furnished by plants owned and run by our city. The other day a gentleman paid us a visit. He seemed to like the place—until he found out that we had city light. ‘‘How can you, as a priest, subscribe to that communist outfit, those robbers?’’ he asked me. Now this worthy Catholic happened to be a man of some influence and quite well known for his activities in everything that savors of reactionary tendencies. He is looking for some subversive activity under every bed. No wonder he calls everything not owned by private individuals “communistic.” He has no objection to giant holding companies with higher budgets than some medium-sized European or South American countries. He has no objection either to absentee and irresponsible stockholding ownership of mammoth corporations. That is, to our friend, “private” propezty, because the electorate of the country has nothing to say about its policies, and the presidents, vice-presidents, directors, and the shareholders’ annual meetings can do as they please, so long as they can hire lawyers to steer them around the hidden and open rocks of law lurking for “courageous pioneers.”

Liturgical prayer and sacrifice has given us a community mind and freed us from our individualistic and subjectivistic isolation. We have found that it is very one-sided to think of nothing but “my soul and my Creator,” or of the “flight of the one towards the One.” Open your missal, or the Bible, anywhere, and you will find that splendid isolation of the individual just is not there. The collective “we” prevails either in express words or at least in atmosphere. So we do not have that horror of everything communal which was and is so common to many sectarians (and some mystics who were called to lead an extraordinary way).

By no means, however, do we advocate any leveling of the individual, as do the well-known “isms” of our times, especially communism or nazism! We are all conscious that Christ shed His blood for every individual soul and would have died for Adam and Eve alone, had they remained without issue. We never sacrifice the individual to the collective entities: family, state, party or even mankind as a whole. We will fight against all monster forces like governments encroaching on the true rights of the individual— which monster governments, strangely enough, are an outcome of our extremely individualistic society. But I think liturgical people are naturally disposed to look at this problem without getting excited about it.

Property for a Christian means stewardship. God gives us any kind of property, not solely for our own enjoyment, but in order to enable us to lead a moral life and serve Him with and through our possessions. Property which does not lead us to heaven has to be cut off and cast out like any other occasion of sin. This shows us that property is nothing absolute, but a means to a spiritual end: namely our own natural and supernatural perfection. It helps to develop us more fully as personalities and to fulfil our moral obligations as parents and citizens in our state of life. It has functional value, not an absolute one.

So property serves, and if it does not serve it is out of its true proportion and place. Property rights should be analyzed and scrutinized by comparing them with the service they render to the individual and to human society, not in furnishing enjoyment and power, but in making better men. Even the licit pleasure which we get out of the use of our property should be subordinated to its ulterior end: to make us more like our heavenly Father.

Perhaps these two considerations will help us to make up our minds on communally owned property, e.g., public utilities. I think we can easily put aside the common arguments that privately owned ones are better. I have only to look around to see what private interests have done to this country: devastated forests, beautiful landscapes and cities recklessly marred with bill boards and wire poles, privately owned transportation companies subsidized permanently by grants and loans and still giving no better service than in countries where public utilities have been owned communally or by government for eighty and more years. The post-office-owned telegraphs and telephones of almost all civilized European countries are just as good, sometimes even better, than their privately owned brother institutions in this country. The railroads of Europe, considering the different level of standard of living and the difference of local distances, are as good and better than ours. The old fairy tale, that we owe our water, sewer, light, street car service and transportation to the daring and genius of some altruistic capitalist and his equally generous friends who invested their money for the good of their fellow men, sounds very romantic, and may have been true when the West was still the West, but is it true nowadays? And why should generation after generation of stockholders lead a comfortable life because their grandfathers once were pioneers? Does that help them in any way, morally, socially or otherwise? Have other countries which are by no means communistic, like Holland, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, pre-Hitler Germany, and a full score more, not proved that communal ownership helps their budgets, fosters a community spirit of high national and moral value, aids democracy and really serves the individual and community better?

This can be proved, but that is not our problem here. These scattered remarks only try to show that neither the Christian concept of property, nor the Christian endeavor of safeguarding personal individuality, nor a recurrence to Christian tradition entitles us to call all communally owned property “communistic’” in its tendency. We are radically set against collectivism of the marxian or nazi brand, or the “cold” collectivism created by capitalism for the lower and less fortunate classes. We are also against radical individualism which some orators like to call pioneer spirit. Our own Church has always had communally owned property and the concept of stewardship. Our liturgy reflects a healthy and moderate balance of both tendencies, the individualistic and the collectivistic trend in person and society. If we Catholics find that certain kinds of rigid and cruel property damages its own holders and harms society in its ultimate aim, then we should have the courage to help remedy the situation and to look for a new solution, in spite of some selfish or stubborn people with cast-iron minds. The gospel is a leaven, not a varnish or a starch!

H. A. R.