Religion & Liberty Online

This Fathers’ Day, Remember that Property Is Holy

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What can a Christian socialist teach us about being a father and faithful steward of God the Father’s gifts? Plenty.

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The French Revolution of 1848, which began on February 22 in Paris, led to the fall of the July Monarchy in France, the founding of the Second Republic, a wave of democratic revolutions across Europe, a revival of European liberalism, and the spread of various forms of socialism. Once again, just as in 1789, the old order of life faced a crisis. Radical voices like anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon even went so far as to proclaim, “Property is theft!”

Looking on with great concern from London as he preached a series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer at Lincoln’s Inn chapel, the Anglican theologian and pastor F. D. Maurice, one of the principle founders of English Christian socialism, declared in his fifth sermon on March 12, “Property is holy.”

A sharper contrast with Proudhon is hard to imagine. Where did this difference come from? It came from Maurice’s theology of fatherhood—the Fatherhood of God most of all. As Father’s Day approaches, even those of us Christians who support free markets today might have something to learn from this Christian socialist about the “holy” connection between fatherhood and property.

Maurice has perplexed his readers from his own time to the present. He in fact chose the name “Christian socialism” in an 1850 letter to describe the efforts of his small group of reformers to promote entrepreneurial worker cooperatives. Yet inthe same letter, addressed to his younger colleague, the lawyer J. M. Ludlow, he explicitly set Christian socialism in contrast to “the unsocial Christians and the unchristian Socialists” of his day. As his son F. Maurice put it, “His great wish was to Christianise Socialism, not to Christian-Socialise the universe.”

For Maurice, often to the chagrin of his younger colleagues, socialism was not political, and he opposed many of their proposed political and revolutionary ideas. Moreover, for Maurice socialism referred fundamentally to an ethic of cooperation rather than a social system, still less a world-historical dialectic. While he often opposed it to competition, he nevertheless was a cautious admirer of Adam Smith, even going so far as to claim that Smith’s arguments in favor of free trade were an example of mutual support and cooperation between nations.

This cooperation could most perfectly and properly be found not in the economy or the state but in the Church of Jesus Christ, God’s divine family. As Maurice put it in the same sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, “The principle implied in the words, ‘No man said that which he had was his own [Acts 2:44], is the principle of the Church in all ages; its members stand while they confess this principle; they fall from her communion when they deny it.” Unexpectedly, it is immediately after this that he says, “Property is holy, distinction of ranks is holy: so speaks the Law, and the Church does not deny the assertion, but ratifies it.”

How did (or ought) the Church ratify the holiness of property? Through grounding property upon the proclamation that “Beneath all distinctions of property and of rank lie the obligations of a common Creation, Redemption, Humanity.” As Maurice would write in his later work Social Morality, “At my birth I am already in a Society. I am related, at all events, to a father and a mother.” Starting with this reality, to Maurice, naturally leads one to see oneself in relation to God as well: “I cannot be the centre of the circle in which I find myself, be it as small as it may. I refer myself to another. There is a root below me. There is an Author of my existence.”

In his fifth sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, Maurice criticized the Church for failing to adequately proclaim this reality. As a result, “She can scarcely make her voice heard against schemes for reducing all things to a common stock, for establishing fellowship upon a law of mutual selfishness, because she has not believed that the internal communion, the law of Love, the polity of members united in one Head, of brethren confessing a common Father, is a real one.”

In particular, in this sermon Maurice expounded the verse “Give us our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), claiming,

If we had understood that we were children of one Father and were asking Him to bless all the parts of His family, while we were seeking blessings for ourselves, that, in fact, we could not pray at all without praying for them, we should have found the answer in a new sense of fellowship between all classes, in the feeling that every man, in every position, has an office and ministry which it is his privilege to exercise for those over whom he is set.

He goes on to specify that this would transform our vision of masters and domestic help, landlords and their tenants, farmers and farmhands, manufacturers and factory workers, sellers and their clerks, and so on.

It may be that Maurice, far from being too radical, was actually a bit too paternalistic, both literally and figuratively. But in a time like ours, when the percentage of fatherless households, as of 2020, has doubled in the United States over the past 50 years, greater reflection on the importance of fathers, and more importantly of God as our heavenly Father, would do us all some good.

I’m a dad. I have four sweet and wonderful children, who also annoy and stress me out on a regular basis. That’s normal, and I love them beyond measure anyway. But actually experiencing fatherhood—as Maurice himself did, including as a solo dad for several years after his first wife, Annie, died in 1844—helps ground our perspective. I wish that whenever I asked my children to clean up or eat their food or get ready to go, they would dutifully snap to it out of their love for me. Sometimes they do, but often they don’t. Loving obedience and personal responsibility are goals toward which good fathers aim to educate their children, not facts of the matter from the womb.

Yes, the “authority” of real fathers, far from being the basis for an idealized paternalism, rather points to each father’s own dependence on so many others. As Maurice put it in Social Morality: “The union of the mother’s influence with the father’s helps to distinguish authority from dominion. … The authority is not weakened by her co-operation; it is divested of its inhumanity; it is made effectual for the whole of the child’s existence.” Good fathers are grateful for all the help they can get.

Now, what was that about property’s holiness? Property enables the freedom of families, but that freedom is founded upon an eternal obligation of parents to children, and ultimately to all the fatherless of this world. This is the image of fatherhood Jesus used to teach his disciples about God, one who eagerly watches for and welcomes the prodigal son and says to those who remained with him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours” (Luke 15:31).

So, too, all the world belongs to God. Roman Catholic social thought speaks of this in terms of the universal destination of goods. Reformed social thought frames this in terms of stewardship (also a biblical image). Yet I think there is something even deeper about Maurice’s image. Yes, there is a duty of justice to provide for the poor among us, and God does promise to reward good stewardship of his creation. But just as in our human families, God ultimately wants us to obey him through true filial love. That image goes one step further than justice or stewardship.

As St. James put it, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). In other words, if we are good sons and daughters of our Father in heaven, we will act as fathers to the fatherless among us, whether those lacking a parental figure (orphans) or those lacking a partner in parenthood (widows). We will see that “property is holy” because it belongs to the Holy One, who says to us his children, “All that I have is yours,” so that we might celebrate with those outcast, marginalized, and spiritually fatherless who find their way to God’s fatherly love rather than sulk that we didn’t get a party for ourselves.

Maurice did this, too. Ludlow lost his father when he was only a boy, and he looked up to Maurice as a father his entire life. Ludlow had some radical tendencies himself, having spent time in Paris and been influenced by French socialists; but under Maurice, sometimes to Ludlow’s disappointment that more radical efforts could have been tried, his restless energy was channeled instead into an educational mission to proclaim God’s fatherly love for all his children in his Church, culminating in the founding of the Working Men’s College in 1854.

If you’re a dad like me, you’ve probably noticed that Mother’s Day is a generally bigger deal than Father’s Day. Maybe that isn’t something to complain about though. I don’t need gifts—I have gifts: four little people who call me “Dad.” And they teach me every day all sorts of virtues I need in order to truly deserve that hallowed name and, on my better days, be a father to others in need.

Not everyone has a happy Father’s Day on the horizon. Broken homes and relationships are a sad fact of our fallen world. With Maurice as our inspiration, perhaps we could all look around ourselves, rather than in the mirror, and find the fatherless in our communities who need someone to welcome them with open arms. And if our property serves that sacred vocation, we too should call it holy.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.