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How John Locke Influenced Catholic Social Teaching

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locke3Joe Hargrave argues that John Locke and Pope Leo XIII have more in common than you might imagine:

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.

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


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  • Phil Lundman

    Joe Carter wrote:
    “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?”
    If we give out of love of God and neighbor, the recipient says thank you and may follow in charity of when able. If one accepts the liberals premise that they are an impotent victim the only response is to lobby the state for additional subsidy with no resulting charitable response. This nurtures a never ending expansion of impotency and state dependency.

    Has anyone correlated the decline in Christian charity with the rise in statism? Is it rational to assume political dependency can be reduced without a corresponding increase in charity that treats the recipient with divine sanctioned dignity that assumes a responsible response to the charity?

  • I’m happy to see that my piece is still out there and being read. I thought it had been forgotten.