"Back To The Land" was the title of a letter written in 1881 by Dr Thomas Nulty, Bishop of Meath, to the clergy and laity of his diocese. It is something that contemporary Catholic campaigners for justice and peace would do well to study.
Our Land System Not Justified by Its General Acceptance.
Anyone who ventures to question the justice or the policy of maintaining the present system of Irish Land Tenure will be met at once by a pretty general feeling which will warn him emphatically that its venerable antiquity entitles it, if not to reverence and respect, at least to tenderness and forbearance.
I freely admit that feeling to be most natural, and perhaps very general also; but I altogether deny its reasonableness. It proves too much, Any existing social institution is undoubtedly entitled to justice and fair play; but no institution, no matter what may have been its standing or its popularity, is entitled to exceptional tenderness and forbearance if it can be shown that it is intrinsically unjust and cruel. Worse institutions by far than any system of Land Tenure can and have had a long and prosperous career, till their true character became generally known and then they were suffered to exist no longer.
Human Slavery Once Generally Accepted.
Slavery is found to have existed, as a social institution, in almost all nations, civilised as well as barbarous, and in every age of the world, up almost to our own times. We hardly ever find it in the state of a merely passing phenomenon, or as a purely temporary result of conquest or of war, but always as a settled, established and recognised state of social existence, in which generation followed generation in unbroken succession, and in which thousands upon thousands of human beings lived and died. Hardly anyone had the public spirit to question its character or to denounce its excesses; it had no struggle to make for its existence, and the degradation in which it held its unhappy victims was universally regarded as nothing worse than a mere sentimental grievance.
On the other hand, the justice of the right of property which a master claimed in his slaves was universally accepted in the light of a first principle of morality. His slaves were either born on his estate, and he had to submit to the labour and the cost of rearing and maintaining them to manhood, or he acquired them by inheritance or by free gift, or, failing these, he acquired them by the right of purchase -- having paid in exchange for them what, according to the usages of society and the common estimation of his countrymen, was regarded as their full pecuniary value. Property, therefore, in slaves was regarded as sacred, and as inviolable as any other species of property.
Even Christians Recognised Slavery.
So deeply rooted and so universally received was this conviction that the Christian religion itself, though it recognised no distinction between Jew and Gentile, between slave or freeman, cautiously abstained from denouncing slavery itself as an injustice or a wrong. It prudently tolerated this crying evil, because in the state of public feeling then existing, and at the low standard of enlightenment and intelligence then prevailing, it was simply impossible to remedy it.
Thus then had slavery come down almost to our own time as an established social institution, carrying with it the practical sanction and approval of ages and nations, and surrounded with a prestige of standing and general acceptance well calculated to recommend it to men's feelings and sympathies. And yet it was the embodiment of the most odious and cruel injustice that ever afflicted humanity. To claim a right of property in man was to lower a rational creature to the level of the beast of the field; it was a revolting and an unnatural degradation of the nobility of human nature itself.
That thousands upon thousands of human beings who had committed no crime, who had violated no law, and who had done no wrong to anyone, should be wantonly robbed of their liberty and freedom; should be deprived of the sacred and inalienable moral rights, which they could not voluntarily abdicate themselves; should be bought and sold, like cattle in the markets; and should be worked to death, or allowed to live on at the whim or caprice of their owner, was the last and most galling injustice which human nature could be called on to endure.
The World's Approval Cannot Justify Injustice.
To arrest public attention, and fix its gaze effectively on the intrinsic character and constitution of slavery, was to seal its doom; and its death knell was sounded in the indignant cry of the great statesman who "denied that man could hold property in man." Twenty millions of British money were paid over to the slave owners as compensation for the loss of property to which they had no just title, and slavery was abolished forever.
The practical approval, therefore, which the world has bestowed on a social institution that has lasted for centuries is no proof that it ought to be allowed to live on longer, if, on close examination, it be found to be intrinsically unjust and cruel, and mischievous and injurious besides to the general good of mankind. No amount of sanction or approval that the world can give to a social institution can alter its intrinsic constitution and nature; and the fact of the world's having thus approved of an institution which was essentially unjust, cruel and degrading to human nature, only proves that the world was wrong: it furnishes no arguments or justification for allowing it to live on a moment longer.
Irish Land Tenure the Twin Sister of Slavery.
The system of Land Tenure in Ireland enjoyed a long and similarly prosperous career, and it, too, has created a state of human existence, which, in strict truth and justice, can be briefly characterised as the twin sister of slavery. The vast majority of tenant fanners of Ireland are at the present moment slaves. They are dependent for their peace of mind, for their material comforts, for the privilege of living under the roof beneath which they were born, and for the right of earning their bread on the farms which their forefathers enriched with their toil, on the arbitrary and irresponsible will of their landlord.
Abject, absolute and degrading dependence of this kind involves the very essence, and is, in fact, the definition of slavery. They toil like galley slaves in the cultivation of their farms from the opening to the close of the year, only to see substantially the whole produce of their labour and capital appropriated by others who have not toiled at all, and who even leave them not what would be allowed for the maintenance of slaves who would be expected to work, but what hardly suffices to keep them from dying of want.
When grazing on land had been found more remunerative than tillage, and the people consequently became too numerous, the superfluous multitudes, who were now no longer wanted under the new state of things, were mercilessly cleared off the lands by wholesale evictions to make room for the brute beast, which paid better. Such of the evicted as had the means left to take themselves away were forced to fly for refuge as exiles into almost every land; and the thousands who could not leave were coolly passed on through hunger and starvation to premature graves.
Let anyone who wishes visit this Diocese and see with his own eyes the vast and boundless extent of the fairest land in Europe that has been ruthlessly depopulated since the commencement of the present century, and which is now abandoned to a loneliness and solitude more depressing than that of the prairie or the wilderness. Thus has this land system actually exercised the power of life and death on a vast scale, for which there is no parallel even in the dark records of slavery.
But the attention of the civilised world is now steadily fixed on the cruel and degrading bondage in which it still holds a nation enslaved, and therefore its doom is inevitably sealed.
Justice, Not Vested Right, Should Prevail.
Some wise and thoughtful men can see no stronger objections to the abolition of Landlordism now than were alleged not so long ago against the abolition of slavery. If the public good demanded the summary dismissal of landlords from an important position of trust, which, as a class, they have so grievously abused, and, on the other hand, that they had been compensated for the real or fictitious property which it is assumed they possess in their lands, the justice of such a course could not for a moment be questioned. Yet I am afraid that few prudent, practical and experienced men could be found who would advocate the policy of a measure of so sweeping and radical a character. Undoubtedly a universal or a general peasant proprietary; not, however, the result of a sudden, hasty and unnatural change, but the gradual and natural growth of years -- may probably be found to be the final settlement of the question of the land. Hence the great majority of those who have thought the question out thoroughly regard the measure known as the "three F's," accompanied with largely increased facilities, and largely increased pecuniary encouragement, for the gradual establishment of a peasant proprietary, as the fullest measure of justice which the nation can just now expect from an Act of Parliament. But on whatever line the "new departure" may start, it is essential that the eternal and immutable principles of justice which determine the character of property in land shall in no instance be departed from by the people. Ours is a struggle for justice and for right, and we must not furnish our enemies even with a pretext to reproach us with dishonest or unfair dealing.
Justice of Private Property in the Results of Labour.
The following are the acknowledged principles of justice that have a practical bearing on the question:-
Every man (and woman, too) has a natural right to the free exercise of his mental and corporal faculties; and whatever useful thing anyone has produced by his toil and his labour, of that he is the rightful owner-in that he has in strict justice a right of property. Any useful thing that satisfies any of our necessities, relieves any of our wants, ministers to our comforts or enjoyments, or increases our material happiness or contentment, may be an object of property, and the person whose toil and labour has produced that thing possesses in it a strict right of property.
The two essential characteristics of property therefore are: First, the thing itself must be useful for some purpose; and, secondly, it must be the product or the result of our labour.
Now, the effort or exertion demanded by labour is irksome, distasteful and repulsive to the indolence and self-indulgence that is natural to us, and, therefore, no one will voluntarily subject himself to the painful inconvenience of labour who is not stimulated by the prospect of the remuneration and enjoyment which the fruit of his labour will return him.
Whoever, then, has voluntarily subjected himself to the painful operations of labour has, in strict justice, a right of property in the product or result of that labour; that is to say, he, and he alone, has a right to all the advantages, enjoyments, pleasures and comforts that are derivable from the results of his labour. Others cannot complain of having been excluded from the enjoyment of a thing whose production cost them nothing; which he was not bound to produce for their use, and which, were it not for his efforts, would not have existed at all.
Producer's Right of Disposal.
Use and exclusion are, therefore, the two essential peculiarities of the enjoyment of a right of property. The power to dispose of legitimate property is almost absolute. Property may be devoted by its owner to any purpose he pleases that is not inconsistent with the public good …
… if human industry or labour had imparted to these lands a real and substantial amount of artificial productiveness, by the cultivation and permanent improvement of the soil, then the person who had created that productiveness had a perfect right to demand a rent for the use of it.
Exaction by Individuals of Rent for Land is Wanton Injustice.
But who, it may be further asked, has a right to demand a rent for the natural fertility of these lands "which no man made," and which, in fact, is not the result of human industry and labour at all? The answer here, also, should be, he who had produced it.
But who produced it? God. If God, then, demanded a rent for the use of these lands, He would undoubtedly be entitled to it. But God does not sell His gifts or charge a rent for the use of anything He has produced. He does not sell; but He gives or bestows, and in bestowing His gifts He shows no respect of persons.
If, then, all God's creatures are in a condition of perfect equality relatively to this gift of the land, no one can have an exceptional right to claim more than a fair share of what was intended equally for ail, and what is, indeed, directly or indirectly, a necessary of life for each of them.
When all, therefore, relatively to this gift, are perfectly equal, and nobody has any real claim to it; when all equally need the liberality and generosity of God in it, and no one can afford, or is willing, to part with his share in it -- to alienate it from any or all of them would be to do them a wanton injustice and grievous wrong, and would be a direct disappointment to the intentions of the Donor besides.
The Whole People the True Owners of the Land.
When, therefore, a privileged class arrogantly claims a right of private property in the land of a country, that claim is simply unintelligible, except on the broad principle that the land of a country is not a free gift at all, but solely a family inheritance; that it is not a free gift which God has bestowed on His creatures, but an inheritance which he has left to His children; that they, therefore, being God's eldest sons, inherit this property by right of succession; that the rest of the world have no share or claim to it, on the ground that their origin is tainted with the stain of illegitimacy. The world, however, will hardly submit to this shameful imputation of its own degradation, especially when it is not sustained by even, a shadow of reason.
I infer, therefore, that no individual or class of individuals can hold a right of private property in the land of a country; that the people of that country, in their public corporate capacity, are, and always must be, the real owners of the land of their country -- holding an indisputable title to it, in the fact that they received it as a free gift from its Creator, and as a necessary means for preserving and enjoying the life He has bestowed upon them.
Distinction Between Individual Rights and Community Rights.
Usufruct, therefore, is the highest form of property that individuals can hold in land. On the other hand, I have shown that the cultivator's right of property in the produce of the land, in the improvements he has made in the productiveness of the land, and in its undisturbed occupation, as long as he continues to improve it …
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