As an economic concept, distributism refers to a broad, voluntary distribution of wealth in land, labor, and capital.  The idea has its origins in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical Rerum novarum, which rejected Marxism and capitalism’s laissez-faire variant, and in the works of Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton.  Belloc’s Servile State (1912) recognizes that “There is a complex knot of forces underlying any nation once Christian; a smouldering of the old fires.”  Chesterton wanted to stoke those fires by placing distributism in the context of the imagination.  The “first fact in the discussion of whether small properties can exist,” Chesterton wrote in The Outline of Sanity (1927), “is the fact that they do exist.  It is a fact almost equally unmistakable that they not only exist but endure.”  Volunteers, he suggested, serve as “a nucleus of attraction.”  Chesterton envisioned this nucleus “not only as a rock but as a magnet.”  Imagination is a key foundation of distributism, while programs and services operated by volunteers are the magnets that attract and sustain in time of need.

Personal experience can help explain distributism and counter the doubts and objections of skeptics accustomed to life in a modern state, where alternative economic solutions are often overlooked or dismissed out of hand.  As “soon as it is admitted” that voluntary organization can occur, Chesterton wrote, “it will become important when a number of other things can no longer be done.”  At first glance, it appears audacious to the skeptical mind that 80 male college undergraduates could voluntarily assemble in a social organization that could, with minimal adult supervision, feed each member.  Yet the St. Francis Club at the University of Detroit, a Jesuit school, accomplished this task for nearly half a century.  The club was founded at the end of the 1930’s, a decade that witnessed two macroeconomic calamities—the Great Depression (1929-33) and the Roosevelt Recession (1937-38)—severe enough to cause many Americans to search for alternative solutions.  Launched in a basement, the club later moved across Livernois Avenue into a one-story structure, where those of us lucky enough to be members volunteered, three times per week, to cook or clean up in exchange for three daily meals (two on Sunday).  The fondest memory for many club members wasn’t the food but the annual German-Irish tug of war, held on a muddy field each spring next to Calihan Hall.  The contest attracted upward of 500 spectators and always provided the mud-encrusted losers with the opportunity to even the score in a mock brawl, which ended when everyone retreated to the campus Rathskeller.  It takes imagination to envision 80 mud-covered architects-, engineers-, and economists-in-training marshalled as a social organization.  The cynic sees an empty basement.  The distributist imagines the St. Francis Club, one of the “mutual associations among Catholics” described in Paragraph 59 of Rerum novarum.

Christian peoples are more likely to organize along distributist lines if they live in economic systems where they are free to act on their imagination.  Faith, hope, and love, Saint Paul taught, are the three great Christian virtues.  It is easier for the faithful Christian to see light in periods of economic darkness, while the unbeliever loses hope or despairs as his 401(k) erodes in value.  Love leads to charity, as Christ taught: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).  Christian charity teaches us to love others for the sake of God.  It is not enforced, as state redistribution is, with the threat of violence or at the point of a gun.  “There is no need to bring in the State,” Leo XIII wrote.  “Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.”  Distributism’s opposite—redistributism—is based on compulsive action by state authorities.  This is true whether we are considering American parents and small-business owners compelled through taxation to share their wealth with state-favored groups, or individuals forced to toil on a kolkhoz or sovkhoz assembled by Soviets on land stolen from private farmers.

Rerum novarum provides several examples of the sort of volunteerism that lies at the heart of distributism.

Leo XIII describes the family as “a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State.  Consequently, it has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.”  One such right is private property.  Rerum novarum notes that “private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature,” and goes on to defend the right of inheritance.  One means to strengthen the family is for older members to share their wealth with their children and other younger relatives.  Duties include providing food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and other services for family members unable to do so for themselves.

The local parish is a type of decentralized aid society composed of families and individual members.  The parish assists its members in periods of economic expansion and depression.  Parishioners might pool their resources to erect a church or school, or help members in need.

More examples of distributist voluntary societies include people planting, tending, and harvesting community gardens, and sharing foodstuffs and produce or organizing as a food cooperative; employees joining a private or nonprofit credit union or insurance federation to pool their capital and safeguard the assets of members in need; and families or individuals contributing to charitable social organizations that assist the less fortunate.  Rerum novarum states that, “when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over.”  Leo XIII cites Christ’s directive (Luke 11:41) to give alms, concluding that “It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity—a duty not enforced by human law.”

Tbhe demand for these solutions is apparent in today’s economic climate, which has increased the number of people in need of assistance.  In fact, the economic survival strategies of many families, parishes, and distributist organizations trace back to earlier economic depressions.  The Catholic Knights of America, a fraternal organization founded during the 19th century’s longest recession (1873-79), survived the 1930’s.  The group described its insurance protective service in a 1936 issue of the Guardian, the Arkansas Catholic paper: “During the financial debacle from which, thank God, we appear to be emerging, our Order took most commendable steps to protect the insurance of members financially unable to pay assessments.”

Financial wisdom, whether oral histories from family elders or formal annual reports, can assist the larger community.

Rudimentary finance is one family approach that could assist more parish communities.  This includes the prudent use of debt, understanding compounding concepts like the Rule of 72, and provision for savings.  Leo XIII emphasizes the importance of family savings:

If a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income.  Nature itself would urge him to this.  We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable.  The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.


A basic understanding of economic cycles, starting with the story of Joseph in Genesis 41, has helped many families survive recessions, including the current one.  A family that enters a recession with one or (ideally) more dollars of liquid assets backing up every dollar of debt is likely to encounter fewer economic pressures than one that is leveraged with minimal or no savings.  Of course, the time to start this strategy is during an expansion, not, as many Americans are attempting today, in the middle of a recession.  Families who understand these lessons can also serve their parishes.  Private K-12 schools should make provisions—in periods of expansion—for a likely reduction in cash flow in the next recession.  The private Catholic school I attended closed shortly after the 1969-70 national recession.  Charitable gifts to deserving private schools should be increased, not decreased, in a recession.  Guided by imagination, the gift could be as simple as a hardcover dictionary for each graduate.  Public 990 tax returns reveal hundreds of Catholic nonprofits organized along distributist lines and making charitable contributions.  These include missionary, seminary, and orphanage trusts established by families and individuals, much like those mentioned by Leo XIII:

Among these may be enumerated societies for mutual help; various benevolent foundations established by private persons to provide for the workman, and for his widow or his orphans, in case of sudden calamity, in sickness, and in the event of death; and institutions for the welfare of boys and girls, young people, and those more advanced in years.


Many of these social organizations have assets in excess of $1 million, but a surprising number have less than $50,000.

The Catholic Worker movement was launched by Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a convert who practiced a unique Christian anarchism.  Day started a newspaper and a network of retreat houses and gardens in the 1930’s.  One purpose of the group is to provide temporary shelter for mothers and children and to assist them in locating permanent housing and job training.  Some also operate food pantries for nonresidents.  Today, the group is active in 37 states.

Founded by Fr. Michael J. McGivney, a parish priest, the Knights of Columbus were incorporated in Connecticut in March 1882, the same month a three-year national recession started.  The group was formed “to render financial aid to members and their families” and emphasizes volunteerism in its literature.  “If greed—one of the worst aspects of human nature—helped push us into this crisis,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson told a summit on volunteerism earlier this year, “then one of the best aspects of our nature—generosity—will be necessary to help pull us out of it.”  The fraternal benefit society of 1.7 million members reported $143 million in total contributions to charity at all levels in 2006.  These contributions included $5.3 million in disaster relief to the archdiocese of New Orleans, and dioceses in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, following destructive Gulf Coast hurricanes, and $1.2 million in scholarships to students attending colleges and universities.

The Knights operated a job bank during the Great Depression, but the group’s greatest achievement may be the extensive insurance network it erected over a century.  Fr. Andrew Greeley, reviewing a biography of Father McGivney (Parish Priest, by Douglas Brinkley and Julie M. Fenster), explains the origins of the Knights’ network:

The Knights at their very beginning were little more than a burial society, committed to providing funeral benefits and some extra money for the family of the bereaved.  Father McGivney, troubled that many young families of immigrant workers were plunged into penury by the early death of the family’s wage earner, understood the temptation to join the Elks or the Odd Fellows or, much worse, the Masons to protect a family against sudden death.  He asked a very simple question: Why could there not be a Catholic lay fraternal organization, with a touch of secrecy perhaps, but acceptable to the church?


The distributist alternative springs from Christian charity and human imagination.  That empty building could be the next food co-op.  That empty plot you walk past each day would make a nice neighborhood garden.  Your savings account gives the credit union the means to work in your local community.  Those weekday restaurant meals you forego will buy a student a hardcover book.  The charitable organization you start may not change the world, but it has the potential to improve the community you call home.