This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

The doctrine of the Jubilee as a summary

In order to set the historical stage for the subject we have before us, we can refer to the Old Testament custom known as the Jubilee. A brief review of this tradition is helpful because the Jubilee has been described by the Church as an illustration of Catholic Social Doctrine in miniature.[1] It can therefore be seen as an incredibly compact summary of the teachings we are about to explore.

Catholic Social Teaching (hereafter “CST”) has for its goal the stability and justice of social life. This means that it is relevant in some way to any society at any time. Most of us tend to imagine CST as a body of Church documents written to combat the evils of the modern industrial period. That is to say, we unconsciously attribute to CST a purely “reactionary” character—something necessitated by extreme circumstances but otherwise irrelevant. But obviously any doctrine that is only reactionary is not a doctrine, because doctrines are timeless, placeless, and purely affirmative. They are positive. If any doctrine seems like a reaction to a specific historical period, it can only be because that period chose to deny it. And so, if the principles enunciated in Rerum Novarum seem to be a reaction to socialism or capitalism, this is only because those two ideologies tried very hard to ignore them, and because they insisted on ignoring them, Pope Leo XIII had to re-affirm them. He said nothing new.

We may pause and make sure we are justified in what we’ve claimed, which is that the social teachings of the Church are not modern, born of the Industrial Revolution, but timeless. If we are going to say that the social teachings of the Church go back further than Rerum Novarum, capitalism, and socialism, then we had better be able to explain where exactly they do go back to. This leads us to refer to one of the oldest records we have—the Old Testament—where God Himself directly specifies the economic institutions of His people. One such institution is the Year of Jubilee. Quoting the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:

“Among the many norms which tend to give concrete expression to the style of gratuitousness and sharing in justice which God inspires, the law of the sabbatical year (celebrated every seven years) and that of the jubilee year (celebrated every fifty years) stand out as important guidelines…The precepts of the sabbatical and jubilee years constitute a kind of social doctrine in miniature.”[2]

For agreement on this point, the writers of the Compendium turn to St. John Paul II, who said that “The social doctrine of the Church, which has always been a part of Church teaching and which has developed greatly in the last century, particularly after the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, is rooted in the tradition of the jubilee year.”[3]

Clearly, then, when Leo XIII titled his document “On New Things,” the things he had in mind were not the principles he was teaching, but the problems he was solving, problems that would not have arisen if the “Old Things” had not been forgotten.

But if the Jubilee is really the “root” of CST, and if it really does represent this doctrine “in miniature,” then we ought to be able to derive the principles of CST from the Old Testament institution. Therefore, in order to justify the Compendium, let us take the central principles of CST as they are commonly given, namely: solidarity, subsidiarity, justice, the just price, the universal destination of goods, private property, and the preferential option for the poor. Following Pope Francis, we will also examine how the Jubilee expresses respect for creation, showing an explicit concern for the welfare of the land. Let us see how these truths find concise expression in the Old Testament institution.

To get a proper start, we will cite the scriptural outline of the Jubilee as found in the book of Leviticus. The basic principle is cyclical, reflecting the rhythms of human life and nature itself. It revolves around periods of rest (given to the land every seven years) and redemption (a large-scale economic reset every fifty years):

“Six years thou shalt sow thy field and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and shalt gather the fruits thereof: But in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath to the land, of the resting of the Lord: thou shalt not sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.”[4]

 “Thou shalt also number to thee seven weeks of years, that is to say, seven times seven, which together make forty-nine years…And thou shalt sanctify the fiftieth year, and shalt proclaim remission to all the inhabitants of thy land: for it is the year of jubilee. Every man shall return to his possession, and every one shall go back to his former family.”[5]

 “In the year of the jubilee all shall return to their possessions.”[6]

The passage continues on at some length, but what can we say of it so far?

Solidarity—First, we see the undeniable expression of solidarity. St. Paul said that we were all one body, and that “if one member suffer anything, all the members suffer with it; or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.”[7] While it is common today to applaud this notion in theory, implementing a sentimental but not a practical solidarity, it is another thing entirely to build it into the economic structure of society. Such was the purpose of the Jubilee:

“The jubilee year was meant to restore equality among all the children of Israel, offering new possibilities to families which had lost their property and even their personal freedom. On the other hand, the jubilee year was a reminder to the rich that a time would come when their Israelite slaves would once again become their equals and would be able to reclaim their rights.”[8]

Subsidiarity—But at the very same time we see the implementation of the other side of the solidarity coin, which is subsidiarity. Consider the fact that in this system economic activity is left to run its course 49 years out of 50. A less obtrusive government policy is indeed hard to imagine. But since the values agreed upon in private exchanges are, like man himself, bound to be imperfect, it is necessary for the political authority to intervene periodically in order to restore harmonious cooperation amongst participants.

Justice—And so we move to a third principle, which is the harmonious relationship between commutative and distributive justice, taught by St. Thomas Aquinas and affirmed by the Church. In the Jubilee framework, individuals are allowed to carry out (provided they do not commit usury and other forms of theft) their day-to-day commerce as they see fit. Yet due to the imperfection of these transactions, errors accumulate in the system, contributing to an ever-increasing economic disharmony. The distribution of wealth inevitably begins to reflect this disharmony, which is to say the system becomes imbalanced. The political authority must then intervene to correct the accumulation of errors by wiping the slate clean, superimposing distributive justice on top of the framework of commutative justice, thereby balancing the scale and completing one “revolution” of the cycle. By incorporating such “intentional revolutions” into economic life, the “unintentional revolutions”—uncontrolled, unjust, and almost always violent—are defused before they begin.

The Just Price—But by what measure are we to judge the justice or injustice of private exchanges in any scheme?—those through which so many small disharmonies are introduced into the overall system? The answer comes in the passage immediately following the one cited above:

“When thou shalt sell any thing to thy neighbour, or shalt buy of him; grieve not thy brother: but thou shalt buy of him according to the number of years from the jubilee.  And he shall sell to thee according to the computation of the fruits.  The more years remain after the jubilee, the more shall the price increase: and the less time is counted, so much the less shall the purchase cost. For he shall sell to thee the time of the fruits.”[9]

Here we find an objective criterion for pricing which results from and presupposes the cyclical aspect of the Jubilee economy. Because land purchased immediately after the Jubilee may potentially have 49 years to produce, the one who acquires it will rightly pay a high price, and this price corresponds to the “computation of the fruits,” which is to say, the produce which the land will yield and which will multiply with each year. Moreover, and for obvious reasons, land acquired a year before Jubilee will cost far less, because the produce of one season is all that will be factored into its price.

Private Property and the Universal Destination of Goods—We can see from the above that the legislation in Leviticus, like the tradition of the Church, affirms the institution of private property, but at the same time, also like the Church, takes care to subordinate private property to the original purpose of creation as a gift to all of mankind. It is within this universal context that the land is bought and sold, and it is for this reason that it cannot be sold permanently:

“The land also shall not be sold for ever: because it is mine, and you are strangers and sojourners with me. For which cause all the country of your possession shall be under the condition of redemption.”[10]

St. John Paul II elaborates on this principle:

“It was a common conviction, in fact, that to God alone, as Creator, belonged the ‘dominium altum’—lordship over all Creation and over the earth in particular (cf. Lev 25:23). If in his Providence God had given the earth to humanity, that meant that he had given it to everyone. Therefore the riches of Creation were to be considered as a common good of the whole of humanity. Those who possessed these goods as personal property were really only stewards, ministers charged with working in the name of God, who remains the sole owner in the full sense, since it is God’s will that created goods should serve everyone in a just way. The jubilee year was meant to restore this social justice.[11]

Widely Distributed Ownership–Reconciling itself to this theology of property, the Hebrew law ensured that anyone who had been forced through hardship to sell his land to another would be allowed to “redeem” it or buy it back at a later date. The price he must pay would again be computed through the Jubilee-style prorate system.

It is worth pausing to consider the implications of this prorate: if a man lost his land, he could at least rest assured that he had lost it when its price was high. He would know that every year following the loss, its redemption price would decrease, becoming more within his reach. As a consequence, the price for land would be at its lowest toward the end of the Jubilee cycle, even though this is the point at which concentration, and with it demand, would have normally reached its highest. Land speculation in this system is virtually impossible, or if it occurs it is at least not profitable; and this is so not merely because of the Jubilee, but because of the prorate scheme that is made possible by it, which corresponds to the just price and encourages a widely diffused pattern of ownership.

Preferential Option for the Poor—Continuing through the passage:

 “If thy brother be impoverished, and weak of hand, and thou receive him as a stranger and sojourner, and he live with thee, Take not usury of him nor more than thou gavest: fear thy God, that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor exact of him any increase of fruits.”[12]

Obviously the intention here is to prohibit usury and prevent the growth of debt-slavery, but the underlying spirit, if we consider the Jubilee doctrine as a whole, is a concern for the poor. Every limit and mechanism it implements confirms this intention. Thus, we can see again why St. John Paul II said that:

“Justice, according to the Law of Israel, consisted above all in the protection of the weak, and a king was supposed to be outstanding in this regard, as the Psalmist says: ‘He delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy’ (Ps 72:12-13).”[13]

Concern for Creation—Especially in light of Laudato Si’, it is vital to recall the passage quoted at the beginning:

“Six years thou shalt sow thy field and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and shalt gather the fruits thereof: But in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath to the land, of the resting of the Lord: thou shalt not sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.”[14]

Here the Sabbath is granted to the land, which is to say, it is not only a symbolic rest, representative of spiritual rest and nothing else, but rather it has a very real material function. It is both meaningful and necessary. Anyone remotely familiar with agricultural technique can understand why this is so, and what negative results come about if the land is worked ceaselessly, without variety, and without opportunity to replenish itself. It will become sterile, devoid of that natural vigor which only periodic rest can maintain.

ConclusionThe ultimate value of the Jubilee is to remind us that all of our social arrangements—money, property, markets—are human things. They are devised and executed through human reasoning, a noble but imperfect faculty, with the intention of imitating Divine Justice. All of our systems will inevitably fall short, accumulate errors, and crash. And this remains true whether the crash is immediate and obvious and leads to a great depression, or whether it is monotonous, laborious, and even perpetual. The doctrine of the Jubilee serves the twofold purpose of being a reminder in spiritual affairs and providing a reset in material affairs. We need the reminder because we are human, and we forget that our justice is not the ultimate justice.

[1] CSDC, 25; LS, 71.

[2] CSDC, 24, 25.

[3] TMA, 13.

[4] Lev 25:3-6

[5] Lev 25:8-10

[6] Lev 25:13

[7] Cf. 1 Cor 12:12-26.

[8] TMA, 13.

[9] Lev 25:14-17

[10] Lev 25:23-24

[11] TMA, 13.

[12] Lev 25:35-37

[13] TMA, 13.

[14] Lev 25:3-6

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