BUENOS AIRES — Ever since Pope Leo XIII issued the Rerum novarum encyclical (1891), which christened the Roman Church's Social Doctrine, any time a pontiff attributes a social purpose to private property, the Catholic defenders of capitalism make their voices heard.

And whenever the current pontiff, Pope Francis, reiterates the position as he did recently, calling property rights a "secondary right," criticism is even sharper, since many free market advocates considered him a "leftist," unlike other popes like John Paul II. Yet the Polish pope, who helped bring down communism, said many of the same things, asserting in his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987) that private property is "indebted to society."

In Argentina's case, the native son pontiff Francis happened to return to the subject (in a message to the recent International Labour Conference on June 19 in Geneva) just as Argentine President Alberto Fernández was criticizing the owners of idle farming lands and the Avellanada municipal council (in Buenos Aires) voting a controversial motion to confiscate such plots.

It does not imply the abolition of the property right or its collectivization.

Let's be clear, these declarations should be considered separately, says Pablo Blanco, professor of Social Doctrine at the Papal Catholic University of Argentina. "When property rights are described as "secondary," it means for starters that it is a right that is subordinate to a higher end, namely the enjoyment of goods and opportunities by all men, as recognized by the universal destiny of goods." Blanco adds that the fact that it is not an absolute right is in line with what "the Social Magisterium has already recognized from Leo XIII to John Paul II, that there is a social debt above the property right itself." But it is also a confirmation that as a recognized right, institutional regulation of its application is required.

Blanco says that calling property rights a "secondary right does not imply the abolition of the property right or its collectivization." It is instead simply an observation that it is a right to be "regulated and subordinated in order to attain the common Good of society." He dismisses the idea that in reiterating an established Church principle, the Pope was echoing the Argentine president or backing the ordinance approved in Avellanada. "We should stop being so self-referential and think that everything the Pope says and does has to do with Argentina," he said.

In a paper published in 2014 by the UCA Digital Library, Father Gustavo Irrazábal states that the "Church's Social Doctrine has maintained since its inception the legitimacy of private property as a guarantee of personal autonomy, identifying its diffusion as a path to social justice, above all through payment of a fair wage."

So even if Francis won't manage to avoid another controversy in his country, and Argentina's ruling coalition will likely pounce on his words to make political capital, calmer minds should simply remember that Jorge Bergoglio is no longer the archbishop of Buenos Aires, but Pope to one billion Catholics around the world.

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