Pt. 2: A Critical Examination of Catholic Social Teaching on the Question of Private Property
(See Pt. 1 for an introduction to the theoretical issues at stake in this discussion)
Having at great length defined the nature of our quarry, we are now in a position to sift through the documents of Catholic Social Teaching in search of what we are told is “a natural right to private property.” Our inquiry thus far suggests that this is something like Lewis Carroll’s famous Snark, which turned out, we are told, to be a Boojum. That is to say, it is not clear that Mr. Gobry, and the many others for whom he speaks, really know at all what they are looking for when they send us in search of this right, and that it is likely to vanish into mist as soon as they think they have found it. They think it is something that is rooted in human nature, but they cannot tell us how or where, they think it is something that will tell us that property is unconditionally good, but they cannot tell us what it is good for, they think it is something that will protect the rights of existing property holders against interference, but they cannot explain to us the origin of these existing rights. We might search all day for such a thing and never find it.
Instead what we will find is a rather more coherent idea of private property: an institution of human law as a creative improvisation of the law of nature, intended to preserve the order of society, ensure the flourishing of individuals, and serve the sustenance of all people. In other words, private property is instituted as a means to an end: the common use of humanity. This does not tell us, of course, just how much human law may do to try and ensure that this end is being served, nor just how far property rights may re-framed if and when they are found to no longer be serving this end. These are complex questions which have been, and deserve to be, hotly debated. And yet they are questions ultimately of prudence, rather than of justice. Justice, we may safely say, has been violated in every case where private property is acquired, held, or used in a way that is advantageous to the property-holder and disadvantageous to his fellow men.
Now in saying that we will find a more coherent idea of private property in the documents of Catholic Social Teaching, I do not mean to say that we should expect to find a perfectly coherent one. Indeed, one of the nice things about not being Roman Catholic is that one is free to approach these documents with a highly critical eye, discerning their tensions and ambiguities, rather than feeling obliged to make them all, in the end, say just the same thing. These documents, as they have emerged over the last 120 years, reflect all the chaos and complexity of the history of that period, bearing the personal impress of their individual writers, as well as the Vatican’s shifting sense of priorities, as first one aspect of modernity, then quite another, seemed to pose the greatest threat to Christian faithfulness in the use of this world’s goods. In particular, there is in some of the texts a certain equivocation on the status of the principle of common use or the universal destination of goods—is this a moral imperative for the right use of property that is layered on top of an already freestanding, and independently justified, private right of ownership? Or is this fundamental good itself the basis and justification for the contingent good of private ownership? The former, while certainly still carrying rather forceful ethical implications for the obligations of all property-owners, is clearly softer than the latter. Moreover, it leaves open a much wider possibility that the principle of the universal destination of goods may fall outside the scope of human law, and be left merely to the conscience of individuals. Naturally, this is how most “conservatives” who do lipservice to the principle insist on understanding it. The latter, however, holding as it does that the universal destination of goods is always already implicated in the idea of private property as a just institution, leaves no room to peel the two apart, either morally or legally (except, that is, inasmuch as prudence and possibility limit the law’s regulative scope).
Mr. Gobry, then, is not altogether obtuse in his confusion on this subject, given the ambiguity especially of texts such as Rerum Novarum. But as we have already seen, the former notion is itself rather confused, leaving unanswered as it does the grounds upon which private property is justified, and as I shall hope to show by the end of this examination, the latter emerges with ever more clarity through the various documents. Accordingly, we shall begin with 1891’s Rerum Novarum, the encyclical usually held to be the fountainhead of Catholic Social Teaching, and end with 1992’s Catechism of the Catholic Church, to which, readers may recall, Mr. Gobry made his last appeal—a rash appeal indeed, as we shall see.
Rerum Novarum (1891)
Rerum Novarum, the great social encyclical of Leo XIII, was perhaps more than any of the other later documents of Catholic Social Teaching, a product of its time—a great product, to be sure, worthy of its many subsequent commemorations—and yet clearly animated throughout by a somewhat jumpy fear of militant socialism, at which it can be seen glancing nervously over its shoulder from time to time. Perhaps this fear at the time was justified, perhaps not; in any case, it leads Leo (or rather Cardinal Zigliara, the chief drafter), to overcompensate somewhat in his fulsome defense of private property. The right to private property is set forth over the course of eleven paragraphs, in which we find no less than nine appeals to “nature” or “natural law.” We hear that “every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own” (par. 6), that “Here, again, we have further proof that private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature” (par. 9), that “Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary” (par. 22). And yet its arguments for this natural foundation are a bit shaky, it must be said.
Before surveying these, however, it is worth pausing to ask just what the document means by “natural.” At points, it appears to mean neither much more nor much less than what we mean by the word in everyday conversation—it’s just natural for humans to have private property, it’s the sort of thing we do, that makes sense for us: “the practice of all ages has consecrated the principle of private ownership, as being pre-eminently in conformity with human nature, and as conducing in the most unmistakable manner to the peace and tranquillity of human existence. The same principle is confirmed and enforced by the civil laws” (par. 11). At other points, it has the more forceful sense of something that can be deductively proven as absolutely binding upon society from other principles of natural law, for instance, where Leo reasons from the premise that “it is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten” to the conclusion that “in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property” and therefore, the “sacred law of nature” requires private property (par. 13). Both of these statements, however, clearly subordinate private property as an instrumental good toward some other good—“peace and tranquillity” or provision for dependents. Property is justified for the way in which it helps humans attain other things that they naturally require. Moreover, the second statement clearly has a strongly distributive orientation—if private property is really required in order for every father to do his job, well then it would seem clear that the state should ensure that every father has a sufficient share of private property.
The real heavy-lifting in the document, however, is done in paragraphs 6-7, where “nature” is invoked quite precisely to designate humans’ “metaphysical biology,” so to speak, and why this necessarily orients them toward private property. Although humans share with animals, we are told, the drive to self-preservation and self-propagation, we, unlike they, do not live always in the moment, but have the power of reason, “linking the future with the present” (7). Thus man’s need for durable “capital goods” rather than mere consumables: “it must be within his right to possess things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living things do, but to have and to hold them in stable and permanent possession; he must have not only things that perish in the use, but those also which, though they have been reduced into use, continue for further use in after time” (6). Above all, he must be able to possess “the very soil, inasmuch as from the produce of the earth he has to lay by provision for the future” (7).
Here then we find an argument that might yield a “natural right” to private property in the fullest sense, such as Mr. Gobry was looking for when he sought to compare such a right to the right to life, to speech, to religious freedom, etc. In my initial response, I noted how difficult it was to make such an equation; with something like a right to free speech, one could argue straightforwardly from the essential distinguishing characteristics of human nature, insisting that these cannot be taken away without dehumanizing. But could one really argue this way for private property? Leo is clearly trying to here, but the argument falters on a couple of counts.
For one, the attempted distinction with other animals is overdrawn; in fact, we know that animals, far from being occupied only in the moment, prepare ceaselessly for the future, building nests, storing up supplies of food, etc. In fact, Scripture itself invites us to learn from the ants in this regard; if anything, we might say that humans are more prone to careless short-term thinking than many animals. That’s not to say there isn’t an important difference between human reason and animal instinct, but if the need to prepare for the future entails a need for private property, the same would seem to be so for animals. And indeed, many animals do jealously guard their own territory and stores, but many others do not; ants, for instance, are the most communal of all in their storage and redistribution of resources. There seems to be no logical reason why the need to prepare for the future need entail private property; indeed, a communist might argue that precisely because humans are so easily absorbed in the short-term, thoughtless of the future, the state must make such long-term preparation for human needs.
For another, if we asked what kind of animal mankind was—more like a tiger or more like an ant—the Christian tradition would have generally had little hesitation in answering with an Aristotelian metaphysical biology—we are more like the ant, inasmuch as we are naturally social animals, oriented by nature to live in communities working for common ends. Once this key feature of human nature is brought into the picture, it becomes quite difficult to sustain the argument than man’s propensity to plan for the future implies that each man, or at least each father, must do so on his own accord out of his own resources alone. Rerum Novarum then, resorts to little more than assertion when it goes on to say, “There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.” As far as fully formed “State,” this may be true indeed, but as far as any kind of communal organization, it is dubious indeed by the lights of traditional Christian anthropology.
To get from propensity to plan for the future to naturally, pre-politically generated private property, then, the encyclical must show how each human individual, acting on his nature, may acquire such a private property right unilaterally. The strategy employed is unambiguously Lockean (Zigliara, I am told, being a great admirer of Locke):
“Truly, that which is required for the preservation of life, and for life’s well-being, is produced in great abundance from the soil, but not until man has brought it into cultivation and expended upon it his solicitude and skill. Now, when man thus turns the activity of his mind and the strength of his body toward procuring the fruits of nature, by such act he makes his own that portion of nature’s field which he cultivates – that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality; and it cannot but be just that he should possess that portion as his very own, and have a right to hold it without any one being justified in violating that right. . . .
“For the soil which is tilled and cultivated with toil and skill utterly changes its condition; it was wild before, now it is fruitful; was barren, but now brings forth in abundance. That which has thus altered and improved the land becomes so truly part of itself as to be in great measure indistinguishable and inseparable from it. Is it just that the fruit of a man’s own sweat and labor should be possessed and enjoyed by any one else? As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor.”
Now we have remarked before that arguments such as this have a tendency to blur two distinct claims together, a metaphysical claim and a desert argument. The latter asserts simply that if we are in the business of defining who owns what, it is only fair to grant property right in an object or plot of land to the person who has expended great effort in producing or improving it, as the just wages, as it were, of his labor in it. As far as it goes, this is a very reasonable point, but it doesn’t really go all that far; after all, no laborer produces something ex nihilo, but works with preexisting material that might have received the impress of others’ labor, or that might belong to all in common. Moreover, very few laborers work with nothing but the sweat of their brow, but usually rely on a store of tools, knowledge, infrastructure, etc., provided by others. If anything, the desert principle would seem to point to the need for legal determination of property titles, as the law weighs the relative desert of parties involved in the production of a good.
The metaphysical claim, however, seeks to bypass all such considerations by intimately linking the laborer with the object of labor: on it, the laborer “leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality,” so that “that which has thus altered and improved the land becomes so truly part of itself as to be in great measure indistinguishable and inseparable from it.” Phrases here such as “as it were” and “in great measure,” however, alert us to the fact the author is fudging and taking refuge in metaphors. To be sure, the more that the laborer puts into the final product, relative to what was there before him, the more the metaphor rings true. A Rembrandt painting bears indeed the impress of his personality almost completely; without his unique labor, all we would have is a collection of different-colored paints and a blank canvas. For a farmer tilling a field, the metaphor is somewhat more overdrawn. In any case, it is not at all clear how the metaphor can ever become so literal that the labored-upon has become so fully part of the laborer as to belong solely and wholly to him by natural right. A comparison with the right to speech will highlight again the chasm that simply has not been bridged. In the one case, we are talking about something which cannot but be an integral part of me, in the other, about something which cannot but remain outside of me.
Now, where does all of this leave the notion of the universal destination of goods in Rerum Novarum? It is still there, to be sure, but hardly foregrounded. The objection from this direction is anticipated in paragraph 8:
“The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property. For God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races. Moreover, the earth, even though apportioned among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all, inasmuch as there is not one who does not sustain life from what the land produces.”
The second sentence here is obviously an attempt to reference Aquinas’s statement in ST II-II q. 66:
“community of goods is ascribed to the natural law, not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law.”
In other words, Aquinas stated that just because common use was natural didn’t mean that private ownership was unnatural in the sense of anti-natural; it could be added to nature in a way that was in accord with nature. The passage in RN, however, subtly departs from Thomas in two ways: first, it implies that the basic principle of private property is right there in nature from the beginning, it’s just that the various particular divisions of property obviously weren’t, but had to arise in history (a banal truism if there ever was one).
Second, whereas Aquinas mentions only “human agreement which belongs to positive law” as the source of such divisions, RN mentions first “man’s own industry,” clearly alluding back to the Lockean labor argument of the previous paragraph. RN is certainly right, however, to insist that even once apportioned among private owners, property may still serve common use, indeed may do so more effectively, as Aquinas himself argued.
However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the principle of common use in RN appears as a second layer of duty, added on top of an already internally-justified right of private ownership. So in paragraph 22, we are told, “Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right . . . is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. . . . But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? – the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor [Aquinas]: ‘Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, “Command the rich of this world… to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.”’” It is thus a duty to distribute out of one’s superfluities to meet the needs of the poor, but this “is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law.” The universal destination of goods, thus, remains an important limiting condition on the right use of private property, but since property is justified on other grounds, generated out of nature, and recognized as such by human law, this principle does not enter directly into the legal picture as a way of defining the nature and limits of property rights.
Now, I have spent a great deal of time on Rerum Novarum due to the importance and length of its discussion of private property, and also to avoid the accusation of hastily glossing over a text which is clearly more favorable to those of Mr. Gobry’s persuasion. However, I hope I have also shown that this document departs in some fundamental ways from the views of Aquinas and the earlier tradition, ways that are ultimately incoherent, and which the later tradition of Catholic Social Teaching sought to quietly suppress or gently correct.
Quadragesimo Anno (1931)
Accordingly, let us now skip forward forty years to Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, commemorating Rerum Novarum’s anniversary. Upon coming to the subject of private property in paragraph 44, Pius loses no time at all in attempting to politely set the record straight:
“We shall begin with ownership or the right of property. Venerable Brethren and Beloved Children, you know that Our Predecessor of happy memory strongly defended the right of property against the tenets of the Socialists of his time by showing that its abolition would result, not to the advantage of the working class, but to their extreme harm. Yet since there are some who calumniate the Supreme Pontiff, and the Church herself, as if she had taken and were still taking the part of the rich against the non-owning workers – certainly no accusation is more unjust than that – and since Catholics are at variance with one another concerning the true and exact mind of Leo, it has seemed best to vindicate this, that is, the Catholic teaching on this matter from calumnies and safeguard it from false interpretations.”
This is clearly a good Catholic and magisterial way of saying, “My predecessor kinda made a muddle of things, so I hope you’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and let me tell you what he really should have said.”
Pius then moves quickly to reassert the inseparability of private property with common use:
“First, then, let it be considered as certain and established that neither Leo nor those theologians who have taught under the guidance and authority of the Church have ever denied or questioned the twofold character of ownership, called usually individual or social according as it regards either separate persons or the common good. For they have always unanimously maintained that nature, rather the Creator Himself, has given man the right of private ownership not only that individuals may be able to provide for themselves and their families but also that the goods which the Creator destined for the entire family of mankind may through this institution truly serve this purpose. All this can be achieved in no wise except through the maintenance of a certain and definite order” (45, italics mine).
In other words, the right of property exists, and is justified, not merely for the provision of each man’s person and family (as RN may have implied), but also for the sake of realizing the goal of the universal destination of goods, which is best achieved through an orderly distribution of what Aquinas called the “power of procuring and disposing.” Pius utters not a word concerning RN’s various attempts to anchor property right within the order of nature itself, prior to human society; some might attempt to argue from this silence to a tacit approval, but given the difficulties inherent in RN’s arguments on this score, it seems more likely that Pius would just rather leave all of that behind, returning the the more coherent Thomistic idea that the determinations of property right must arise out of orderly political deliberation on how best to safeguard human goods.
However, QA is not without its own ambiguities and tensions, specifically on the key point of whether the right of common use acts as a legally enforceable constraint on the exercise of private ownership. If it is the grounds of justification for such private ownership, it is hard to see how it wouldn’t function as a constraint at the level of human law, but QA equivocates on this point, perhaps attempting to avoid blatantly contradicting RN.
First, in paragraph 47, it says,
“there must be first laid down as foundation a principle established by Leo XIII: The right of property is distinct from its use. That justice called commutative commands sacred respect for the division of possessions and forbids invasion of others’ rights through the exceeding of the limits of one’s own property; but the duty of owners to use their property only in a right way does not come under this type of justice, but under other virtues, obligations of which ‘cannot be enforced by legal action.’ Therefore, they are in error who assert that ownership and its right use are limited by the same boundaries; and it is much farther still from the truth to hold that a right to property is destroyed or lost by reason of abuse or non-use.”
This would seem to imply that whatever the reason for the initial establishment of private property as an institution, or the granting of property rights to any particular person, the property owner is subsequently free to do with his property whatever he wants, without the constraint of law. One can hear the conservatives cheering.
But then the document goes on to praise those who “seek to define the inner nature of these duties and their limits whereby either the right of property itself or its use, that is, the exercise of ownership, is circumscribed by the necessities of social living” (48). And then, in words just as unambiguous as par. 47, though seemingly in the opposite direction:
“It follows from what we have termed the individual and at the same time social character of ownership, that men must consider in this matter not only their own advantage but also the common good. To define these duties in detail when necessity requires and the natural law has not done so, is the function of those in charge of the State. Therefore, public authority, under the guiding light always of the natural and divine law, can determine more accurately upon consideration of the true requirements of the common good, what is permitted and what is not permitted to owners in the use of their property” (italics mine).
In other words, clearly the right of common use must function as a curb on the right of private ownership, and vice versa, and the precise relationship and limits of the two will have to be determined by public authority with an eye to advancing the common good. In light of this, the words of paragraph 47, it seems, must be reinterpreted as guarding only against more over-intrusive policies of redistribution: abuse cannot automatically license expropriation, otherwise there would be far too much scope for the government to redefine property boundaries on a whim: “That the State is not permitted to discharge its duty arbitrarily is, however, clear. The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away” (49) If the right is to be secure enough to do its job of maintaining order, then there must be a presumption in favor of existing legal owners, even when they seem to be using their property poorly, and the state cannot tax property-owners into oblivion. And yet, paragraph 49 makes clear, this presumption only goes so far, and the law can and must determine what is and isn’t permitted to owners in the use of their property (i.e., regulation), and to what extent it must be used for the social good (i.e., taxation). Paragraph 49 also clearly emphasizes the fact that this will look different in different times and places.
Finally, it ends by insisting that none of this be seen as an imposition on private property owners, but an aid to them as they seek to use property for its intended purpose:
“Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them.”
This statement captures the heart of the Christian ethic of property rights with memorable clarity and eloquence.
Although the number of encyclicals and other documents addressing these issues multiplies as we enter the latter decades of the twentieth century, we should be able to move more quickly through them at this point, now that the basic tensions and emphases have been clearly laid out.
Mater et Magistra (1961)
In Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII begins his treatment of property by reasserting the potentially slippery language of private property as a matter of natural right, but immediately adds the principle of common use so that neither may stand without the other:
“Private ownership of property, including that of productive goods, is a natural right which the State cannot suppress. But it naturally entails a social obligation as well. It is a right which must be exercised not only for one’s own personal benefit but also for the benefit of others” (par. 19).
This phrasing in itself might seem to all for common use as a secondary norm following on along after the freestanding right of private ownership, but paragraph 43 clearly rejects any such reading:
“Concerning the use of material goods, Our Predecessor declared that the right of every man to use these for his own sustenance is prior to every other economic right, even that of private property. The right to the private possession of material goods is admittedly a natural one; nevertheless, in the objective order established by God, the right to property cannot stand in the way of the axiomatic principle that ‘the goods which were created by God for all men should flow to all alike, according to the principles of justice and charity’”
Also, in par. 119: “Our predecessors have insisted time and again on the social function inherent in the right of private ownership, for it cannot be denied that in the plan of the Creator all of this world’s goods are primarily intended for the worthy support of the entire human race.”
Moreover, although insisting that “The right of private ownership of goods, including productive goods, has permanent validity. It is part of the natural order, which teaches that the individual is prior to society and society must be ordered to the good of the individual” (109) and rooting this right in man’s exercise of freedom (110), the encyclical clearly recognizes that the logic of this emphasis is in fact distributive:
“But it is not enough to assert that the right to own private property and the means of production is inherent in human nature. We must also insist on the extension of this right in practice to all classes of citizens” (113).
This, of course, was the argument of the distributists such as Hilaire Belloc: since justice entailed that the laborer should receive property as the reward of his labor, and since the exercise of human freedom needed a share of productive property for its full exercise, a proper respect for private property demanded that it be distributed much more widely than has been typical under capitalism.
In words that will no doubt give conservatives the shivers, MM explicitly recognizes that the state, as protector of the common good, must play a role in ensuring the just use and distribution of property:
“As for the State, its whole raison d’etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters” (20).
“It will not be difficult for the body politic, by the adoption of various techniques of proved efficiency, to pursue an economic and social policy which facilitates the widest possible distribution of private property in terms of durable consumer goods, houses, land, tools and equipment (in the case of craftsmen and owners of family farms), and shares in medium and large business concerns. This policy is in fact being pursued with considerable success by several of the socially and economically advanced nations” (115).
“This, of course, is not to deny the lawfulness of State and public ownership of productive goods, especially those which ‘carry with them a power too great to be left to private individuals without injury to the community at large’” (116).
The document does, however, go on to affirm the principle of subsidiarity and to highlight the dangers of too much state power of the economy; realism about the vices of private property owners certainly need not imply naiveté about the vices of public administrators.
Pacem in Terris (1963)
Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, touches only briefly on private property, saying,
“As a further consequence of man’s nature, he has the right to the private ownership of property, including that of productive goods. This, as We have said elsewhere, is ‘a right which constitutes so efficacious a means of asserting one’s personality and exercising responsibility in every field, and an element of solidity and security for family life, and of greater peace and prosperity in the State’” (par. 21)
Finally, it is opportune to point out that the right to own private property entails a social obligation as well. (par. 22)”
Such statements taken on their own are readily appealed to by those like Mr. Gobry, who want to take their stand upon a “natural right to private property” without specifying its origin, justification, use, or regulation, but as we have seen from the larger context of John XXIII’s teaching, not to mention Quadragesimo Anno, answers to these questions are presumed in such brief statements as these. Indeed, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the quote at the end of paragraph 21. Given my emphasis throughout this essay on foregrounding the social use of property, the universal destination of goods as, at root, the justification of private property, I might have seemed to exclude its benefit for the individual. But all these things must be held together, as in this pithy statement. Private property does anchor the freedom and self-direction of the individual, the security and independence of the family, the peace of the social order, and the provision of all. In other words, it is eminently suited to sustain and further intrinsic goods of human nature at each level—individual, family, community, and world. The purpose of this essay has not been to call this into question, but rather to highlight the fact that all of these things make private property an instrumental good, something “natural” precisely because it is so well-suited to secure these natural goods (a “consequence of man’s nature,” as this text has it); it is not, once again, something simply given in nature, to which other human goods, and the state as protector of them, must give way.
Gaudium et Spes (1965)
The “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Gaudium et Spes, was one of the more important documents to come out of Vatican II. With the Catholic Church’s general sense that Vatican II marked something of a fresh start (at least, to the extent that Catholics can speak of such a thing), it is not surprising that we find Gaudium et Spes approaching the issue of property with a new emphasis, and one that does not feel particularly bound to the language of Rerum Novarum. It is the first of the documents we have looked at that begins its discussion of property with the universal destination of goods (not merely as a matter of logical priority, but actually in the order of exposition):
“God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner. Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others. On the other hand, the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone” (69).
The three themes upon which I have been harping are crystal-clear in this statement: universal destination of goods as the starting point, private property as a creation of legal order directed to this end, and the distributive implications of these premises. Again, these do not preclude other, more individualist rationales for the good of private property, but these too clearly have distributive implications:
“Since property and other forms of private ownership of external goods contribute to the expression of the personality, and since, moreover, they furnish one an occasion to exercise his function in society and in the economy, it is very important that the access of both individuals and communities to some ownership of external goods be fostered.
Private property or some ownership of external goods confers on everyone a sphere wholly necessary for the autonomy of the person and the family, and it should be regarded as an extension of human freedom. Lastly, since it adds incentives for carrying on one’s function and charge, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberties” (71).
Gaudium et Spes is also unambiguous about the legitimate role of the State in this area:
“Similarly, in highly developed nations a body of social institutions dealing with protection and security can, for its own part, bring to reality the common destination of earthly goods” (69).
“Furthermore, it is the right of public authority to prevent anyone from abusing his private property to the detriment of the common good” (71).
The document concludes its discussion of the issue with a forceful reminder of just why this whole prioritization of common use is so important:
“By its very nature private property has a social quality which is based on the law of the common destination of earthly goods. If this social quality is overlooked, property often becomes an occasion of passionate desires for wealth and serious disturbances, so that a pretext is given to the attackers for calling the right itself into question.”
Populorum Progressio (1967)
Pope Paul VI’s 1967 social encyclical touches only briefly on the question, but the shift of emphasis we noted in Gaudium et Spes is quite clear here as well. The document highlights the common right of the poor to this world’s goods, quoting St. Ambrose:
“As St. Ambrose put it: ‘You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.’ These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.”
And it specifies that public authority has the task of adjudicating this common right vis-a-vis private rights: “When “private gain and basic community needs conflict with one another,” it is for the public authorities ‘to seek a solution to these questions, with the active involvement of individual citizens and social groups’” (23).
John Paul II’s Social Teaching
The effect of this shift of emphasis and clarification of the universal destination of goods becomes clear when we look at John Paul II’s first social encyclical, Laborem Exercens (1981). Although a fierce opponent of communism who might’ve been expected to echo Leo XIII’s emphatic rejection of every hint of socialism, JPII makes no attempt to offer a lengthy justification of private property apart from the principle of common use. On the contrary, although he asserts that the teaching of the Church “diverges radically from the programme of collectivism as proclaimed by Marxism and put into practice in various countries,” he acknowledges that it differs also “the programme of capitalism practised by liberalism and by the political systems inspired by it.” This difference LE states clearly and unequivocally:
“[it] consists in the way the right to ownership or property is understood. Christian tradition has never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone” (14).
JP II’s next encyclical on the question, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), is similarly brief but unambiguous and to the point.
“It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant for all. The right to private property is valid and necessary, but it does not nullify the value of this principle. Private property, in fact, is under a ‘social mortgage,’ which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods” (42, italics mine).
One could not ask for much more clarity than that.
Finally we must make mention of JP II’s very important centennial commemoration of Rerum Novarum, the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, although he has little to add on the topic of property per se. He acknowledges Leo’s particular preoccupation with the subject in Rerum Novarum, but insists, “The Pope is well aware that private property is not an absolute value, nor does he fail to proclaim the necessary complementary principles, such as the universal destination of the earth’s goods” (6). He affirms also the more individual good of private property, “the right to possess the things necessary for one’s personal development and the development of one’s family,” but notes that this value is occluded not only within collectivist societies, but also in “those where systems predominate which are based on an affirmation of the right to private property,” since in practice these tend to protect only rights of those who already have property.
Let us conclude, then, with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to which Mr. Gobry made his appeal. He insisted that unlike Aquinas, section 2401 of the Catechism made clear that private property rights were a matter of intrinsic human dignity. When I replied that actually, the wording of the Catechism seemed to clearly match Aquinas’s insistence on private property as an instrumental right, ordered to the realization of more fundamental human goods, he responded that this was a “tendentious reading” and that the “following paragraphs make it pretty clear that there is such a thing as a right to private property,” before abandoning the conversation.
Of course, the question was not, once again, whether “there is such a thing as a right to private property,” but what sort of right this is—as I made clear in Pt. 1 of this essay, that is really rather a complex question.
So let us turn to the text and see whether there is any ambiguity in its exposition, or whether it re-affirms, as we might expect it to, to the growing consensus of Catholic Social Teaching over previous decades.
Section 2401 reads as follows:
“The seventh commandment forbids unjustly taking or keeping the goods of one’s neighbor and wronging him in any way with respect to his goods. It commands justice and charity in the care of earthly goods and the fruits of men’s labor. For the sake of the common good, it requires respect for the universal destination of goods and respect for the right to private property. Christian life strives to order this world’s goods to God and to fraternal charity.”
In this, we note a remarkable similarity with the sorts of exposition of the eighth commandment (as we would number it) that we saw among the Protestant reformers (see footnote 9 of Pt. 1): the command against stealing contains within it the command to protect and seek our neighbor’s material sustenance and prosperity, because the right to private property makes no sense outside of that overarching social goal. Accordingly, the Catechism is not “tendentious,” but quite explicit in describing private property as an instrumental right, ordered toward the common good and constituted together with the universal destination of goods.
Just in case anyone had not gotten the point that these two—private right and universal destination—are constituted together and inseparable, this question is followed with the heading “The Universal Destination and the Private Ownership of Goods.”
The next question thus defines the principle of the universal destination of goods, rooting it in the common dominion mandate.
“2402 In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.”
In other words, in the beginning, all things were common, but subsequently private property arises as a way to better secure this common access, as well as individual freedom and dignity—yet so as to encourage, rather than undermine the primordial sense of solidarity. It is perhaps telling, however, that the catechism describes the appropriate of property here as “legitimate” rather than simply the ambiguous “natural.
The Catechism then goes on to make unambiguously clear that the right to private property is not merely subsequent to that of common use, but remains subordinated to it:
“2403 The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.”
Accordingly, owners of private property are bound to bear this in mind when they think about how to use the goods entrusted to them:
“2404 ‘In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.’ The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family.
“2405 Goods of production—material or immaterial—such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number. Those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor.”
Finally, lest any continued to entertain any doubt as to whether this duty of common use somehow became, after the institution of private property, a mere personal moral obligation, unrelated to the legal duty simply to protect existing property rights, the Catechism concludes its treatment by saying,
“2406 Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good.”
The relevant section of the 2004 “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” Chapter 4, Pt. III, covers the same ground with characteristic exhaustiveness and precision, leaving simply no room for confusion on the issue. However, at some point enough is enough and Mr. Gobry’s dead horse, long since buried, need not be beaten any more; accordingly, I will simply add the text of the Compendium as an appendix at the bottom of this post for those interested. I cannot resist, however, quoting this section, summarizing so admirably as it does the whole point that we have been arguing for:
“The right to the common use of goods is the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order” and ‘the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine’. For this reason the Church feels bound in duty to specify the nature and characteristics of this principle. It is first of all a natural right, inscribed in human nature and not merely a positive right connected with changing historical circumstances; moreover it is an ‘inherent’ right. It is innate in individual persons, in every person, and has priority with regard to any human intervention concerning goods, to any legal system concerning the same, to any economic or social system or method: ‘All other rights, whatever they are, including property rights and the right of free trade must be subordinated to this norm [the universal destination of goods]; they must not hinder it, but must rather expedite its application. It must be considered a serious and urgent social obligation to refer these rights to their original purpose’.”
Thus we come back to the point I made in the conclusion of my post a couple of weeks ago. Mr. Gobry began his worries about legal realism with the quite sensible concern that making private property a matter of positive law would leave civil authorities in the position of being able to arbitrarily re-define property rights whenever and however it suited them, like Ahab and Jezebel did to Naboth. To restrain such pretensions, we must, he argued, take our stand upon a “natural right” that lay behind all legal rights, that grounded and normed them, a right that they must recognize but had no power to take away.
Here then is our answer to Mr. Gobry: there is such a right, a right that every legal system is bound to do homage to, a right that no one can take away without violating basic justice—it is the natural right to the common use of goods, which is universal. In view of the clear creational status of this right, we have argued (as has Catholic Social Teaching, with ever greater clarity and emphasis), it is not merely wrong to ascribe such primordial status to the rights of individual property owners, but quite simply incoherent. This is not to say that such rights have no status, or that in pursuing the universal destination of goods, public authorities can run roughshod over current property owners. On the contrary, the Burkean principle of prescription is a weighty one, and we will often find that much more harm is done by hastily overturning even unjust social realities than by maintaining and tolerating them for the time being. One could hardly expect a devotee of Richard Hooker, such as myself, to think lightly of the value of hierarchy, order, and continuity. There is thus nothing in this principle of the universal destination of goods that prevents one from being a conservative in the classical sense, should prudence seem to dictate such conservatism. But there is a great deal in this principle that must prevent any Christian from being a radical individualist, asserting that any individual may unilaterally stake a claim to a share of the world without regard to the race as a whole, and may demand from the state unconditional recognition and protection of his right. There is a great deal in this principle that must prevent any Christian from building an ideology upon the right to private property, evaluating any regime or viewpoint by how little it meddles with this right, and how strongly it protects it. In fact, as we have seen, this whole way of putting the question is quite simply confused and wrongheaded. For not all “meddling” with private property rights is unfriendly to them. On the contrary, just as the government must define the true purpose of marriage and regulate it to that end if it is to truly support marriage rights, and secure the possibility of healthy marriages, so must it define and regulate property. We quote again the admirable words of Quadragesimo Anno, par. 49:
“Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them.”
Of course, we have been occupied throughout this lengthy post simply with Catholic social teaching, the teaching of the Roman magisterium. There will no doubt be many Protestants quick to dismiss this teaching based on that fact alone, or at least to use the popish provenance of these teachings as an easy way of dismissing those ideas which they do not like. To such we must say with Richard Hooker that it is no authentic Protestantism which seeks only to be opposite to the Church of Rome in every thing. Moreover, I have sought to show, at least in passing, that on these points Catholic Social Teaching is built simply upon the exposition of Scripture and the clear sentence of reason, and is merely elaborating the logic of the Protestant Reformers in their understanding of the eighth commandment. For those still in doubt, I hope in due course to offer evidence from Protestant history that the Roman Catholics have no monopoly on sanity when it comes to these foundational questions of social ethics. It is my hope that the Protestants of today, shamed by the thorough attempt of Catholic Social Teaching to guide faithful Christian discipleship in this area, will begin retrieving and rebuilding their own tradition of Protestant social thought and civic engagement.
Appendix: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004)
III. THE UNIVERSAL DESTINATION OF GOODS
a. Origin and meaning
171. Among the numerous implications of the common good, immediate significance is taken on by the principle of the universal destination of goods: “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity”. This principle is based on the fact that “the original source of all that is good is the very act of God, who created both the earth and man, and who gave the earth to man so that he might have dominion over it by his work and enjoy its fruits (Gen 1:28-29). God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone.
This is the foundation of the universal destination of the earth’s goods. The earth, by reason of its fruitfulness and its capacity to satisfy human needs, is God’s first gift for the sustenance of human life”. The human person cannot do without the material goods that correspond to his primary needs and constitute the basic conditions for his existence; these goods are absolutely indispensable if he is to feed himself, grow, communicate, associate with others, and attain the highest purposes to which he is called.
172. The universal right to use the goods of the earth is based on the principle of the universal destination of goods. Each person must have access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development. The right to the common use of goods is the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order” and “the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine”. For this reason the Church feels bound in duty to specify the nature and characteristics of this principle. It is first of all a natural right, inscribed in human nature and not merely a positive right connected with changing historical circumstances; moreover it is an “inherent” right. It is innate in individual persons, in every person, and has priority with regard to any human intervention concerning goods, to any legal system concerning the same, to any economic or social system or method: “All other rights, whatever they are, including property rights and the right of free trade must be subordinated to this norm [the universal destination of goods]; they must not hinder it, but must rather expedite its application. It must be considered a serious and urgent social obligation to refer these rights to their original purpose”.
173. Putting the principal of the universal destination of goods into concrete practice, according to the different cultural and social contexts, means that methods, limits and objects must be precisely defined. Universal destination and utilization of goods do not mean that everything is at the disposal of each person or of all people, or that the same object may be useful or belong to each person or all people. If it is true that everyone is born with the right to use the goods of the earth, it is likewise true that, in order to ensure that this right is exercised in an equitable and orderly fashion, regulated interventions are necessary, interventions that are the result of national and international agreements, and a juridical order that adjudicates and specifies the exercise of this right.
174. The principle of the universal destination of goods is an invitation to develop an economic vision inspired by moral values that permit people not to lose sight of the origin or purpose of these goods, so as to bring about a world of fairness and solidarity, in which the creation of wealth can take on a positive function. Wealth, in effect, presents this possibility in the many different forms in which it can find expression as the result of a process of production that works with the available technological and economic resources, both natural and derived. This result is guided by resourcefulness, planning and labour, and used as a means for promoting the well-being of all men and all peoples and for preventing their exclusion and exploitation.
175. The universal destination of goods requires a common effort to obtain for every person and for all peoples the conditions necessary for integral development, so that everyone can contribute to making a more humane world, “in which each individual can give and receive, and in which the progress of some will no longer be an obstacle to the development of others, nor a pretext for their enslavement”. This principle corresponds to the call made unceasingly by the Gospel to people and societies of all times, tempted as they always are by the desire to possess, temptations which the Lord Jesus chose to undergo (cf. Mk 1:12-13; Mt4:1-11; Lk 4:1-13) in order to teach us how to overcome them with his grace.
b. The universal destination of goods and private property
176. By means of work and making use of the gift of intelligence, people are able to exercise dominion over the earth and make it a fitting home: “In this way, he makes part of the earth his own, precisely the part which he has acquired through work; this is the origin of individual property”. Private property and other forms of private ownership of goods “assure a person a highly necessary sphere for the exercise of his personal and family autonomy and ought to be considered as an extension of human freedom … stimulating exercise of responsibility, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty”. Private property is an essential element of an authentically social and democratic economic policy, and it is the guarantee of a correct social order. The Church’s social doctrine requires that ownership of goods be equally accessible to all, so that all may become, at least in some measure, owners, and it excludes recourse to forms of “common and promiscuous dominion”.
177. Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable: “On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone”. The principle of the universal destination of goods is an affirmation both of God’s full and perennial lordship over every reality and of the requirement that the goods of creation remain ever destined to the development of the whole person and of all humanity. This principle is not opposed to the right to private property but indicates the need to regulate it. Private property, in fact, regardless of the concrete forms of the regulations and juridical norms relative to it, is in its essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods; in the final analysis, therefore, it is not an end but a means.
178. The Church’s social teaching moreover calls for recognition of the social function of any form of private ownership that clearly refers to its necessary relation to the common good. Man “should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others”. The universal destination of goods entails obligations on how goods are to be used by their legitimate owners. Individual persons may not use their resources without considering the effects that this use will have, rather they must act in a way that benefits not only themselves and their family but also the common good. From this there arises the duty on the part of owners not to let the goods in their possession go idle and to channel them to productive activity, even entrusting them to others who are desirous and capable of putting them to use in production.
179. The present historical period has placed at the disposal of society new goods that were completely unknown until recent times. This calls for a fresh reading of the principle of the universal destination of the goods of the earth and makes it necessary to extend this principle so that it includes the latest developments brought about by economic and technological progress. The ownership of these new goods — the results of knowledge, technology and know-how — becomes ever more decisive, because “the wealth of the industrialized nations is based much more on this kind of ownership than on natural resources”.
New technological and scientific knowledge must be placed at the service of mankind’s primary needs, gradually increasing humanity’s common patrimony. Putting the principle of the universal destination of goods into full effect therefore requires action at the international level and planned programmes on the part of all countries. “It is necessary to break down the barriers and monopolies which leave so many countries on the margins of development, and to provide all individuals and nations with the basic conditions which will enable them to share in development”.
180. If forms of property unknown in the past take on significant importance in the process of economic and social development, nonetheless, traditional forms of property must not be forgotten. Individual property is not the only legitimate form of ownership. The ancient form of community property also has a particular importance; though it can be found in economically advanced countries, it is particularly characteristic of the social structure of many indigenous peoples. This is a form of property that has such a profound impact on the economic, cultural and political life of those peoples that it constitutes a fundamental element of their survival and well-being. The defence and appreciation of community property must not exclude, however, an awareness of the fact that this type of property also is destined to evolve. If actions were taken only to preserve its present form, there would be the risk of tying it to the past and in this way compromising it.
An equitable distribution of land remains ever critical, especially in developing countries and in countries that have recently changed from systems based on collectivities or colonization. In rural areas, the possibility of acquiring land through opportunities offered by labour and credit markets is a necessary condition for access to other goods and services. Besides constituting an effective means for safeguarding the environment, this possibility represents a system of social security that can be put in place also in those countries with a weak administrative structure.
181. To the subjects, whether individuals or communities, that exercise ownership of various types of property accrue a series of objective advantages: better living conditions, security for the future, and a greater number of options from which to choose. On the other hand, property may also bring a series of deceptive promises that are a source of temptation. Those people and societies that go so far as to absolutize the role of property end up experiencing the bitterest type of slavery. In fact, there is no category of possession that can be considered indifferent with regard to the influence that it may have both on individuals and on institutions. Owners who heedlessly idolize their goods (cf. Mt 6:24, 19:21-26; Lk 16:13) become owned and enslaved by them. Only by recognizing that these goods are dependent on God the Creator and then directing their use to the common good, is it possible to give material goods their proper function as useful tools for the growth of individuals and peoples.
 See Jose María Díez-Alegría, “Ownership and Labour: The Development of Papal Teaching,” in Rerum Novarum: One Hundred Years of Catholic Social Teaching, ed. John Coleman and Gregory Baum (London: SCM Press, 1991), 18. Díez-Alegría insists that Leo RN has simply misunderstood or misconstrued the teaching of Aquinas on this point.