Property and People: The ongoing relevance of an oft-forgotten church teaching
We forget many things. Usually, they do not disappear completely from memory; they just lie buried under countless other things. From time to time they rise to the surface, but quickly fall back into oblivion. When reminded about forgotten things, we often say, “Oh yes, now I remember; but I haven’t thought about that in ages!”
One of these oft-forgotten truths, the universal destination of material goods, is extremely relevant today, especially in societies like the United States and Western Europe, where we defend the right to private property almost always without question.
Pope Francis is reminding us of it. In “Laudato Si’” he cites St. John Paul II: “The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and ‘the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.’”
He returned to the theme in Bolivia in July 2015, a few months after the publication of “Laudato Si’”: “The universal destination of goods is not a figure of speech found in the church’s social teaching. It is a reality prior to private property. Property, especially when it affects natural resources, must always serve the needs of peoples.”
While welcomed by many, this assertion has also aroused strong negative reactions. Calmer voices have pointed out that the universal destination of material goods has been part of the church’s teaching for centuries, though, in candor, one must admit that it has often been a “forgotten truth.”
Actually, negative reactions to this teaching are not new. In early centuries, some bishops who preached on the theme met with exile and death. In modern times, sharp criticisms have frequently greeted encyclicals that touched on the matter.
On March 26, 1967, for example, “Populorum Progressio” called for “concrete action toward each person’s complete development and the development of all humankind.” In a quick, strong reaction, The Wall Street Journal labeled the encyclical “warmed-over Marxism,” as if it were a radical departure from previous Catholic thinking. Paragraph 22 was the focal point of the criticism: “The recent Council reminded us of this: ‘God intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of every human being and people....’ All other rights whatsoever, including those of property and of free commerce, are to be subordinated to this principle.”
This is hardly a radical departure from prior Christian teaching, as critics have suggested; rather, the universal destination of material goods or the social function of property is a long-standing tenet in Christian thought.
What Do the Scriptures Say?
It is clear from the Old Testament that God is the sole king of Israel and sole lord of the soil. God apportions land to God’s people as its stewards. To use the more affective language favored by Pope Francis, Yahweh’s people are to care for the land.
God protects the land and, through the Seventh and Tenth Commandments and other prescriptions, guarantees it as the private property of those to whom it has been given. But private property also has a religious and social thrust. One’s property must be used for tithing, for offering sacrifice and for giving alms to the poor. Legislation on interest-taking, gleaning and the sabbatical year emphasizes the social responsibility of those holding private property.
In the New Testament, many sayings of Jesus address the use of property to aid one’s brothers and sisters. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that since the form of this world is passing away, they should possess as if not possessing. The ideal picture of the primitive community in Acts shows Christians so bound together in selfless love that they voluntarily hold all things in common, so that those in need have their share. The motive behind the Christian attitude toward property is clear from Acts and Second Corinthians: the conviction that this community, founded on Jesus’ love and his two-fold command, must be a fellowship of brothers and sisters.
These are merely indications, but clear ones, that if Christian love is to permeate all human coexistence, then it must be given flesh on the level of owning too; that if human love is to be the love of an embodied spirit, then it must manifest itself in the material possessions that are a necessary extension of corporeality.
Creation Is for All to Use
The early Christian writers do not consider the right of private property as the basic norm in considering a Christian’s relationship to material goods; rather, what is primary is that God created the world for the use of all. The human person is primarily the guardian and steward of goods; only secondarily is he or she their owner.
The Didache, written toward the end of the first century, clearly reflects the early Christian attitude toward property and its use: “Do not turn away from the needy; rather, share everything with your brother, and do not say: ‘It is private property.’”
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) strongly emphasizes the prime importance of the common destiny of material goods: “It is God himself who has brought our race to possession in common, by sharing himself first of all, and by sending his word to all alike, and by making all things for all. Therefore, everything is common, and the rich should not grasp a greater share.”
Ambrose (339-97) also emphasizes the primacy of the common destiny of created goods. He argues from the natural order: “God has ordered all things to be produced, so that there should be food in common to all, and that the earth should be a common possession for all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for a few.” Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) lists the common possession of material goods as a natural-law right, alongside the right to acquire goods.
In summary, it is clear that early Christian writers, while recognizing the right of private property, strongly emphasize the destiny of material goods for all; they see the social function of property as the primary moral norm. Ambrose and others stress this norm so much that they declare that material help is owed to the poor person in justice.
Need Is Crucial
St. Thomas Aquinas reflects the same tradition. He writes that nature as such is indifferent to private ownership. But rational reflection shows the necessity of private property in our fallen state. In the Summa Theologiae he distinguishes between the right to private property and its use. Nature prescribes the preservation of peace, the maintenance of order and the encouragement of human industry as necessary ends. Reason shows that the best way of attaining these ends is through the institution of private property. Private property is therefore commanded by the secondary principles of natural law. Still, nature does not determine who shall own what. The determination of specific property rights is the concern of positive law.
It is noteworthy that this defense of private property is conditional. It sees the right to private property as necessary in our fallen state and as the most rational way of preserving peace. But in the same article St. Thomas adds forcefully: “The second thing that is competent to man with regard to external things is their use. In this respect, man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, namely, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need.”
Aquinas’s approach is subtle. His point of departure is the general necessity of material goods as a means for the human person’s self-realization. The right of individuals to own material goods is a corollary of this, given our sinful human condition. But the right to the use of material goods is primordial and superior: each person, because he or she is a person, is entitled to a share of the means necessary for his or her wellbeing.
The Social Aspect of Property
The social encyclicals “Rerum Novarum” (1891), “Quadragesimo Anno” (1931), “Mater et Magistra” (1961) and “Pacem in Terris” (1963) take up the theme with increasing force. At Vatican II, the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” (1965) makes the strongest statement up to that time on the common purpose of created things: “God intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of every human being and people.... Whatever the forms of ownership may be...attention must always be paid to the universal purpose for which created goods are meant.”
St. John Paul II defended the theme vigorously on many occasions, but especially in “Centesimus Annus” (1991). He calls the right to the common use of goods the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order” and “the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by St. John Paul II in 1992, summarizes this theme carefully:
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.... 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.... Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good.
Some Implications of the Universal Destiny of Material Goods
From the evidence presented above, it is clear that Pope Francis’ statements about the universal destination of material goods, while striking for their strength and urgency, are by no means revolutionary in a theological sense; rather, they echo a strong, though sometimes forgotten, strain in Christian tradition. But Francis’ views are revolutionary in this sense: that their application would produce radical changes in social structures. In the interest of stimulating discussion, let me propose 10 considerations, some containing crucial questions.
First, to summarize the matter briefly, a long Catholic Church tradition about the universal destiny of material goods, described above, states that the right to private property must be conditioned by the right of all to have a just share in the universe’s material goods.
Second, Pope Paul VI’s statement in “Populorum Progressio” has played a pivotal role in recent official Catholic teaching on the universal destination of material goods. It has been cited again and again: “All other rights whatsoever, including those of property and of free commerce, are to be subordinated to this principle.”
Third, even more forcefully, St. John Paul II calls the right to the common use of goods the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order” and “the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine.”
Fourth, ethics are crucial in guiding the economic and social choices that determine how various rights are to be balanced. Adequate solutions will be found only in ethical choices made by individuals, groups and governments. Such choices will inevitably incorporate concrete elements from various “systems.” To address issues in general terms of systems like “capitalism,” “socialism” and “communism” is of little help. The bottom line is that no pure system exists and no “system” as such provides a solution. There is no pure capitalism, no pure socialism and no pure communism. In the concrete, all socioeconomic systems incorporate elements from other systems, though, of course, the mix varies considerably. If one condemns “unbridled capitalism,” for instance, the concrete question becomes: What “bridles” could make the system acceptable? If one condemns “totalitarian socialist governments,” then the question becomes: What about socialist states that are democratic?
Fifth, key questions requiring an ethical response are: What should the public sector (the state and the services it provides) and the private sector (N.G.O.’s, private firms, charities and individuals) do to provide a social safety net— that is, to prevent people who are vulnerable to disasters, displacement, unemployment and poverty from falling below a certain socioeconomic level? What can the public and private sectors do to reduce the huge gap between the rich and the poor within countries, and between rich nations and poor nations?
Sixth, one of the clearest optics for understanding Francis is the final document from the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007. Pope Francis, serving as the chairperson of its editorial committee, was a key figure in preparing the document. He later described it as “the ‘Evangelii Nuntiandi’ of Latin America.” “Laudato Si’” echoes many of its themes. In the words of Aparecida: How might society “pursue an alternative development model, one that is comprehensive and communal, based on an ethics that includes responsibility for an authentic natural and human ecology...?” “Laudato Si’” repeats this question and expands on it. How might society redouble its efforts to enact government policies and also promote private sector involvement to assure the protection, conservation and restoration of nature? What is the most appropriate forum for deciding how to monitor the application of international environmental standards within particular countries?
Seventh, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that goods of production—material or immaterial—like land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number. It emphasizes that those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for the migrant, the sick and the poor. It asserts that for the sake of the common good, political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership.
Eighth, to put the principle of the universal destination of material goods into practice concretely, we must further ask: How can clean water be made readily available to all? Basic health care? Basic education? How can all be provided with the opportunity to work at a just wage? Have access to adequate housing? What are valid criteria for land reform?
Ninth, might the Catholic Church, which is in fact a large landowner in many countries, be not only a thought leader in regard to the universal destination of material goods but also a leader of practice, as Pope Francis has suggested? While leadership through teaching is very significant, leadership through witness is all the more so.
Tenth, Pope Francis is convinced that a basic spirituality underlies this entire discussion. He regards such a spirituality as central to living out the biblical call to care for creation and to share material goods justly with our brothers and sisters in need. The pope calls for the creation of an ecological culture in which we adopt a “distinctive way of looking at things, a way of thinking, policies, an educational program, a lifestyle and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm.” In his recent trip to the United States, he emphasized the importance and interconnectedness of land, lodging and labor, all essential to a truly human life. He has consistently affirmed that a cultural transformation is the only lasting way to counter widespread poverty.
If we are convinced of the universal destination of material goods, a largely forgotten truth, such a transformation will be possible.