By its very nature, private property has a social quality deriving from the law of the communal purpose of earthly goods.
—Gaudium et Spes
What does the institution of private property—where some things are “mine” and others are “yours”—have to do with the fact that all of creation is the gift of God? This essay examines the understanding of private property found in Catholic social thought, and in particular addresses how that understanding is shaped by the doctrine of divine creation. In the first part, I explained the basics of the Catholic view, including the claim that property rights are limited by “the right to common use.” In this second half, I explore two applications of this view: 1) the principle that “need makes common,” and 2) the goal of “socializing” the means of production.
In the first part of this essay, we examined how Catholic social thought grounds property in divine creation and the freedom of human persons. The right to private property is genuine, but it is limited and conditional, and it is subordinated to the right to common use.
Two sets of questions arise given this basic account of property. The first concerns political economy. What political principles follow from the fact that goods are meant for everyone? What policies of political economy are consistent with the right to common use? What does a just system of ownership look like? These questions are not of mere theoretical interest, for we are members of political communities. We are participants in political economies. In asking these questions, we are asking how to order our political life in accordance with the dignity of all persons. And we have no choice but to order our common life in one way or another-to support this-rather-than-that policy on taxes, or natural resources, or foreign aid, or land distribution, and so on.
In addition to these political questions, a second set of questions pertains to us as individuals and as members of more local communities. How should we-as families, churches, or firms-use our property? What do we owe to others, in light of the fact that nature is a gift of God for the benefit of everyone? How should the right to common use affect our personal spending and saving, or the arrangements of our corporations?
Answering these questions is a vast task. We can make progress by formulating principles that will guide our thought on these matters. In contemporary Catholic social thought, two such principles are: 1) that extreme need supersedes private ownership, and 2) that the means of production should be “socialized.” These principles have immediate and significant implications for both our political economies and our personal practices.
Need has made it common
Since antiquity, Christian approaches to ownership have emphasized that rights of property are superseded by claims of extreme need. Consider, for example, Aquinas’s discussion of theft in the Summa Theologica. At one point, Aquinas asks “whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need.”1 His answer is that there is no sin in taking what otherwise belongs to another in cases of extreme need, because the good in question is no longer the property of their original owner—”for need has made it common.”
Such taking is not properly termed “stealing” or “theft”: “It is not theft properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need.” To justify this position, Aquinas appeals to natural human rights, and the natural purpose of material goods to serve human needs.
Modern Catholic social thought follows Aquinas, and earlier Christian theologians, on this point. Cases of extreme need set a strict limit on property rights. This means not only that those in extreme poverty are justified in taking resources, but that those with resources must provide and not withhold them: “No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities.”2
This is not a point about generosity. Generosity is about freely sharing with others what belongs to me. In cases of extreme need, however, the goods in question do not belong to me. Rather, need has made them common. And this is because the original and fundamental purpose of material goods is the well-being of all people. Goods have been given by God to all and for all. They are legitimately, but only conditionally, available for private ownership. One of the conditions for ownership is that others are not in extreme need. When there is extreme need, the erstwhile private property becomes common property. This is not because of the choice or generosity of the (former) owner of those goods, but because of the need itself.
Thus the demand to provide resources to a person in extreme need is a demand of justice—of giving to another what is, by right, her due. As Ambrose says: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself.”3 The limit on private property is not set by the virtue of charity, but by the other’s right to enjoy the gifts of creation.
The principle that need makes common is flagrantly violated by our contemporary laws and personal practices. Consider only the most extreme cases of need in which persons die because of poverty. According to UNICEF, nearly 10 million children under five years old die each year from causes related to poverty. And poverty-related causes claim the lives of another 8 million older children and adults each year.
In 2006, industrialized nations contributed an average of .46% of their gross national income to foreign aid—that is, 46 cents for every $100 of income earned. Surveys show that most Americans believe think foreign aid accounts for 15% to 20% of government spending. In reality, it accounts for less than 1%. And it makes up only .18% of gross national income (18 cents for every $100 earned). What about private giving toward global poverty? In the United States, donations for foreign aid make up only 4.3% of all charitable giving. Of the donations Americans make to religious institutions, less than 10% goes to aid for developing countries. All together, private philanthropy for foreign aid amounts to .07% of gross national income—7 cents for every $100 of income.4
We who are Americans like to think of ourselves as generous toward the world’s poor. As a political community, however, this is simply not the case. Nor is it the case for private individuals and groups, some exceptions aside.
More importantly, discussing extreme poverty in terms of “generosity” is itself misleading. For it obscures the fact that basic goods belong by right to those in need. We often think of acts of generosity as laudable but optional—helping those in extreme need is praiseworthy, but not something anyone could insist we must do. According to Catholic social thought, this mindset is utterly mistaken. It overlooks the conditional nature of private ownership and neglects the core principle that need makes common.
Clearly the sources of extreme poverty are complex. Figuring out how best to assist the poor is a difficult task. By itself, the principle that need makes common is not an argument for particular social policies or individual choices. But this does not change the fact that aiding those in extreme need is a strict demand of justice. In the simple and severe words of Gaudium et Spes:
The right to have a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone . . . Since there are so many people in this world afflicted with hunger, this sacred Council urges all, both individuals and governments, to remember the saying of the Fathers: “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him you have killed him.”
Part-owner of the great workbench
The principle that need makes common is a principle for very bad times. It applies when persons face serious deprivation. In Laborem Exercens, John Paul II discusses a principle for good times—an ideal of ownership for flourishing human labour. This ideal says that the means of production should undergo socialization.
In formulating principles of just ownership, we must pay special attention to the dignity of human persons as workers. The right to ownership is based in human freedom, and one important sphere of freedom is precisely economic activity—those activities whereby we work with others to produce and procure the means of life. While humans work to secure the means of life, their labour has value over and above the goods produced: “[Work] is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it.”5 Work expresses and increases human dignity, because in work a human being expresses herself as a person—as a free and rational being.
Some of the things that humans produce, like beer and bread, are meant for consumption. Others, like books and guitars, are instruments for activities like scholarship, art, and worship. Still others are made for use in further economic production—like tractors, mining drills, computer servers, office buildings. Things in this third class are the means of production, or capital.
John Paul II argues that the dignity of human work requires the priority of labour over capital. This principle states that within an economic system, the working persons are of primary importance, and everything else is subordinate to them. Human work possesses a special dignity—it is of final, rather than merely instrumental, value. In contrast, capital—”the whole collection of the means of production”—is merely a means, an instrument in service of human labour. Workers are the ends.6
Because labour is prior to capital, just ownership of the means of production is conditional upon capital-serving labour:
The only legitimate title to their [the means of production] possession—whether in the form of private ownership or in the form of public or collective ownership—is that they should serve labour, and thus, by serving labour, that they should make possible the achievement of the first principle of this order, namely, the universal destination of goods and the right to common use of them.7
One way in which capital must serve labour is by respecting the basic rights of workers. These rights specify what workers are due from their employers and from political authorities, in light of the dignity of human labour. They include such rights as the right to a living wage, the right to find work, and the right to security in periods of unemployment. These rights set limits upon the just ownership of the means of production.
In addition, John Paul II argues that the priority of labour over capital requires the means of production to be socialized. By “socialization,” John Paul II does not mean state ownership of the means of production. Rather, socializing means that workers have genuine control and responsibility over the means of production: “We can speak of socializing only when the subject character of society is ensured, that is to say, when on the basis of his work each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everyone else.”
The goal of socializing the means of production is for the economic system to express the autonomy and personality of workers. For this to happen, workers must have a share in decision-making. They must be able to influence the character of their labour, rather than merely passively accepting the conditions offered to them. Socializing the means of production sets limits on individual ownership to ensure that the workers themselves have control and responsibility over their work. Socialization requires “associating labour with the ownership of capital, as far as possible.” As possible avenues for socialization, John Paul II mentions “proposals for joint ownership of the means of work, sharing by the workers in the management and/or profits of businesses, so-called shareholding by labour, etc.”
Only when the means of production are properly socialized can the activity of labour embody the freedom and responsibility of the workers. For this reason, the socialization of the means of production is a demand of human dignity and a requirement of justice.
Moreover, socializing the means of production is necessary for humans to realize the divine intention for human labour. Work is not simply something that humans must do in order to survive. Rather, productive activity is something to which human beings are called by God, and work is a form of participation in divine creativity. In carrying out the divine mandate to “subdue the earth,” the human person “reflects the very action of the creator of the universe.”8 And as Paul VI emphasizes, the creative dimension of work applies to all who labour: “God, who has endowed man with intelligence, imagination, and sensitivity, has also given him the means of completing his work in a certain way: whether he be artist or craftsman, engage in management, industry or agriculture, everyone who works is a creator.”9
The creative dimension of work is stifled when workers have little control over the means of production. For without such control, workers are unable to influence how, when, and why they work. Genuine socialization makes it possible for labour to be a sphere of creativity, in keeping with the divine purpose and human dignity.
John Paul II does not rule out state ownership of the means of production. At the same time, however, state ownership is neither necessary nor sufficient for achieving the true goal of socialization—free and creative labour, with control and responsibility over one’s own work:
Taking these means of production (capital) out of the hands of their private owners is not enough to ensure their satisfactory socialization. They cease to be the property of a certain social group, namely the private owners, and become the property of organized society, coming under the administration and direct control of another group of people, namely those who, though not owning them, from the fact of exercising power in society manage them on the level of the whole national or the local economy.10
At the same time, socialization cannot be achieved in a system that treats labour as a mere commodity, failing to recognize the priority of labour over capital. Nor can socialization occur if we treat as unconditional the right to own the means of production. Such unbridled “free market” economic systems must be rejected:
In this sense, it is right to speak of a struggle against an economic system, if the latter is understood as a method of upholding the absolute predominance of capital, the possession of the means of production and of the land, in contrast to the free and personal nature of human work.11
Here I have only scratched the surface of a Christian conception of ownership. But I hope to have given some sense of what, according to Catholic social thought, a just system of ownership will look like—a society in which extreme need takes precedence over private property, and where work embodies the responsibility and creativity of the workers. This vision of economic life is reasonable and just. It is also beautiful. It is a vision in which God’s good gifts abound to all, and economic relations respect the dignity of every person.
II.II Q 66. Art. 7.
Paul VI Populorum Progressio sec. 23.
Quoted by Paul VI in Populorum Progressio.
These statistics are widely available. I have taken them from The Life you Can Save by Peter Singer (NY: Random House, 2009). See especially chapter three: “Common Objections to Giving.”
Laborem Exercens sec 12.
In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post (Sept 5, 2011), E.J. Dionne pointed out that Abraham Lincoln also insisted on the priority of labour over capital. Dionne quotes the following from Lincoln’s annual message to Congress in 1861: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Dionne also mentions John Paul II’s insistence on the priority of labour in Laborem Exercens.
Laborem Exercens sec 14.
Laborem Exercens sec 4.
Populorum Progressio sec 4.
Laborem Exercens sec 14.
Centessiumus Annus sec 35.