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 explain the basics of the Catholic view, including the claim that property rights are limited by “the right to common use.” In the 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.
The World is Given to All
In season two of The Simpsons, Mr. Burns has come to dinner. Homer asks Bart to say grace for their meal. To the shock of those present, Bart prays, “Dear God, we paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”1 This anti-grace is humorous because of the incongruity between what we are accustomed to expect and what actually happens. We are ready for a perfunctory show of reverence, and what follows instead is a statement of bald irreverence.
And Bart’s prayer also contains a grain of truth. After all, the Simpsons—like most of us—have paid for their dinner, not received it for free. Homer has worked to earn the money to buy their food. Marge has purchased and prepared the meal. So Bart seems to be on to something: Why should we give thanks for a meal, as if it were gift, when in fact it has been earned and acquired?
The answer, according to Christians and other theists, is that all our efforts are based in the good gifts of God. The resources of creation make our labours possible, and these resources are a gift. The skill and energy with which we work is a gift. Everything we have, and indeed our own selves, are gifts from the Creator. And thus, contrary to Bart’s ingratitude, Christians pray, “It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” And in the words of the Old Testament (1 Chronicles 29:14), Christians confess, “All things come from thee, Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”
So belief in divine creation leads us to give thanks for our daily bread. And it does more than this. For belief in creation also shapes the Christian understanding of human economic activity—of how we should produce and procure our daily bread. The relevance of creation for economics is especially clear in the case of contemporary Catholic social thought. The Catholic view of labour and economics begins with an interpretation of Genesis. God has created humans in his own image and likeness, endowing us with reason and freedom. And God calls humans to work to subdue the earth and thereby to participate in his creative activity.
This doctrine of creation might seem like Sunday-school commonplace, but it has significant implications in Catholic social thought. In particular, the doctrine of creation shapes the Catholic conception of private property. Consider, for example, the following passage from Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio:
To quote Saint Ambrose: “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. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.” That is, private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditional right. No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities.2
How we understand private property is crucial for how we understand socioeconomic justice. The conception of private property found in Catholic social thought is sharply at odds with contemporary economic practice and current “common sense” about the “free market” and its virtues. To adopt the Catholic Christian view would require drastic changes in the world’s political economies and in our personal practices. It would, for example, impact laws governing the ownership of land. As Paul VI goes on to say in the same passage, “If certain landed estates impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused, or poorly used, or because they bring hardship to people or are detrimental to the interests of the county, the common good sometimes demands their expropriation.”
And yet, the Catholic conception of private property is rooted in the simple conviction that everything in creation—including ourselves—is the good gift of God. Thus a radical view of property springs from the same conviction as does the simple act of saying grace before a meal.
So how do we move from a Christian view of divine creation to a particular conception of property and just ownership? To understand this transition within Catholic social thought, we need to investigate several important concepts: divine gift, human freedom, and common goods.
A design of love and truth
Like other animals, humans have to work in order to survive. Human economic activity includes those activities that aim to produce and procure the means of life—like cultivating crops, building roads and ships and hospitals, exchanging goods and services. Such activities require effort, and often hard labour. As God says to Adam in Genesis, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.”
Even so, we do not pull ourselves up by our own economic bootstraps, whether individually or collectively. Rather, all economic activity begins by appropriating the resources of nature. And nature is a gift that we did not create or earn. In economics, as elsewhere, divine gift is prior to human effort. As Benedict XVI says, “Nature expresses a design of love and truth. It is prior to us, and it has been given to us by God as the setting for our life . . . Nature is at our disposal not as ‘a heap of scattered refuse,’ but as a gift of the Creator who has given it an inbuilt order, enabling man to draw from it the principles needed in order ‘to till it and keep it’ (Gen 2:15).”3
Moreover, the Christian tradition has long emphasized that the gifts of nature are given to all human beings. Following John Paul II, we can call this “the universal destination of material goods,” as in: “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.”4 This view of material goods has major consequences for ownership, and in turn major consequences for economic justice.
We tend to think of economic exchanges as based in strict reciprocity: I give you something in return for something you give me. And I give it to you only on the condition that you supply me something that is worth what I am giving you, something that “merits” what I provide.5 Such exchanges assume a system of private property—they take place against a background of things already divided between “mine” and “yours.” On the Catholic Christian view, however, neither strict reciprocity nor private property is basic, and neither can be taken for granted. God’s gift is prior to, and sets limits upon, reciprocity and property.
At the core of Catholic social thought is a conception of the human person, made in the image of God, and destined for fulfillment in relationship to other human beings and to the Creator. As persons, all human beings possess inviolable rights and universal duties of justice. To this conception of the human person, the universal destination of material goods adds the idea that God gives the earth’s resources to us, not to you or to me. And God intends material goods to further the flourishing of each and every human person.
Thus if there is to be a just system of private property—if anything is to be, in justice, “mine” or “yours”—the system must ensure that material goods flow to all in a way that respects human dignity and the equal value of every person’s flourishing. As Paul VI wrote in 1967, two years after the Second Vatican Council:
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. Thus, as all men follow justice and unite in charity, created goods should abound for them on a reasonable basis.” All other rights whatsoever, including those of property and of free commerce, are to be subordinated to this principle.6
Private property is a derivative category for economic thought rather than a fundamental one. It must be understood in terms of more basic notions, including divine creation and human dignity. Likewise, the right to property is not unconditional. This right is always limited by the equal claims of others to benefit from the resources of creation:
Christian tradition has never upheld this right [to ownership] 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 creation: The right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.7
In stark contrast to dominant modes of thinking, Catholic social thought does not uncritically accept private property as a basic “fact” of economic life. On the contrary, given the universal destination of material goods, how any private property could be justified should look puzzling. If God has given the resources of nature to us, and if there is a “right common to all to use the goods of the whole creation,” how could I ever claim something as exclusively “mine”?
An extension of human freedom
One of the most influential arguments for private property, formulated by Aristotle in his Politics, is that resources are more carefully managed by individuals who possess them as their own. This line of thought was endorsed by Aquinas and it survives in contemporary discussions of the “tragedy of the commons.” Modern Catholic social thought does not reject this argument, but emphasizes a more fundamental justification for private property: human freedom.
Human beings are free and rational. We guide ourselves according to our grasp of what is good—our actions are not determined by non-rational instincts. We are self-directing, autonomous creatures. We are creative, capable of giving shape to our lives and our environments.
However, if we are to flourish as free and rational, we must have a measure of control over our lives. Human autonomy requires a sphere in which we can realize our choices and pursue our projects over time. Because we are embodied creatures, we need control over more than our inner thoughts and feelings: our autonomy is expressed in how we shape and employ material reality. And a system of private property provides individuals with control over material things. For the point of ownership is to ensure that a person has more-or-less exclusive control over the use and transmission of certain goods. Thus the justification of a right to property lies in the need to respect human autonomy—in the rationality and freedom of the human person:
Private ownership or some other kind of dominion over material goods provides everyone with a wholly necessary area of independence, and should be regarded as an extension of human freedom.8
To see the connection between ownership and autonomy, imagine that you did not have the right to control any material goods. Suppose everything that is now “yours”—clothes, books, bicycle, and so on—could be, in justice, used by anyone who so desired. It would be difficult to plan beyond your most immediate goals. Long-terms projects would become impossible, as would the care and creativity that those projects embody. Human freedom would be drastically curtailed. So we can see why John Paul II says that the right to private property is “fundamental for the autonomy and development of the person.”9
This does not mean, however, that all systems of ownership are legitimate. Every system of ownership embodies a conception of property—it specifies when and how a person may regard something as “hers,” and what rights and duties follow from ownership. If a system of property is acceptable from the viewpoint of justice, its conception of property must respect human freedom and the equal claim of all persons to enjoy nature’s resources.
Common Use and the Common Good
What, then, will a just system of ownership look like? That question is the topic of the next part of this essay. Before moving on, however, it is important to distinguish between two claims: 1) that the earth’s resources are given in common to all—”the right to common use,” and 2) that “the common good” is the aim of the political community. Catholic social thought endorses both of these claims and finds a connection between them. The former is a claim about creation: nature’s gifts are given by God for the good of every person. The latter is a claim about the purpose and justification of the political community—”the political community exists for that common good in which the community finds its full justification and meaning, and from which it derives its pristine and proper right.”10
The common good is the telos of political life, the goal to be realized by the political community. As Catholic social thought understands it, the common good is not in competition with the good of individuals. Rather it is “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment.”11 Far from being in tension with individual rights, the common good “is best safeguarded when personal rights and duties are guaranteed. The chief concern of civil authorities must therefore be to ensure that these rights are recognized, respected, coordinated, defended and promoted, and that each individual is enabled to perform his duties more easily.”12
Because human freedom justifies individual ownership, a system of ownership is one aspect of the common good. Because it is the task of civil authorities to promote the common good, one job of governments is to maintain a just system of ownership. Such a system recognizes the right to common use of the earth’s resources. It subordinates an individual’s right to property and free commerce to the demand that created goods abound to all on a reasonable basis. To determine what such a system involves, we need to articulate goals and principles for personal and political life—and that is the task of part two of this essay.
The Simpsons “Two Cars In Every Garage And Three Eyes On Every Fish” Episode
, Season 2 First aired Nov 01, 1990 Written by Sam Simon, John Swartzwelder. Directed by Wesley Archer.
Paul VI Populorum Progressio sec. 22-23.
Caritas in Veritate sec 48.
Centessimus Annus sec 31.
In contrast, one does not give a gift in order to receive something of “equal value.” Nor does one give on the condition that something equally valuable is provided in return. Benedect XVI: “Gift by its nature goes beyond merit, its rule is that of superabundance.” Caritas in Veritate sec 34.
Populorum Progressio sec 22.
Laborem Exercens sec 14.
Gaudium et Spes sec 71.
Centessimus Annus sec 30.
Gaudium et Spes sec 74. See also Mater et Magistra sec 54.
Gaudium et Spes sec 26.
Pacem in Terris sec 60.