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Andrew V. Abela | author
Jun 01, 2011
Filed under Ethics
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Private property and Catholic teaching

Dr. Andrew V. Abela writes that the Catholic Church has always defended citizens’ right to private property. In fact, the Church teaches that the right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether . . .

Dr. Andrew Abela

With the current debate about increasing taxes, it’s worth taking a step back to look at what the Church says about private property. Is private property legitimate? Are there any limits to ownership? Are there limits to taxation?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind,” so the goods of creation are for the benefit of all. The Church teaches that this is to be achieved through private property, which “is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs” (#2402). This emphasis on private property as necessary for human freedom comes from the Second Vatican Council: “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” (Gaudium et Spes, 71; emphasis added).

The Church recognizes that if you are politically free but have no wealth or savings, then you are not really free at all. If you are dependent for your housing, your health care, your next meal, on government or your employer, then really, how free are you? This is why the right to private property “has always been defended by the Church up to our own day,” as Blessed John Paul II wrote in Centesimus Annus (#30).

But he went on to say that “the possession of material goods is not an absolute right.” Why not? Because, since the goods of creation are for the good of all, the reason we own private property is to serve others with it, and therefore our right to property doesn’t extend to hoarding or wasting it. So, “‘man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all,’ because ‘above the laws and judgments of men stands the law, the judgment of Christ. God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone.’” This is referred to as the “universal destination of created goods” (Centesimus Annus, 30-31; citing Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 22; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, II-II, q. 66).

Pope Benedict XVI emphasized this understanding of property as a basis for service to others in one of his early Angelus messages: “Telling the parable of the dishonest but very crafty administrator, Christ teaches his disciples the best way to use money and material riches, that is, to share them with the poor, thus acquiring their friendship, with a view to the Kingdom of Heaven” (Sept. 23, 2007).

So how do we do this? “No one, certainly, is obliged to assist others out of what is required for his own necessary use or for that of his family, or even to give to others what he himself needs to maintain his station in life becomingly and decently. But when the demands of necessity and propriety have been sufficiently met, it is a duty to give to the poor out of that which remains” (Rerum Novarum, 36).

Forty years later, Pius XI wrote that investing wealth in ways that creates work for others is an outstanding example of such munificence. (Quadragesimo Anno, 51).

The state has a role in contributing to the universal destination of goods where human generosity has not sufficiently risen to the task. John Paul II wrote that the state must contribute to the achievement of unemployment support, adequate wage levels and humane working conditions, “both directly and indirectly. Indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarity, by creating favorable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity. Directly and according to the principle of solidarity, by defending the weakest, by placing certain limits on the autonomy of the parties who determine working conditions, and by ensuring in every case the necessary minimum support for the unemployed worker” (Centesimus Annus, 15).

The universal destination of created goods should not, however, be seen as a license to the state to take over the management of private property because, as Pope Benedict warned, “The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person — every person — needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need” (Deus Caritas Est, 28).

Similarly, the role of private property in achieving the universal destination of goods will only work “provided that a man’s means be not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation.

The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether. The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair” (Rerum Novarum, 47).

A charter member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter, Andrew V. Abela, Ph.D., is chairman of the Business and Economics department at the Catholic University of America.

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