Thursday, September 16, 2010

Is private property natural?


25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 16:1-13

“If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?”

The Church has given us the parable of the dishonest steward in conjunction with a most challenging portion of the book of the prophet Amos. The prophet condemns those who would take advantage of the poor and who would rather purchase luxuries than assist the poor in their need (Am 8:4-7). From this perspective, our Lord’s parable takes on an aspect of social justice which might not at first be noticed. We are to imitate the steward not in his dishonesty, but in his generosity in forgiving debts and distributing the material goods at our disposal. Moreover, this is the interpretation which many of the Father’s of the Church had given this parable: As the dishonest steward distributed the goods which his master gave him, so too we are to generously distribute to the poor the material goods we have been given by God (cf. Ambrose, Basil, Theopholis, Augustine, Gregory the Great, John Chrysostom, and others).

However, there is a more fundamental question which this parable raises: If the goods we possess are from God and if the Lord calls our material possessions “what belongs to another,” we ask whether there is any room for private property. Is private property natural? Do we have a right to possess material goods as our own? The answer St. Thomas Aquinas (and the Church’s Magisterium following him) gives to this question is most enlightening.


The common destination of created goods

Earlier, I wrote an article dealing with the duty of the rich to give to the poor, you can read that article here. Now, I would like to simply summarize the Church’s teaching on the question. First we must recognize that, according to the nature of all created things, no material reality is subject to man’s power, but only to the power of God whom all things must obey. However, as regards their use, created things are subject to man by reason of his intellect and will – man is able to use material things for his own profit and to provide for his needs. It is in this sense that man has a natural dominion over other creatures. (ST II-II, q.66, a.1)

Now, when we consider the use which man is required to make of created goods, we must affirm that it is lawful for a man to use material goods to his own benefit and to the benefit of his family. However, at the same time it must be maintained that the world was not given to any one man individually, but to all. Therefore, each and every man has a right to make use of the material world for his own benefit. Thus, no one has a right to possess more than he needs, if others around him are lacking their basic necessities. It is on this account that St. Thomas will tell us that the starving man who takes bread from a rich baker does not steal – the poor have a right to the goods of the rich! The rich, who maintain their riches for their own personal use, are stealing from the poor. (ST III, q.66, a.7).

Private property is not natural

St. Thomas tells us that private property is not natural, and this can be demonstrated by a simple example: If we consider any piece of land, there is nothing about it  according to nature which would make it to belong to any one more than any other (God gave the world to all men). Therefore, no one can claim any exclusive right to any material good by nature. There is nothing in the nature of any particular dollar bill that makes it to be mine rather than yours. (ST II-II, q.57, a.3)

This is the fundamental reason why, if the claim private property comes into conflict with the common destination of goods (i.e. if a rich baker’s claim to the bread in his bakery is challenged by the poor man’s claim to that bread) the principle of commonality always triumphs. Private property is not natural, it is not part of the natural law.

Private property is not un-natural, but part of positive law

While the right to private property is not something inherent in the nature of man or of the material creation at man’s disposal, neither is it un-natural. It is not contrary to the law of nature that one should make use of material goods for one’s own benefit. In fact, St. Thomas tells us that positive law (i.e. the law of the nation) must include a dispensation for private property. If all things were held in common, then there would be great disorder – since what is common to all is often cared for by none. Moreover, private property also helps to curb greed – for each is given incentive to maintain what is one’s own and each is discouraged from taking what is another’s. (ST II-II, q.66, a.2)

Thus, insofar as material goods are considered in regards to the manner of their being procured and dispensed, the state must have positive laws which allow for and protect private property. For this reason it is clear that communism is contrary to catholic social teaching.

However, if we consider material goods specifically in regards to their use – “man ought to possess external things, not as his own but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need.” (ST II-II, q.66, a.2) Thus, the rich are required to use their private property, not as though it were merely their own, but as though it belonged to the poor (for the excess wealth of the rich truly does belong to the poor). For this reason St. Paul said to Timothy: “Charge the rich of this world … to give easily, to communicate to others.” (1 Tim 6:17-18)

A word from St. Basil the Great on this Sunday’s Gospel parable: “Why are you rich while another is poor, unless it be that you may have the merit of a good stewardship, and he the reward of patience? … Whence have you your money? If indeed you answer, ‘From myself;’ you are ignorant of God, not having the knowledge of your Creator; but if, ‘From God,’ tell me the reason for which you receive it. Is not the earth and the fullness thereof the Lord’s? If then whatever is ours belongs to our common Lord, so will it also belong to our fellow-servant (the poor man).”

Magisterium

Gaudium et Spes: “God has intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of all people and all peoples. Hence justice, accompanied by charity, must so regulate the distribution of created goods that they are actually available to all in an equitable measure. […] Therefore, in using them everyone should consider legitimate possessions not only as their own but also as common property, in the sense that they should be able to profit not only themselves but other people as well.”

Paul VI (encyclical letter Populorum Progressio): “Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditional right. No one is justified in keeping for one’s exclusive use what one does not need, when others lack necessities.”

For further citations from the Magisterium and the Fathers of the Church, please see the earlier article Stealing from the poor.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hmm...Wha ever happend to "Thou shalt not steal?" Or to "bear the fruits of thy labour?"

Reginaldus said...

@Anonymous (Sept 26, 7:25am),
Thank you for reminding us of these two very important truths!

Indeed, the rich are stealing from the poor when they do not give alms. Stealing form the poor is always a sin and it is always mortal. The rich man went to hell, simply because he stole from Lazarus (i.e. he did not give alms).

"Bear the fruits of thy labour" -- you are quite right, one of the fruits of labor is the ability to give alms to the poor.

That is what you meant, isn't it?

Nick said...

Private property is part of the Natural Law, this is what the Church has taught in the face of Communism.

But it doesn't even have to be taught by the Church to be known. Reason is sufficient.

The poor man, by Natural Law, has a right to his own property just as the rich man does. If he did not, he could not receive alms, nor could the rich man give alms.

Do not forget the good of the person for the good of the community, nor vica-versa.

Reginaldus said...

Nick, I think you may be a bit confused about what St. Thomas (and the Church) teaches about private property.

The simple fact that people may own goods privately is certainly compatible with Natural Law -- but it is not demanded by it.
For example, it is not contrary to Natural Law that monks and nuns should renounce private property.
Moreover, there is nothing in the nature of a piece of land itself which makes it to belong to a particular person.
In this sense, private property IS NOT part of the Natural Law (contrary to what you wrote in your comment).

At the same time, as I state quite clearly, neither is private property un-natural or contrary to the Natural Law. Rather, private property is part of human law -- and it is the obligation of the State to provide for and safeguard the legitimate possession of private property.

Nevertheless, when grave need arises, all things are common -- hence, the abjectly poor man has a right to the "private property" of the rich. [this is the clear teaching of Gaudium et Spes, and St. Thomas Aquinas]

Nick said...

"The simple fact that people may own goods privately is certainly compatible with Natural Law -- but it is not demanded by it.
For example, it is not contrary to Natural Law that monks and nuns should renounce private property.
Moreover, there is nothing in the nature of a piece of land itself which makes it to belong to a particular person.
In this sense, private property IS NOT part of the Natural Law (contrary to what you wrote in your comment)."

Private property is part of the Natural Law because it is good to own what God has given to us, and the primary principal of the Natural Law is "do good, avoid evil." Moreover, man, by nature, has dominion over creation, which was created for man, so each person has a natural right to own goods.

The Evangelical Counsel of poverty is not proof that private property is not demanded of each person, because private property is simply not demanded of each person. What is more, the Counsels are not the same as the Commandments: the distinction is one of love.

Ergo God can call Mother Teresa to abandon her goods to serve the poor, yet at the same time supply her with some food to eat even when she is in the midst of the poor.

Reginaldus said...

Nick, That is a very interesting interpretation you have of God's gift to man of dominion over creation and that the world was created for man...you have concluded from the Genesis account that "each person has a natural right to own goods" ... meaning, to own goods privately.

Again, it is an interesting interpretation...one which I have never found in the writings of the Fathers of the Church...one which is actually quite radically different from that given by Papal Magisterium and Ecumenical Councils (especially Vat II)...

The "dominion" which God gives to man in Genesis 1 and 2 has, by Church Fathers and by Popes, been understood to imply the "universal destination of all goods" -- that is, these verses have traditionally been used to prove that all property, by nature, belongs to the human race as a whole and not to anyone individually...
In other words, the very passage which you are using to claim that private property is demanded by the Natural Law has been used by the Church to emphasize that private property is not an absolute right, but that all goods are naturally the property of all people...

Nick said...

"Again, it is an interesting interpretation...one which I have never found in the writings of the Fathers of the Church...one which is actually quite radically different from that given by Papal Magisterium and Ecumenical Councils (especially Vat II)..."

Well, I do find it interesting that the Church should say every person has a natural right to own property when she denounced Communism.

"In other words, the very passage which you are using to claim that private property is demanded by the Natural Law has been used by the Church to emphasize that private property is not an absolute right, but that all goods are naturally the property of all people..."

I did not claim absolute right, only natural right: I know the difference between "I don't have to give money to the poor!" and "I have to give money to the poor."

Nick said...

Surely these are they who, as the sacred Scriptures testify, "Defile the flesh, despise dominion and blaspheme majesty."(2) They leave nothing untouched or whole which by both human and divine laws has been wisely decreed for the health and beauty of life. They refuse obedience to the higher powers, to whom, according to the admonition of the Apostle, every soul ought to be subject, and who derive the right of governing from God; and they proclaim the absolute equality of all men in rights and duties. They debase the natural union of man and woman, which is held sacred even among barbarous peoples; and its bond, by which the family is chiefly held together, they weaken, or even deliver up to lust. Lured, in fine, by the greed of present goods, which is "the root of all evils, which some coveting have erred from the faith,"(3) they assail the right of property sanctioned by natural law; and by a scheme of horrible wickedness, while they seem desirous of caring for the needs and satisfying the desires of all men, they strive to seize and hold in common whatever has been acquired either by title of lawful inheritance, or by labor of brain and hands, or by thrift in one's mode of life. These are the startling theories they utter in their meetings, set forth in their pamphlets, and scatter abroad in a cloud of journals and tracts. Wherefore, the revered majesty and power of kings has won such fierce hatred from their seditious people that disloyal traitors, impatient of all restraint, have more than once within a short period raised their arms in impious attempt against the lives of their own sovereigns.
- Quod Apostolici Muneris

19. Secondly, 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.
- Mater Et Magistra

Reginaldus said...

Nick, What troubles me is that you are giving your comments as though they are contradicting the doctrine I have expounded in this article (which is founded on St. Thomas and Vatican II)...
Of course, the State cannot suppress private property...I have said as much above.
Obviously, all men have a right to own goods (I expressed this very clearly in my earlier article "Stealing from the poor").

The main issue I have with your comments is:
1) Your way of interpreting Scripture is not based on the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church or the references made by the Magisterium...rather, you are interpreting the Sacred Text in the bubble of your own mind.
2) You seem to think that your comments prove that St. Thomas (or at least my interpretation of him) is wrong -- as though there is something in the very nature of a piece of land which dictates that it belongs to a particular person or family [it is in this sense that I say private property is not natural, nor dictated by nature].


If all you are claiming is that men have a natural right to own material goods...I agree, and I have said as much my articles.

If, on the other hand, you are claiming that St. Thomas is wrong...then I think you have either misunderstood St. Thomas, or you have misunderstood the Natural Law.

Nick said...

I have made myself clear, and since now you see that the Church does teach that private property is a natural right, part of the Natural Law, you wish to accuse me of personal interpretation of the Scriptures and attack on Saint Thomas? Assuredly I know that saints can be wrong, but the Church cannot, and she has spoken.

Reginaldus said...

Nick...you say "I have made myself clear"...Yet, I do not think you are at all clear...
You continue to speak about a natural right to private property, insinuating that I have somehow denied Church teaching in my article, but you have yet to explain what you think this "natural right" is or how I have rejected it...

I have pointed to very specific things: Your interpretation of Genesis 1-2; the sense in which the nature of any particular plot land does not dictate that it should be owned privately; the obligation of the State to secure the private property of individuals...

Are you claiming that there is something in the very nature of things that dictates that property must be owned privately?
Or are you simply claiming (as I have) that the nature and dignity of man is such that he has a right to sustenance?


Why have you started this debate? And what do you hope to gain from it?

And, yes, I know "that saints can be wrong"...but the relevant passage from St. Thomas has been explicitly quoted and endorsed by Gaudium et Spes (as cited in my article, "Stealing from the Poor")...so, as you put it, "she [the Church] has spoken."

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