“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).”
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.