As an American it is difficult at times to think beyond the Right/Left, Capitalist/Socialist dichotomy that permeates our economic and political landscape. This often makes it difficult for Catholics on either side of the aisle to understand what the Church teaches about the ownership and use of property. It also makes it difficult at times for us to understand, let alone support, some of Pope Francis’ harsh criticisms of Capitalism.
Back in 2015, in an interview with the Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli, Pope Francis summarizes centuries of Catholic Social Teaching into one paragraph:
“A month before he opened the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII said ‘The Church shows itself as it wishes to be, everyone’s Church, and particularly the Church of the poor.’ In the following years, this preferential treatment of the poor entered the official teachings. Some may think it a novelty, whilst instead it is a concern that stems from the Gospel and is documented even from the first centuries of Christianity. If I repeated some passages from the homilies of the Church Fathers, in the second or third century, about how we must treat the poor, some would accuse me of giving a Marxist homily. ‘You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.’ These were St. Ambrose’s words, which Pope Paul VI used to state, in Populorum Progressio, that private property does not constitute an absolute and unconditional right for anyone, and that no one is allowed to keep for their exclusive use things superfluous to their needs, when others lack basic necessities.”
While I certainly don’t pretend to think I can explain this teaching better than the Holy Father, I think it’s valuable to dive into the ideas and sources he presents and put them into the broader context of how the Church understands private property and the redistribution of wealth.
To begin with, the Church recognizes the right to private property. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says, “Private property…constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty” and “..is an essential element of an authentically social and democratic economic policy…” (Paragraph 176). Further, Pope Leo XIII states, “private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners” (Paragraph 46). The defense of private property is one of the reasons that the Church condemns Communism (Paragraphs 111-118). Further, the right to private ownership is a natural right given to us by God, not one merely granted by the state. (Paragraph 45).
However, while private property is indeed a natural right, it flows from what the Church calls “the universal destination of goods.” The Catechism says, “The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race” (Paragraph 2402). Likewise, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council stated, “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples” (Paragraph 69).
How is this related to private property? According to St. Thomas Aquinas, “the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason” (Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 66, a. 2). In other words, private property is the most reasonable means for man to respect the universal destination of goods. In fact, when Aquinas argues for the necessity of private property, he does so on pragmatic terms (Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 66, a. 2). Thus the universal destination of goods is prior to the right to private property (Paragraph 2403). The possession of property is simply the means to an end (Paragraph 177).
Furthermore, the Church recognizes that the right to private property is not absolute. The Compendium states, “Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property 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 of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone’” (Paragraph 177). Simply put, the right to own something does not mean the right to use it however one wishes. The use of property is ordered to the common good. Vatican II states, “In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others” (Paragraph 69).
In fact, the Church has very clear and direct teachings about the proper use of material goods. Pope Leo XIII says that we have the duty to give all excess wealth, anything beyond necessity and propriety, to those in need (Paragraph 22). Further, as Pope Francis referenced above, Pope Paul VI amps up this teaching and quotes St. Ambrose saying, “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich” (Paragraph 23). The Pope Paul continues, “No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life” (Paragraph 23).
Notice in this teaching that the Church is explicitly stating that when we give to the poor from our excess we are not performing an act of charity, but an act of justice. The Catechism, quoting Pope Paul VI, puts it this way, “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity” (Paragraph 2446).
Now that we are clear that the misuse of our excess property is a matter of justice and not one of personal charity, I want to talk about the role of the government in all of this. First, it is worth noting that the Church does not have a negative view of the state, as if government is a necessary evil. Rather, the Church recognizes that government is both inherent to human nature and ordered toward the common good (Paragraph 384).
Now, regarding the use, or misuse, of private property, the Church also sees the state as having a necessary role. The Catechism teaches, “Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good” (Paragraph 2406). Further, this regulation of the right to ownership includes the redistribution of property. The Compendium says, “Authentic economic well-being is pursued also by means of suitable social policies for the redistribution of income which, taking general conditions into account, look at merit as well as at the need of each citizen” (Paragraph 303). Pope Benedict XVI affirms this teaching saying that “Economic life…also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics” and he goes on to say that the state needs to intervene into civil society “for purposes of redistribution” in order for society to regulate itself (Paragraphs 37 and 39).
In addition, if it is not clear already, should the state regulate the use of property in order to redistribute the resources of a society, it is the excessively wealthy, and only the excessively wealthy, who should be targeted. Pope Pius XI states:
“It must likewise be the special care of the State to create those material conditions of life without which an orderly society cannot exist…To achieve this end demanded by the pressing needs of the common welfare, the wealthy classes must be induced to assume those burdens without which human society cannot be saved nor they themselves remain secure. However, measures taken by the State with this end in view ought to be of such a nature that they will really affect those who actually possess more than their share of capital resources, and who continue to accumulate them to the grievous detriment of others” (Paragraph 75).
From all of this it becomes clear that the Church sees government as having not just the authority, but the duty, to limit and regulate the use of private property, even if this means redistributing that property in order to meet the needs of the poor and promote the common good. Furthermore, Pope Pius XI says that this kind of regulation not only strengthens and safeguards the right to private property, but it is also a “friendly service” for property owners. Referencing Pope Leo XIII, Pope Pius XI states:
“Wherefore the wise Pontiff declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes. “For since the right of possessing goods privately has been conferred not by man’s law, but by nature, public authority cannot abolish it, but can only control its exercise and bring it into conformity with the common weal.” Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them” (Paragraph 49).
So on one hand the Church unapologetically values and promotes the right to private property, while on the other hand the Church recognizes that it is the duty of the government to help ensure that this private property is being used justly, even if that means redistributing that property. Like I said at the beginning of the article, this teaching cuts through and transcends the Right/Left dichotomy we find ourselves in, which could be both refreshing and frustrating. But there it stands, demanding our attention and inviting our intellectual assent. Let us take to heart the words of our current Holy Father as well as the teachings of those popes who have gone before him.
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, and professional lay person.