In October, Pope Francis released a video message to the World Meeting of Popular Movements, a group that mobilizes some of the world’s poorest and most marginalized people. In this message, he issued a series of prophetic calls—for pharmaceutical companies to “release the patents” so that all people can access vaccines; for financial groups and international credit institutions to cancel debts that act as a millstone around the necks of the poor; for extractive industries to stop polluting and poisoning the planet; for food companies to stop using monopolistic practices to raise the price of food for the poor; for arms manufacturers and dealers to cease their trade in carnage; and for technology giants to stop exploiting people for profits.
As anyone who has observed his papacy over the past nine years can attest, this is par for the course for Francis. It is why he is greatly admired by so many. But what too few appreciate is that Pope Francis is not speaking in a vacuum or merely offering his personal opinion. Rather, he is applying a 2,000-year-old Christian tradition to modern circumstances.
One of the core principles of the Catholic social tradition is the universal destination of goods, which Pope John Paul II calls the “first principle of the whole ethical and social order” (Laborem Exercens 19). The universal destination of goods says that the goods of the earth are destined for all without exclusion or exception. It implies that—contrary to libertarianism and free market ideology—private property is not an absolute or unconditional right. Rather, its legitimacy is conditioned on meeting the needs of all. As Pope Francis puts it in Fratelli Tutti, “The right to private property is always accompanied by the primary and prior principle of the subordination of all private property to the universal destination of the earth’s goods, and thus the right of all to their use” (FT 123). It follows from this that the right to private property is a secondary right, conditioned on the universal destination of goods. Or, as Pope John Paul II put it, the right to private property always comes with a social mortgage.
This injunction is an ancient one. It harks back to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and to the experience of the early Church. As St. Ambrose put it: “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 words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional. No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for their own private use when others lack the necessities of life.
The universal destination of goods can also be seen in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas argued that the private ownership of property must be conditioned by common use, and “In cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.”
Although the universal destination of goods has an ancient pedigree, it has many modern applications. I will discuss six ways that this principle can be applied in our world today.
First, the universal destination of goods calls for governments to make sure that all people have access to the material bases of human flourishing—including food, shelter, clean water and sanitation, decent work, clean energy, healthcare, education, and social protection. Some, including Pope Francis, have indicated openness to a universal basic income in this regard. The universal destination of goods would support funding these basic needs with taxes on the wealthy.
Second, the universal destination of goods has a global dimension. It provides a moral injunction to eliminate poverty and invest in sustainable development in poorer countries, especially when these countries lack the capacity to raise sufficient funds on their own. Consider a hypothetical example: if there are a billion people in the world living in crippling poverty, and it costs $1000 a year per person to meet basic needs, this would amount to $1 trillion dollars. A large number, yes, but still only about one percent of global income. There is no financial impediment to meeting this obligation of justice and solidarity.
Third, there is a need to provide decent, dignified, work. Pope John Paul II argued that the just wage is one of the main ways to achieve the universal destination of goods in practice. It is, in his words, “the concrete means of verifying the justice of the whole socioeconomic system and, in any case, of checking that it is functioning justly.” In Catholic social teaching, both corporations and governments are supposed to be responsible for the common good, and one of the main ways they do this is by prioritizing employment and decent wages over profits.
Fourth, the universal destination of goods also calls for protection of the environment, which includes combating climate change. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis wrote that “the natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all” (LS 95). It follows that we have a moral obligation to ensure that the environment can sustain all people alive today—especially the poor—and those not yet born. The universal destination of goods extends across generations.
Fifth, the universal destination of goods also calls for an opening to migrants and refugees seeking safety, security, and succor. As Pope Francis puts it in Fratelli Tutti, “each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere” (FT 124). Following Aquinas, this says that in cases of need, the resources of each country become the common property of all.
Sixth, as Pope Francis notes, countries should make sure that life-saving vaccines are available to the world’s poorest people. This would justify overriding the intellectual property protections of the pharmaceutical companies, chiefly by having cheap generic versions of Covid-19 vaccines made at scale. This is yet another example of Aquinas’s point about how need makes goods common property.
Sadly, all of this is light years away from the current structure of the global economy. Instead of the universal destination of goods, we have adopted a more individualistic ethos predicated on absolute ownership, which leads to great exclusion, inequality, and hardness of heart. The beauty of the Catholic tradition is that can offer an alternative that is both humane and economically sensible.
To read more from Tony Annett on what Catholic social thought has to say about equitable economics, check out his new book from Georgetown University Press, Cathonomics: How Catholic Tradition Can Create a More Just Economy.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Tinnakorn.