Catholic Social Teaching and the Right to Private Property: The Church’s Often Misunderstood Position
In 1931 Pope Pius XI said the dialogue around the Church’s pronouncements on private property was so toxic that, “there are some who calumniate the Supreme Pontiff, and the Church herself, as if she had taken and were still taking the part of the rich”. (Quadragesimo Anno, 44) [Notice how by changing the last word from “rich” to “poor” a similar complaint seems to be made today?]
WHY HAS THE CHURCH’S POSITION BEEN SO VOLATILE FOR SO LONG?
Primarily because of the inability to differentiate between the “twofold character of ownership”: (Pope Pius XI, 45) As Pope Leo XIII made clear: “The right of property is distinct from its use.” (Quadragesimo Anno, 47)
Private property is, indeed, a “right”, yet, as all rights, it is also subject to the primacy of other rights and, ultimately, to the Common Good.
THE ‘RIGHT’ TO PRIVATE PROPERTY
Pope Leo XIII examined the role of private property extensively: He identified that ownership of property is beneficial to the common good: “For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own” (Rerum Novarum, 6) and that this “is in accordance with the law of nature.” (Rerum Novarum, 9) i.e., it is a matter of justice that one who labors should be able to ‘possess’ that which he has invested himself in.
The controversy surrounding private property comes from the inability to differentiate between the “twofold character of ownership”.
Faced with socialist calls for redistribution and State ownership, Pope Leo XIII correctly foresaw that if private property was taken from rightful owners it would be workers and the poor who would suffer the most. He saw how doing so would be ”emphatically unjust” as it would “rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.” (Rerum Novarum, 4)
“Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.” (Rerum Novarum, 5)
Pope Leo XIII’s prediction was borne out when, after the Russian Revolution, massive redistribution of land led to a famine responsible for the starvation of millions. Similarly, Mao’s experiments in China led to economic deprivation and starvation for hundreds of millions of people over several decades.
IN SUMMARY: THE ‘RIGHT’ TO PRIVATE PROPERTY
The right to private property “has always been defended by the Church”. (Centesimus Annus, 30)
Catholic social teaching recognizes that “the practice of all ages has consecrated the principle of private ownership, as being pre-eminently in conformity with human nature, and as conducing in the most unmistakable manner to the peace and tranquility of human existence.” (Rerum Novarum,11)
Pope Leo XIII even went on to warn us that “[t]he authority of the divine law adds its sanction” to abridging the right to private property: “forbidding us in severest terms even to covet that which is another’s”. (Rerum Novarum,11)
Later, Pope St. John Paul II, as Pope St. John XXIII had in (Mater et Magistra), reaffirmed the right to private property is “fundamental” and a requirement “for the autonomy and development of the person.” (Centesimus Annus, 30)
The right to private property is subject to modifications which may be imposed by the requirements of the common good and solidarity.
THE ‘USE’ OF PRIVATE PROPERTY
However, Catholic social teaching “has never upheld the right as absolute and untouchable.” (Pope St. John Paul II, 14) Catholic social teaching points out that, like every other right, the right to private property exists in proportional relation to other rights and our duties.
The Church clearly states that the use of private property “is circumscribed by the necessities of social living [and] those who seek to restrict the individual character of ownership to such a degree that in fact they destroy it are mistaken and in error.” (Pope Pius XI, 48)
Indeed a “position that defends the exclusive right to private ownership of the means of production as an untouchable ‘dogma’ of economic life…continues to remain unacceptable”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 14) This understanding continues, and builds on, Pope Pius XI’s similar statement in (Quadragesimo Anno, 45).
TWIN ROCKS OF SHIPWRECK
This dual understanding of ”right to” and ”use of” private property represent “twin rocks of shipwreck” — which “must be carefully avoided”. One rock is “Individualism” – caused by denying or minimizing the social and public character of the right of property. The other is “Collectivism” — caused “by rejecting or minimizing the private and individual character”. (Pope Pius XI, 46)
YES – there is a right to private property…AND – that right can be distorted when it is defined in isolation or with a certain exclusivity.
We must always recall that the right to private property is subject to modifications which may be imposed by the requirements of the common good and solidarity.
Catholic social teaching is built on three foundational principles - Human Dignity, Solidarity and Subsidiarity. Human Dignity, embodied in a correct understanding of the human person, is the greatest. The others flow from it. Good governments and good economic systems find ways of fostering the three principles.
This means a correct understanding of the human person and of each person’s unique value. All Catholic social teaching flows from this: the inherent dignity of every person that comes from being made in God’s image.
Solidarity is not “a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of others. It is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 38) Love of God and love of neighbor are, in fact, linked and form one, single commandment.
Subsidiarity “is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry. So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by the lesser and subordinate bodies”. (Pope Pius XI)