The Right to Private Property
Makes Ownership a Guarantor of Freedom
A Twofold Character of Right…
Comes from God not Man
Cannot be Absorbed by the State
Ordered Towards the Common Good
Consistent but Controversial
Pope Leo XIII’s articulation of the right to private property in 1891 caused quite a stir. Even in 1931 Pope Pius XI found the dialogue around the Church’s pronouncements on private property rights 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)
The right to private property “has always been defended by the Church”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 30)
“The right of private ownership…has permanent validity. It is part of the natural order”. (Pope St. John XXIII, 109)
Why has the Church’s position on private property been so volatile for so long?
Because of the “twofold character of ownership…The right of property is distinct from its use.”
Let’s Explore the ‘Right’ of Property
“In defending the principle of private ownership the Church is striving after an important ethico-social end.”
“Private Ownership is…
- The right of private ownership is clearly sanctioned by the Gospel”. (Pope St. John XXIII, 121)
- “The seventh commandment requires…respect for the right to private property”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2401)
- “The authority of the divine law adds its sanction, forbidding us in severest terms even to covet that which is another’s.” (Pope Leo XIII, 11)
- Private property “should be regarded as an extension of human freedom.” Indeed, “Private property…constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberties.” (Gaudium et Spes, 71)
- Private property is “fundamental” – a requirement “for the autonomy and development of the person.” (Pope St. John Paul II, 30)
In Support of the Common Good
“The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.” (Pope Leo XIII, 15)
“Redistribution and State ownership of property is “emphatically unjust” as it would “rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.” (Pope Leo XIII, 4)
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. (Rerum Novarum, 5) Private property contributes “in the most unmistakable manner to the peace and tranquility of human existence.” (Pope Leo XIII, 11)
Limits State Action
“Private property “is a natural right which the State cannot suppress.” (Pope St. John XXIII, 9)
“History and experience testify that in those political regimes which do not recognize the rights of private ownership of goods… the exercise of freedom in almost every other direction is suppressed or stifled. This suggests, surely, that the exercise of freedom finds its guarantee and incentive in the right of ownership.” (Pope St. John XXIII, 109)
Since private property “is circumscribed by the necessities of social living 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 XII, 48) So, while “the State has the right to control [private property]” it can “by no means to absorb it altogether.” (Pope Leo XIII, 47)
Let’s Explore the ‘Use’ of Property
“The right to private property is not absolute and unconditional”.
Contingent, Social, & Personal
Catholic social teaching “has never upheld the right as absolute and untouchable.” 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)
Property has a Social Character: “By its very nature private property has a social quality which is based on the law of the common destination of earthly goods.” (Gaudium et Spes, 71) and “The right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone” (Gaudium et Spes, 69)
Entails a Personal Responsibility: “The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2404)
- “The divine Master frequently extends to the rich the insistent invitation to convert their material goods into spiritual ones by conferring them on the poor…” (Pope St. John XXIII, 121)
- “In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2404)
The 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“. (Pope Pius XII, 46)
The Church recognizes the evils and dangers of socialism (especially communism) and unbridled capitalism. The former, by subsuming all to the state, is a threat to human dignity and individual rights while violating the key principle of Subsidiarity. The latter, by ignoring property’s social dimension, is also a threat to human dignity while violating the principle of Solidarity.
Both make the anthropological error of reducing man to only the economic sphere.
What About the Universal Destination of Goods?
“The right to private property…does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.”
Q: What is the bottom line?
A: “The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property.” (Pope Leo XIII, 8)
We must also remember and consider that “The goods of creation are destined for the entire human race. The right to private property does not abolish the universal destination of goods.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2452)
Clearly, there is a right to private property. However, it can become distorted when defined in isolation (or with certain exclusivity) or when denied or abrogated.
Q: With its respect of private property doesn’t Capitalism represent a superior economic model to Socialism?
A: Not necessarily. As Pope St. John Paul II warned, unbridled capitalism, “seeks to defeat Marxism on the level of pure materialism by showing how a free-market society can achieve a greater satisfaction of material human needs than Communism, while equally excluding spiritual values. In reality, while on the one hand it is true that this social model shows the failure of Marxism to contribute to a humane and better society, on the other hand, insofar as it denies an autonomous existence and value to morality, law, culture and religion, it agrees with Marxism, in the sense that it totally reduces man to the sphere of economics and the satisfaction of material needs.” (Centesimus Annus, 19)
What Pope St. John Paul II is saying is that the Church recognizes the evils and dangers of socialism (especially communism) and unbridled capitalism. The former, by subsuming all to the state, is a threat to human dignity and individual rights while violating the key principle of Subsidiarity. The latter, by ignoring property’s social dimension, is also a threat to human dignity while violating the principle of Solidarity.
Both make the anthropological error of reducing man to only the economic sphere.
Q: Does the Church say how much property one can own?
A: Catholic Social Teaching invites society, “to a serious review of its lifestyle”. (Pope Benedict XVI, 51) So, the question we need to ask ourselves is: “Do I really need all these material objects and complicated recipes for living? Can I manage without all these unnecessary extras?” (Pope Francis)
A person who is concerned solely or primarily with possessing and enjoying – who can no longer subordinate his instincts, cannot be free: “The individualism of our postmodern and globalized era favors a lifestyle which weakens the development and stability of personal relationships and distorts family bonds”. (Pope Francis, 67)
We are called to help society (maybe ourselves and our children first) understand that if direct appeals are made to material and instinctive dimensions then “consumer attitudes and life styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to [our] physical and spiritual health”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 36)
However, we should also recall that Catholic Social Teaching tells us “it is not wrong to want to live better, what is wrong is a style of life…which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.” (Pope St. John Paul II, 36)
The goal of Catholic Social Teaching is for life styles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness, and communion with others for the sake of the common good will determine consumers’ choices, savings, and investments.
Q: Does the State have a role in controlling private property?
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: “The State must contribute to the achievement of these goals both directly and indirectly. Indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarity, by creating favorable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity, which will lead to abundant opportunities for employment and sources of wealth. Directly and according to the principle of solidarity, by defending the weakest”. (Pope St. John Paul II, 15)
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. This is “the basis not only of the unity of the human family but also of our inviolable human dignity” (Pope Benedict XVI) and it is in this beginning that human rights are grounded.
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. “We cannot believe in God the Father without seeing a brother or sister in every person, and we cannot follow Jesus without giving our lives for those for whom he died on the cross.” (Pope Francis)
Subsidiarity identifies how decisions in society need to be taken at the lowest competent level. “It 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, 79)
Centesimus Annus Pro Pontificate, Inc (CAPP-USA) is the United States affiliate of Fondazione Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice at the Vatican.