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BY Jimmy Akin
Last Sunday one of the readings was from Acts 4:32-35:
The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.
With great power the apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.
This passages recalls one a couple of chapters earlier in Acts (2:44-47), which reads as follows:
All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.
Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart,
praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
We've got a lot of communal property going on here, and not just between husbands and wives.
These passages raise a number of questions like . . . to what degree is Luke holding this situation up as a model for the Church in general? . . . what should we learn from this? . . . and does this mean that we should abolish private property?
How are we to sort through these questions?
Let's ask the pope!
Here's what Benedict XVI says on the subject . . .
Your Holiness, thank you for granting us this "interview."
What can you tell us about these passages in Acts and the principles they contain? Do they imply a communitarian response to the needs of others that annihilates the individual responsibility we have for caring for the needs of others?
Love of neighbour, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community to the particular Church and to the Church universal in its entirety. As a community, the Church must practise love. Love thus needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community. The awareness of this responsibility has had a constitutive relevance in the Church from the beginning: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-5).
But surely this is only something that applies to the past. St. Luke can't mean these for us today, can he?
In the passage cited from the Acts of the Apostles, four characteristics define the first Christian community of Jerusalem as a place of unity and love. St Luke, moreover, does not only want to describe something from the past. He presents this community to us as a model, as a norm for the Church today, since these four characteristics must always constitute the Church’s life.
Four characteristics? What are you referring to?
In these words, Saint Luke provides a kind of definition of the Church, whose constitutive elements include fidelity to the “teaching of the Apostles”, “communion” (koinonia), “the breaking of the bread” and “prayer” (cf. Acts 2:42). The element of “communion” (koinonia) is not initially defined, but appears concretely in the verses quoted above: it consists in the fact that believers hold all things in common and that among them, there is no longer any distinction between rich and poor (cf. also Acts 4:32-37).
Does this mean that Christians should abolish private property today and have everything in common again?
As the Church grew, this radical form of material communion could not in fact be preserved. But its essential core remained: within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.
But if we don't have to renounce private property, does that mean that anything goes? That we don't have to have any concern for the poor? What about Christians who are poor?
We read in the Acts of the Apostles that the early Christians had all things in common and those with possessions and goods sold them to share the proceeds with the needy (cf. Acts 2:44-45).
This sharing of goods has found ever new forms of expression in the history of the Church. . . .
[The communion St. Luke speaks of] is primarily communion with God through faith; but communion with God creates communion among ourselves and is necessarily expressed in that concrete communion of which the Acts of the Apostles speak, in other words, sharing.
No one in the Christian community must be hungry or poor: This is a fundamental obligation. Communion with God, expressed as brotherly communion, is lived out in practice in social commitment, in Christian charity and in justice.
Your Holiness, thank you for sharing your insights with us today.
The answers in this "interview" are taken from section 20 of Pope Benedict's encyclical Deus Caritas Est and from his General Audience of January 19, 2011. See these resources to learn much more.
Incidentally, I often use this kind of "interview" as a way of helping break down and make understandable the Church's teaching on a particular point. If you find this kind of presentation helpful, you can sign up here for more.
In the meantime . . . What do you think? What is the relationship between private and community property? What should it be in the family, in the Church, and in the state?
The comments box is open for your comments!