The Catholic Church and the Common Good: An Unbroken Line of Tradition
Connecting the Dots: A Register Series on Catholic Social Teaching
Last time, in this space, we mentioned that, while the Church condemns atheistic communism for, among other things, denial of the right of private property, it is also leery of the dangers of capitalism. Why? As G.K. Chesterton put it, because it produces too few capitalists and, instead of concentrating wealth and power in the hands of the state, tends to concentrate it in the hands of a tiny oligarchy. Original sin affects capitalists as well as communists.
Here’s the deal: The Church — so far from wanting private property abolished like the communist or concentrated in the hands of the 1% like the laissez-faire capitalist — wants everybody to own private property. This, yet again, is rooted in the biblical tradition — specifically, the Seventh Commandment: “You shall not steal.” If there were no such thing as private property, there could be no such thing as theft. So the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
“Private property is an essential element of an authentically social and democratic economic policy, and it is the guarantee of a correct social order. The Church’s social doctrine requires that ownership of goods be equally accessible to all, so that all may become, at least in some measure, owners.”
Whatever else that is, it’s not Marxism and is, indeed, 180 degrees the opposite of the state owning everything.
Indeed, so insistent is the Church that ownership of the goods of creation is necessary to our survival and proper to our dignity as creatures made in God’s image that she says the right to private property is “innate in individual persons, in every person, and has priority with regard to any human intervention concerning goods, to any legal system concerning the same, to any economic or social system or method.”
Some libertarian-minded Catholics badly misread this quote by applying it only to themselves or to the corporation, as though the rest of the human race is not also made in the image of God. Erring thus, they take the Church to mean that the right to personal property is the absolute be-all and end-all and that, should an individual or corporation legally acquire ownership of vastly more property than is necessary for normal functioning or control access to something that is vital to the common good, there is no obligation before God or man to consider anybody else. Such a theory, in addition to being blind to the deadly sin of greed, simply twists the Compendium’s obvious meaning.
For the Compendium goes on to declare that the Church is, in fact, referring to the universal destination of goods and the right of each person to own property and have access to the goods of the earth necessary to human life: “All other rights, whatever they are, including property rights and the right of free trade, must be subordinated to this norm [the universal destination of goods]; they must not hinder it, but must, rather, expedite its application. It must be considered a serious and urgent social obligation to refer these rights to their original purpose.”
In short, the law (including the laws of economics) was made for man, not man for the law. Just as the state does not have the right to destroy the access of persons to the common good, neither does the corporation or the greedy individual.
The shocking (to Americans) upshot of this is that private property, while certainly a good, is not an absolute right. It must give way to other considerations sometimes. This, again, is a thoroughly biblical idea. John the Baptist tells his followers, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Why? Because my neighbor’s right to life (and therefore to not freeze to death) supersedes my right to my second coat. Notice that, just as with abortion, the Church places the right to life ahead of the right to property.
Again, take water, the most basic element of human existence. The Compendium says:
“‘The principle of the universal destination of goods also applies naturally to water, considered in the sacred Scriptures as a symbol of purification (Psalm 51:4; John 13:8) and of life (John 3:5; Galatians 3:27). As a gift from God, water is a vital element essential to survival; thus, everyone has a right to it .’ Satisfying the needs of all, especially of those who live in poverty, must guide the use of water and the services connected with it. Inadequate access to safe drinking water affects the well-being of a huge number of people and is often the cause of disease, suffering, conflicts, poverty and even death. For a suitable solution to this problem, it ‘must be set in context in order to establish moral criteria based precisely on the value of life and the respect for the rights and dignity of all human beings.’
“By its very nature water cannot be treated as just another commodity among many, and it must be used rationally and in solidarity with others. The distribution of water is traditionally among the responsibilities that fall to public agencies, since water is considered a public good. If water distribution is entrusted to the private sector, it should still be considered a public good. The right to water, as all human rights, finds its basis in human dignity and not in any kind of merely quantitative assessment that considers water as a merely economic good. Without water, life is threatened. Therefore, the right to safe drinking water is a universal and inalienable right.”
The guiding principle here is simple:
“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.’”
Systems that make water available at a profit are fine, just as long as those who cannot pay for this elementary and fundamental right are not cut off. In such cases, some other way of covering the cost must be found.
Does the Church, then, teach that a perpetual welfare state of parasites should be established? Of course not. The principle way the poor are to have a share in the common good is, as we have already seen, through work at a living wage. And what is a living wage?
A living wage fulfills four criteria:
- Families in general seem to be living at a standard of decency appropriate to their society;
- They do so without working undue hours;
- They do so without wives being forced to work outside the home or children forced to work inappropriate hours or under inappropriate conditions (if they choose to do so, that’s another story);
- They do so without undue reliance on government support or consumer credit.
That is the goal. But in this fallen world, the goal is often not met. Therefore, the community must help those who cannot find the means to access necessary goods such as food, shelter and water.
Someone may ask, “What about Paul’s command that those who will not work shall not eat?” To begin with, Paul is speaking not about the obligations of the state, but of Christians in the Church at Thessalonica who were ignoring their obligations to the community on the theory that Jesus’ return was imminent. He is speaking to those within the household of faith and telling them to get off their duffs — ironically, so they can provide for themselves and the common good. He is not writing the First Epistle to the Americans on Congressional Welfare Reform.
Meanwhile, Jesus gives us our marching orders as Christians moving in the world outside the household of faith, and they are shocking and radical: “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). Note that there are absolutely no qualifications put on this command. Indeed, his counsel on generosity is so countercultural and counterintuitive that, so far from talking about giving to “the deserving poor” who will thriftily earn a percentage on our largesse and give it back with interest, he instead commands: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your kinsmen or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14).
“For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:46-48). The Gospel, as Dorothy Day says, “takes away forever our right to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” Because in God’s eyes, we are none of us deserving, and we are all of us poor.
And so, just like the Church, Paul urges not the abolition of property, but its generous sharing modeled after that of Jesus, who, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). And the Tradition of the Church on this is unbroken from antiquity to the present:
St. Ambrose: “You are not making a gift of your possessions to poor persons. You are handing over to them what is theirs. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all and not only to the rich.”
St. John Chrysostom: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”
St. Gregory the Great: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”
St. Basil: “Are not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast receivest to distribute? It is the bread of the famished which thou receivest, the garment of the naked which thou hoardest in thy chest, the shoe of the barefooted which rots in thy possessions, the money of the pennyless which thou hast buried in the earth. Wherefore then dost thou injure so many to whom thou mightest be a benefactor.”
St. Bede: “He then who wishes to be rich toward God will not lay up treasures for himself, but distribute his possessions to the poor.”
Leo XII: “Every person has by nature the right to possess property as his or her own. ... But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? the Church replies without hesitation in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘One should not consider one’s material possessions as one’s own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when other are in need. ... .’ True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for one’s own needs and those of one’s household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly one’s condition in life. ... But when what necessity demands has been supplied and one’s standing fairly provided for, it becomes a duty to give to the needy out of what remains over.”
Pius XI: “The right to own private property has been given to the human by nature, or rather by the Creator himself. ... At the same time a person’s superfluous income is not left entirely to one’s own discretion. ... On the contrary, the grave obligations of charity, beneficence and liberality, which rest upon the wealthy, are constantly insisted upon in telling words by holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. However, the investment of superfluous income in securing favorable opportunities for employment ... is to be considered ... an act of real liberality, particularly appropriate to the needs of our time.”
Gaudium et Spes: “God has intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of all people and all peoples. Hence justice, accompanied by charity, must so regulate the distribution of created goods that they are actually available to all in an equitable measure. . . . Therefore, in using them, everyone should consider legitimate possessions not only as their own, but also as common property, in the sense that they should be able to profit not only themselves but other people as well. Moreover, all have the right to possess a share of earthly goods sufficient for themselves and their families. This is what the Fathers and Doctors of the Church had in mind when teaching that people are obliged to come to the aid of the poor, and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods.”
Paul VI: “Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditional right. No one is justified in keeping for one’s exclusive use what one does not need, when others lack necessities.”
St. John Paul II: “It will be necessary above all to abandon a mentality in which the poor — as individuals and as people — are considered a burden, as irksome intruders trying to consume what others have produced.”
In short, the Church desires that wherever possible people have the dignity of work at a living wage so they can both have their own property and enough resources to raise a family and share with the community. But where this is not yet possible, the Church calls us to exercise a “preferential option for the poor” in the keen awareness that our gifts belong to them and their prayers for us may well spell the difference between salvation and damnation.
As Jesus says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal habitations” (Luke 16:9).
Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.
- st. john paul ii
- catholic social teaching
- catechism of the catholic church
- mark shea
- church fathers