Theologians Say Tradition Backs Pope’s Teaching on Private Property in Fratelli Tutti, Others Express Concerns

In his new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, the Holy Father stressed that the right to private property is subordinate to the universal destination of goods.

Pope Francis signs his new encyclical 'Fratelli tutti'after celebrating Mass at the tomb of St. Francis inside Assisi's Basilica of St. Francis, Oct. 3, 2020.
Pope Francis signs his new encyclical 'Fratelli tutti'after celebrating Mass at the tomb of St. Francis inside Assisi's Basilica of St. Francis, Oct. 3, 2020. (photo: CNA / Vatican Media)

In the early analysis of Pope Francis’ new encyclical Fratelli Tutti, a narrative emerged that the Holy Father had changed — or at least significantly shifted — the Church’s tradition affirming the right to private property.

“[Francis] says that the right to property is now ‘secondary’ to the universal distribution [sic] of goods,” tweeted one veteran Vatican journalist on Oct. 5, the day after the encyclical’s release, describing this as a significant “development” of doctrine.

These reactions stemmed from a section of the encyclical entitled “Re-Envisaging the Social Role of Property.” In particular, in Paragraph 120, Francis reiterates his 2015 teaching from Laudato Si that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable.” He points to previous teaching that underscored the “principle of the common use of goods” as fundamental, concluding that “the right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right.”

To the casual observer, it’s hard not to see this teaching as a departure from Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. The 1893 encyclical, which inaugurated modern Catholic social teaching, states that the “principle of private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable,” describing this principle as “first and most fundamental” in addressing the economic crises of that age — a seeming direct contradiction to what Francis teaches today.

But to some theologians on the topic, Pope Francis’ language is not only not inconsistent with Leo XIII’s, it’s deeply consonant with the broader tradition of how the Church understands the right to private property and its relation to the common good.

“From the beginning, Catholic social teaching has always upheld as a primary or fundamental principle the universal destination of goods, and private property as a secondary or derived right,” explained Meghan Clark, a moral theologian at St. John’s University. The “universal destination of goods” is the Church’s way of describing God’s intention that created goods be shared by humanity as a whole.

Clark points to the voices of the Church Fathers included in Fratelli Tutti on the subject. St. John Chrysostom, for instance, is quoted, saying “Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take and take away their livelihood. The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well.”

Dominican Father Aquinas Guilbeau, who teaches moral theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., says that Fratelli Tutti should be read as a confirmation of Pope Leo’s teaching, and also a clarification that the right to private property, a first and fundamental right in the political order, cannot be implemented against “the common use of created goods,” which St. John Paul II taught in Laborem Exercens is “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.”

“In other words, the right to private property, while fundamental to human flourishing and to a just political order, cannot be claimed or exercised over and against God’s providence for creation, which includes the universal destination of goods,” explained the Dominican Father.

Father Guilbeau, an expert in St. Thomas Aquinas’ theology of the common good, describes the Pope’s teaching in Fratelli Tutti as “a fresh expression” of Thomas’ understanding of private goods, namely, that “each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need,” as expressed in the saint’s Summa Theologiae. He also sees it as representative of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s treatment of the topic.

The Thomistic scholar adds that describing private property as a “secondary right” does not deny that there are legitimate and just instances of private ownership, which should be upheld by the law and of which there cannot be arbitrary claims made by other persons, groups or even the government.

On the other hand, the right to private property does not justify an arbitrary or unjust use of private possessions. And even when private property is justly possessed, it maintains a wider, social orientation.

“To express this truth in more personal terms,” said Father Guilbeau, “I justly possess and enjoy what is rightly mine when I promote and enjoy what is rightly ours.”

 

Other Voices

For others, the continuity of Francis’ teaching on property with the wider tradition is not so clear. 

Phil Lawler, a longtime Catholic journalist and news director for catholicculture.org, writes that the Pope’s statement that the right to private property has never been held inviolable in Christian tradition is a “flat contradiction” of Leo’s teaching.

“Throughout Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis shows a clear hostility toward private property, the market economy, and capitalism,” wrote Lawler, who says the Holy Father also neglects to stress the significance of strong families and a healthy society as a key corrective of excessive market tendencies, a hallmark of previous papal social teaching.

John Horvart II, the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property and a member of Association of Christian Economists, describesthe Pope’s vision of property as “divisive,” and missing a sufficient explanation of the “limitations of property’s social function.”

“He assumes that the universal destination of created goods and the private use of property are in constant tension,” said Horvart, adding that the priority of the universal destiny of created goods “in no way diminishes the need to respect private property.”

Horvart says that in Fratelli Tutti, Francis expands the duties of property-owners to the needy beyond “just the bare minimum to support their right to life,” which he implies is the traditional view.

“For Pope Francis, property owners must provide the destitute with an array of undefined and open-ended needs that entails ensuring ‘that every person lives with dignity and has sufficient opportunities for his or her integral development.’”

 

Global Context

Clark says that Francis’ underscoring of the universal destination of goods in Fratelli Tutti must be understood as a response to contemporary challenges, just as Pope Leo’s emphasis on the right to private property was in part responsive to the ascendancy of socialism in his day. 

In fact, the St. John’s moral theologian says that papal teaching since the mid-20th century has increasingly reemphasized situating the right to private property within the context of the universal destination of goods, as globalization has increased the interconnectedness of disparate peoples around the world, and the impact economic decisions made in one country can have on others. 

The role private wealth plays in contemporary democracies also presents challenges for equal political representation,  some say.

Pope Francis’ encyclical, which extols the Good Samaritan as an exemplar of universal fraternity, prompts Catholics and others to consider what it means to be “a neighbor” in a globalized world, and how it should affect our economic lives and the distribution of property and wealth. Fratelli Tutti is full of criticisms of the current economic status quo, which the Pope says has “proved effective for growth, but not for integral human development.” 

In light of our era’s new globalist context, Pope Francis criticizes both exploitation of poorer countries by transnational economic powers, but also a “local narcissism” that closes peoples and countries off to the conditions of those in other parts of the world. He teaches that the same fair distribution of goods sought after among the people of a nation must also be a concern in the international context.

“No one, then, can remain excluded because of his or her place of birth, much less because of privileges enjoyed by others who were born in lands of greater opportunity,” Francis writes, adding that it is “unacceptable that the mere place of one’s birth of residence should result in his or her possessing fewer opportunities for a developed and dignified life.”

Clark acknowledges that it can be hard to imagine what ensuring equitable opportunities might practically look like in the context of a transnational global economic order, but she stresses that the place to start is to reject the “culture of indifference” that disregards our obligations to our neighbors, near and far, and thereby disconnects our ownership of private property from its proper orientation to the common good. She lists several practical ways that those in affluent countries like the United States could begin living this economic solidarity, such as buying from and investing in companies that protect both workers and ecosystems in foreign countries.

 

Systematic Reform

Undeniably wrapped up in Pope Francis’ teaching on private property and his criticisms of the free-market economy are questions of what sort of broader economic system he favors. Many over the years have suggested, either enthusiastically or fearfully, that Pope Francis supports socialism, a socio-economic philosophy that, in its strict sense, is characterized by collective ownership of property. In fact, in Horvart’s treatment of Fratelli Tutti, he said the Pope’s insistence that the distribution of the goods of the world be governed by concern for the dignity of all as “something vaguely similar to communism.”

But Father Guilbeau, noting that “the just realization and use of private property is integral to the free pursuit of the common good,” dismisses this characterization.

“I see nothing in Pope Francis’ encyclical that contradicts something that St. Thomas Aquinas recognized long ago, and which is reiterated in the Catechism: the universal destination of goods is justly pursued and achieved through regimes of private property.”

On the broader question of government involvement in economic life, Clark notes that “nowhere does [Francis] argue for arithmetic equal distribution of material goods.” At the same time, however, he categorically rejects any distribution of wealth which results in gross economic inequality, inconsistent with upholding the human dignity of all. 

She says that Pope Francis’ concern is less with systems and theories, and more with souls.

“The Holy Father rejects both a market-dominated society and a state dominated society,” Clark said. “He is seeking a persons-centered society, in which we are all one human family.”

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart (Sacré-Cœur) in Paris

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