“The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, 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. In his use of things, man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself…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.”
The quote above is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and from it we can draw several concepts. First, there is undeniably a legitimate right to private property, which is necessary for man’s responsibility to his family.
But we also see here a complementary principle, known as the “universal destination of goods.” This principle is said to be “primordial”, and therefore prior to the notion of individual ownership.
St. Thomas Aquinas says the same thing in a slightly different way:
“…the division of possessions is not according to natural law, but rather arose out of human agreement…Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.”
As we saw last week, the right of property, in order to remain sane, must be circumscribed by limits. It is a means to an end. If this right is exercised excessively or abusively, it becomes invalid. As such, it is not an absolute, nor is it inalienable.
This foundational understanding of ownership is why the popes can deliver sound defenses of private property, such as the following:
“It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten…Now, in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance.”
And then, without a trace of self-contradiction, proceed to teach that it is permissible to take a neighbor’s goods if the need is dire and that neighbor refuses to assist: “In cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.”
The key is this: the 7th commandment is broken not only by directly usurping a neighbors goods, but also by exercising one’s own right to private property in an unjust manner. For example, tradition teaches that “forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another” is an act which breaks the 7th commandment. (See also Deuteronomy 25:13-16; 24:14-15).
Page 2 of 3 - It is therefore immoral to make money by exploiting stupidity and ignorance, for the very same reasons that it is immoral to exploit the poor and the weak.
The catechism also lists these behaviors as morally illicit: “speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law; tax evasion.”
It seems that there are many forms of theft beyond the most superficial and obvious.
One guiding principle here lies in an important distinction between “ownership” and “use”. In the words of Leo XIII, “it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have a right to use money as one wills.”
It should be apparent by now that such judgments cannot be left to private and individual initiative alone. Law must be brought into play in order to moderate ownership, to the end of justice and the common good. After all, law is the only thing that establishes and upholds private property in the first place—it only makes sense that it should function as a moderating force in its exercise.
Thus, as Pope Benedict XVI explains, the State must play a guiding role in the market sphere:
“Economic activity cannot solve all social problems through the simple application of commercial logic.
This needs to be directed towards the pursuit of the common good, for which the political community in particular must also take responsibility.”
The catechism also agrees: “Economic activity, especially the activity of a market economy, cannot be conducted in an institutional, juridical, or political vacuum.”
And so, “Political authority has the right and duty to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good.”
The answer then is not a libertine libertarianism, but instead a properly ordered and oriented economy, which integrates and is guided by the goals of the political community, and which refuses to worship the absurd absoluteness of rights. Justice must here be the guiding principle.
First, however, we need to clear the fog away from a certain confusion of terms which, in the American vernacular, renders discussion meaningless.
I’m referring to the blurred definitions of the words “Charity” and “Justice”. These are two distinct concepts, but that distinction has decayed into grayness.
Charity now means basically whatever the speaker wants it to mean, with the concept of justice spiraling off into incoherence. This distinction, then, is what we’ll talk about next week.
Page 3 of 3 - The opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the The McPherson Sentinel or GateHouse Media. If you have any related questions or suggestions that you would like to see explored here, simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.