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Catholic Economics, Part 4: Are You Sure You Own Yourself?

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Pavel P

Daniel Schwindt - published on 04/22/14

The Church’s controversial teachings on private property and the universal destination of goods.

This is part four of a six part series on economics and Catholic social teaching.​ (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

In a recent article titled “Possessive Individualism,” John Medaille suggests that liberalism harbors a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of ownership. He begins his critique by taking to task the basic assumption that, if nothing else, we can at least know that we own “ourselves”:

“We cannot own ourselves for the simple reason that we cannot create ourselves; we cannot seize control of our origins or be present at our beginnings. Rather, all of us are called into being through an act of love into the ready-made community of the family. From this little society, we receive certain gifts. The gift of being itself, in the first instance, and a sufficiency of material gifts—food, clothing, shelter—or else we would not have survived.”

In this respect, Medaille is no radical thinker, for Pope Benedict XVI used precisely the same reasoning:

“…we all know that we are a gift, not something self-generated. Our freedom is profoundly shaped by our being, and by its limits. No one shapes his own conscience arbitrarily, but we all build our own ‘I’ on the basis of a ‘self’ which is given to us. Not only are other persons outside our control, but each one of us is outside his or her own control.
A person’s development is compromised, if he claims to be solely responsible for producing what he becomes.” (
Caritas in Veritate, 68)

Each self, then, has its origin in gift, and only remains valid in this context of gratuity. Thus, Medaille concludes:

“We do not so much ‘own’ as ‘owe,’ and by discharging the debt we come to own what we give. And in giving ourselves, we come to own ourselves. The ultimate gift is the self, which we only own when we give it away. My life is not really my own until I am willing to give it to family, community, and vocation; to lay it down for a friend.”

We saw this same paradox last week when we said that the privilege we often consider our “right” is more properly understood as the benefit derived from the discharge of a duty. To relate this to the concept of ownership, we can say that ownership itself is nothing more than the benefit derived from the primordial, divine gift of the world to mankind.

In the words of the Catechism:

“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.” (CCC, 2403)

On this foundation, and only on this foundation, we can begin to draw our principles of ownership. 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.” (ST II-II, 66, 2, ad 1)

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” in the way we usually think of the term.

This understanding of ownership is why Catholic theologians 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.” (
Rerum Novarum, 13)

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.” (Aquinas, ST II-II, 66, 7, s. c.)

The key lies in the primacy of divine law, which is to say, in duty. This is why the Catechism places ownership under the heading of the 7th Commandment, explaining that this commandment is broken not only by directly usurping a neighbor’s goods, but also by exercising one’s own right to private property in an unjust manner. Consider section 2409, which says that “forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another” is a violation of the 7th Commandment. (See also Deuteronomy 25:13-16; 24:14-15.) It would seem, then, that it is immoral to make money by exploiting stupidity and ignorance, for the very same reasons that it is immoral to exploit the weak and steal from the helpless.

The Catechism also lists various other economic 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.”

Theft may take a thousand forms beyond the most superficial and obvious.

Another helpful principle, which we must mention in passing, is the distinction between “ownership” and “use.” Here again, as Medaille explains, the having (ownership) is inextricably linked with the giving (use). Or, 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.” (Rerum Novarum, 22)

It should be apparent by now that such principles as these could never be properly realized if left to work themselves out via competition and individual initiative alone. Such a faith in market forces amounts to a denial of the fall of man, and, in the words of Pope Francis, “expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 54) 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 the moderating force in its exercise. Thus, Pope Benedict XVI explains that 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 again 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.” (2431)

The answer, then, can never be the autonomous market of liberal economics, but instead must be a properly ordered and oriented economy which integrates and is guided by the common good, and which refuses to worship the fictional absoluteness of rights.

At this point, justice would naturally be our next subject of discussion. First, however, we need to clear the fog away from a certain confusion of terms which has made any discussion of justice impossible. I am referring here to the intermingled definitions of the terms “Charity” and “Justice.” While these are two very distinct concepts, the distinction between them has decayed in the modern vernacular. Charity now means essentially whatever the speaker wants it to mean, leaving the concept of justice to spiral off into incoherence. This vital differentiation, then, is what we’ll talk about next week.

Daniel Schwindtis a member of the Solidarity Hall thinker-space, and the author of several books including Holocaust of the Childlike and The Pursuit of Sanity.

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