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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 - updated on 06/07/17

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)

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