The Church’s controversial teachings on private property and the universal destination of goods.
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”:
In this respect, Medaille is no radical thinker, for Pope Benedict XVI used precisely the same reasoning:
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:
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: