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

Pavel P

Daniel Schwindt - published on 04/22/14 - updated on 06/07/17

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.

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