How much do you really own?
Catholic teaching says that what's mine is yours when it comes to ownership of private property.
Catholic social teaching used to be called the church’s “best kept secret.” But the secret is getting out in a surprising way. Prominent Catholic Congressman and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has invoked it repeatedly in support of his federal budget proposal. Not everyone agreed with his catechism lesson, and the controversy that ensued probably gave Catholic Social Teaching more public attention than any papal encyclical ever did.
Ryan’s budget includes deep cuts to important social programs including Medicaid, Head Start, Pell grants, and education and job training programs and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans. It also provides more money to the military than even the military requested. Ryan has cited Catholic teaching on subsidiarity, solidarity, and the preferential option for the poor to support it.
Bishops, priests, theologians, religious sisters, Catholic university faculty, and other social justice leaders have all publicly questioned Ryan’s grasp of Catholic Social Teaching. There’s no need to repeat their observations, but it is worth pointing out another element of Catholic Social Teaching that even further calls into question the economic thinking of Ryan, not to mention plenty of other politicians in both parties.
I’m referring to church teaching on the universal destination of goods, or the social purpose of private property. If you think folks scream “Stay out of my private life!” at the mention of Catholic teaching on abortion, contraception, or marriage, just wait until word gets out—and it hasn’t—that the church’s understanding of what it really means to own something is different than that of most Americans. And the church has something to say about what each of us morally can and can’t do with what we own.
Make no mistake, the universal destination of goods is an idea that pope after pope has insisted must have a place in our public life. John Paul II called it “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.”
Let’s be clear: the church supports our right to own private property. Pope Leo XIII argued in the Catholic Church’s first social encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) that this right is found in natural law. He said people need private property to live a decent life, a life of dignity. We have to provide for ourselves and our families, and to do this effectively, he said, we need to be able to own stuff, to possess things in a stable and permanent way. But Leo XIII went on to say that while it’s one thing to have a right to possess things, it is entirely another to think we have a right to do whatever we want with what we own.
But isn’t that what “owning something” means? It’s mine to do with whatever I want? Nope, says the pope. He quotes Thomas Aquinas: “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.”
The magisterium’s insistence on this point has only intensified since Leo XIII. Popes Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI—as well as the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church—all have been clear and emphatic: “Christian tradition has never upheld this right [to private property] as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” That’s how John Paul II put it in his 1981 encyclical, Laborem Exercens (On Human Work).
In short, when the right to private property comes in conflict with the common good, the common good always trumps private property. (Interestingly, John Paul II developed Catholic Social Teaching by including valuable intangibles like education, understanding, and access to technology among “the goods of the earth” to which all people have some right.)
It is a hard teaching, to be sure. But don’t blame these modern popes. They didn’t make it up. The idea has strong roots in the Bible and Christian tradition.
In the Old Testament, God demands that Israelites leave some food in their fields at harvest time so that the poor can eat, that they cancel debts owed to them by the poor every seven years, and that every 50 years ancestral lands that had been lost through debt or poverty be restored to the original owners.
In the New Testament, Jesus—known for his compassion and willingness to forgive—tells the story of the rich man who went to hell because he didn’t share his food with a poor man outside his door. And in the early Christian community, “no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common…. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need” (Acts 4: 32-35).
The Fathers of the Church recognized this social purpose of private property clearly in the Bible, and they expected Christians to live it. The great fourth-century bishop St. Ambrose of Milan wrote, “When giving to the poor you are not giving him what is yours; rather you are paying back to him what is his. Indeed what is common to all and has been given to all to make use of, you have usurped for yourself alone.” Sts. Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nanzianzus, and John Chrysostom agreed.
In the 13th century, Aquinas taught that private property is a reasonable thing, but that a person in extreme necessity can legitimately take what he needs from someone else. It is not stealing, he argued, nor is it a sin because in situations of dire need all things are common.
Clearly, in teaching the social purpose of private property, the popes are being faithful to ancient truths. And these truths continue to have real world consequences when we take them seriously.
For example, in 1965, Gaudium et Spes, one of the most important documents of Vatican II, pointed to vast rural estates of South America that went uncultivated while many families went without land to grow food. The document said, “[I]nsufficiently cultivated estates should be distributed to those who can make these lands fruitful; in this case, the necessary things and means, especially educational aids and the right facilities for cooperative organization, must be supplied. Whenever, nevertheless, the common good requires expropriation, compensation must be reckoned in equity after all the circumstances have been weighed.”
In our own day, the universal destination of goods refutes an every-man-for-himself approach to government and economics. Helping people in dire need is not an act of charity that we can engage in when we’re feeling magnanimous; it’s a moral imperative for both individuals and our governments.
Congressman Ryan’s comments in a recent National Catholic Register interview highlight the difference between some politicians’ economic thinking and church teaching. He said, “Basic economics and basic morality both tell us that people have a right to keep and decide how to spend their hard-earned dollars.” Neo-liberal economics may claim that to be true. But Catholic moral teaching suggests it’s not so simple.
The teaching also makes demands on us personally. It challenges us to question our attitudes about our money and possessions and about our responsibilities toward the many around us who live in situations of dire need. It compels us to ask, “What comes first—my Christianity or my capitalism?”