Is the right to private property limited?
All people have both the right and moral responsibility when it comes to the things they own.
Catholic social teaching’s defense of private property traces all the way back to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor). Today, however, given anxieties over data, privacy, and digital rights, Leo’s concern for “land and chattels” seems quaint. Thankfully, Catholic social teaching in the 20th century has a growing understanding that what private property is is less important than what private property does. Used rightly, private property secures and improves the lives of its owners and society at large.
Catholic social teaching upholds private property as one of the most important ways to promote individual security and family stability. For these important reasons, the dignity and rights of the human person necessitate access to private ownership. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes God’s plan for humankind in Genesis 1:26–27, expanding on the scripture by saying, “The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.”
If this is true, then lacking access to private property is a significant social, ethical, and theological problem. Such obstacles reduce people’s abilities to secure their livelihoods and contribute to society. Personal development requires taking responsibility and care for possessions in order to live in solidarity with others. More ultimately, denying someone access to private property is unjust because no human ownership is absolute.
But just as recognizing God’s ultimate sovereignty not only supports ownership of private property, it also limits it. Catholic social thought stresses that despite the importance of private property, the goods of God’s earth are meant for the flourishing of all people. All created things belong to God their creator. To be an owner of private property is to be “a steward of God’s providence,” according to Gregory the Great.
Just as it is unjust to deny access to the goods of the earth (physical or otherwise) that could secure a person or family’s livelihood, it is also unjust to use the goods of the earth in a way that undermines or harms the flourishing of others. When one’s possessions are beyond necessary for their own security, when one’s private ownership undermines other people’s access to comparable security, or when one’s use of private property damages the well-being of others, that owner’s moral right to private property may be mitigated or lost altogether.
In the end, this Catholic perspective reflects a commitment to the well-being of all people alongside the theological acknowledgement of God as creator of all. All people have a right to the benefits of the earth as well as a moral responsibility to use the goods in their possession in service to the will of God, who is the ultimate source of their being.
This article also appears in the May 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 5, page 49).
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