Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Property is Yours, Mine, and Ours

WITH RESPECT TO PROPERTY, the Church's social doctrine balances two principles: the universal destination of goods and the right to private ownership. As a matter of natural law, the Church recognizes that there is such a thing as private property, that property may be divided into "mine" and "yours." How else, for example, could one justify the divine Commandments which are at the same time one of natural law, "You shall not steal" and "You shall not covet your neighbor's goods"?

At the same time, all property, whether it is "mine" or "yours," is in a different and yet real sense also "ours," or, in the words the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, has a "universal destination" to the common good. Ultimately, the notion of the "universal destination" of all goods comes from the Lord's dominion over all property, including that property which is "mine" and "yours." "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it." (Psalm 24:1; 1 Cor. 10:26) "The principle of the universal destination of goods is an affirmation of God's full and perennial lordship over every reality and of the requirement that the goods of creation remain ever destined to the development of the whole person and of all humanity." (Compendium, No. 177)

The right to private property, though "sacred and inviolable" as Leo XIII stated,* is not therefore absolute. If it were absolute, private property could be owned and used in complete disregard of obligation to God and to our neighbor. And if that were true, no one could complain of the inhumanity, not to mention the injustice and lack of charity, of the rich man who sits on his hoard of bread while those around him starve. Yet to chastise that sort of behavior is exactly what St. John and St. James and most of us would naturally do. "He who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (1 John 3:17) "If a brother or a sister be naked and in want of daily food and one of you say to them, 'Go in peace, be warm and filled,' yet you do not give them what is necessary for the body, what does it profit?" (James 2:15-16) Who but the Midases of this world would not add their voices to this?

The Parable of Dives and Lazarus
Codex Aureus Epternacensis (Goldenes Evangeliar) ca. 1035-40 A.D.

Both James and John seem implicitly to be referring to Jesus' parable of the relationship between the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. Aren't their complaints against the rich for their misuse of property in disregard of the poor the same fault that Jesus placed upon the rich man who disregarded Lazarus? None of the statements of Sts. John and James or nothing of Jesus' parable would make sense to us if we did not already recognize that the poor have some moral claim upon our private property. This moral claim comes from our implicit awareness of the "universal destination" of goods.

Private property must never be absolutized, for it then becomes an idol, an end, and not a means. "Those people and societies that go so far as to absolutize the role of property end up experiencing the bitterest type of slavery. . . . Owners who heedlessly idolize their goods. . . become owned and enslaved by them. Only by recognizing that these goods are dependent on God the Creator and then directing their use to the common good, is it possible to give material goods their proper function as useful tools for the growth of individuals and peoples." (Compendium, No. 181)

Private ownership of property does not absolve us from using that property in a morally right way. "The universal destination of goods entails obligations on how goods are to be used by their legitimate owners." (Compendium, No. 178) There are obvious moral duties associated with private ownership, and these moral duties have reference to the common good, and in particular the poor. Because of these moral duties, the right to private property is relative, not absolute, and the common good has a claim on it. Yet again the existence of these moral duties attendant to property ownership does not mean that all property is owned in common, and we have no right to private ownership.

Some ways to understand the interaction between private ownership of property and property's "universal destination" are along the lines of thinking of the latter as a sort of mortgage, claim, limitation, or trust. Private property has a sort of covenant or limitation that runs with it, what John Paul II in his Encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis--drawing from prior teaching even as far back as St. Ambrose and the Apostle John**--called a "social mortgage." Private property, while truly owned by individuals, is held in trust for the common good. Though the property may be "mine," it never quite loses its tie to the common good, to its "universal destination" to which the "mine" is answerable.

The notion of the universal destination of goods is based upon the notion that in its original grant to mankind of the world, "God gave the earth," not to any one man or group of men to the exclusion of others, but "to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone." (Compendium, No. 171) There is therefore an original "universal right to use the goods of the earth," a "right to common use," which leaves its imprint on all property, even that property privately owned. This original grant survives the matrix of private property. There is therefore always a residue of claim, this "social mortgage," in any property privately owned that requires all property to be "shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity." (Compendium, No. 171) It is this residue of a claim that is the source of moral obligations we may have--above that of pure self interest--in the use of our property.

But one should not understand this notion of the universal destination of goods as a denial of the the natural right to private ownership of goods, of which the Church has been a great defender against the ideologies of Communism and Socialism. Pope Leo XIII could not have been more clear: "The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property." (Rerum novarum, No. 8)

The Church has made it clear that the universal destination of goods is not a right to common ownership. "Universal destination and utilization of goods does not mean that everything is at the disposal of each person or of all people, or that the same object may be useful or belong to each person or of all people." (Compendium, No. 173) The Church "excludes recourse to forms of 'common and promiscuous dominion.'"*** (Compendium, No. 176) In other words, it is wrong to think that this universal destination of goods allows one to disrespect the natural right of private ownership and the human institutions and variety of positive laws that govern or clarify those rights.

Therefore, the universal destination of goods does not justify the wrongful taking of private property--whether by individuals or governments--even if it be purportedly for the common good. It is, rather, depending upon the circumstances, a sort of more or less loose or strict limitation, burden, "mortgage," or claim upon the private owner's use of the property he owns. In making use of his property, the private owner cannot disregard this universal destination. Ultimately, private property has something more than a mere private function: it has a social function, a social role.

At the same time, private property should not be viewed as an end, but it is a means--and by all measures the most efficient means--to implement the universal destination of goods. "Private property, in fact, regardless of the concrete forms of regulations and juridical norms relative to it, is in the essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods; in the final analysis, therefore, it is not an end but a means." (Compendium, No. 177)

The notion of the universal destination of goods includes not only natural goods, such as land, minerals, and their fruit and products, but derived goods: those obtained through our labor or our ingenuity. It includes what the Compendium calls "new goods," goods engendered by "knowledge, technology, and know-how." (Compendium, No. 179) Therefore, it also includes credit, financial instruments and money, intellectual property such as technology and scientific knowledge, which too often is overly protected by positive laws giving rise to monopolies and other barriers that prevent this knowledge from being being fairly at the disposal of all mankind. When, for example, does a huge pharmaceutical company's right to charge an exorbitant price for the formula of a drug that can cure the ills of mankind end? Do the sick not have some claim upon it? There is something unpalatable about having the the secret to reduce our neighbor's suffering, and refusing to share it unless someone puts a lot of money in one's pocket.

It is this social mortgage which justifies, for example, taxes on private property by the public authorities so that it may be used to assure that all citizens have access to basic social services such as food, shelter, healthcare, education, security, and so forth, to the extent that they are unable to provide these for themselves from the property that they have or the labor of their bodies. It is also what is behind the justification for eminent domain powers or what justifies the State's right to regulate the use of our property.

The universal destination of the goods has a particular force when it pertains to the poor, the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without adequate health care, and those whose life seems hopeless for want of any goods requisite for human flourishing. "The principle of the universal destination of goods requires that the poor, the marginalized, and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern." (Compendium, No. 182)

Poverty, however, is not only material poverty. It includes cultural, religious, and spiritual poverty. (Compendium, No.184)

While it may be true that the poor will, until Christ's second coming, always be with us, the poor are to be viewed as a sacred trust. Our treatment of the world's poor will be a standard by which we will be judged. (Compendium, No. 183; cf. Matt.25:31-46) The poor are to be loved, and they exert a "special form of primacy" in the exercise of our charity and in our considerations of what is just. (Compendium, No. 182)

The preferential option for the poor and the urgent claim it has on our conscience, in both charity and justice, and in the proper use of our goods is perhaps best summarized by the 6th century Pope St. Gregory the Great (ca.540-604):
When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is their, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.

Nam cum qualibet necessaria indigentibus ministramus, sua illis reddimus, non nostra largimur; iustitae potius debitum solvimus.

Regula Pastoralis, 3,21: PL 77,87.

*Leo XIII, Rerum novarum, No. 40.
**St. John and St. Ambrose are quoted by Pope Paul VI in his encyclical
Populorum progressio: "He who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?" [1 John 3:17] Everyone knows that the Fathers of the Church laid down the duty of the rich toward the poor in no uncertain terms. As St. Ambrose put it: 'You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.' [De Nabute, c. 12, n. 53: PL 14. 747] These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional."
Compendium erroneously cites to Leo XIII's Rerum novarum, 11, for this phrase. In fact, the phrase shows up in section 7 of the Italian version of Rerum novarum (poiché quel dono egli lo fece a tutti, non perché ognuno ne avesse un comune e promiscuo dominio, bensì in quanto non assegnò nessuna parte del suolo determinatamente ad alcuno, lasciando ciò all'industria degli uomini e al diritto speciale dei popoli.). In the English translation, it is found in paragraph 8, not translated as "common and promiscuous," but translated thus: "For God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man's own industry, and by the laws of individual races." The Latin text of this phrase is found in Paragraph 7: "Deus enim generi hominum donavisse terram in commune dicitur, non quod eius promiscuum apud omnes dominatum voluerit, sed quia partem nullam cuique assignavit possidendam, industriae hominum institutisque populorum permissa privatarum possessionum descriptione." I would translate the Latin thus: "For God granted the earth to humankind in common, that is to say, not in the sense that it may be promiscuously handled by all as they desire, but rather that no part was assigned to any one in particular, leaving the assignment and limits of private possession to be determined through man's industry and and through the various people's institutions and laws."

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