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The Right to Own Property is Important, but Not Absolute

farmhouse[1]Our political discourse often consists of a back-and-forth discussion between two seemingly irreconcilable extremes.

Many on the Left attack those on the Right as radical individualists who care nothing for the common good or for those who are less fortunate and in need of assistance. Many on the Right attack those on the Left as socialist technocrats who would trample the rights of the individual to achieve some elusive socially engineered utopia.

In truth, the most noble on both the Left and the Right are concerned with the common good which the Church defines as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 164). The conflict is partially the result of two differing perspectives on private property and its role in a just society.

Conservatives fear an outcome where individuals who work hard, innovate, save and invest wisely, and generally exercise responsibility in their personal affairs, lose the right to enjoy the fruits of their labors. If that happens, one of the primary motivations for productive activity will be lost, and society will suffer due to lower production of everything from food and clothing to new technologies that empower individuals and communities.

Liberals fear a “free market” that is anything but free, dominated by powerful interests that use outsized influence to stack the deck in their favor. The rich are therefore able to maintain their favored status, hoarding vast amounts of wealth without investing it in enterprises that provide opportunities for those at the lower levels of society.

What does Catholic Social Teaching have to say about the balance of property rights and the common good? In principle, the Church sees no conflict between the two; in fact, a respect for the right to own property is an essential element in advancing the common good. In Rerum Novarum, the first social encyclical, Pope Leo XIII condemned socialism (the communal ownership of the means of production through the instrument of the State) and affirmed that “every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own (RerumNovarum, 6).”

Furthermore, Pope Leo affirms, at least in part, the modern American conservative’s conviction that financial gain provides an appropriate incentive toward productivity in service to the common good (Rerum Novarum, 8), and states that “the practice of all ages has consecrated the principle of private ownership, as being preeminently in conformity with human nature, and as conducing in the most unmistakable manner to the peace and tranquility of human existence” (Rerum Novarum, 11). This respect for individual property is grounded in the divine law, particularly the Seventh and Tenth Commandments, which prohibit theft and disordered desire for the goods of others.

The discussion must not end there, however. Even prior to a respect for private property, we find the principle of the universal destination of goods, which is perhaps one of the least understood, and yet extremely important, principles in the Social Doctrine of the Church. Revelation tells us that God has entrusted the entirety of His physical creation to the stewardship of humanity, for the benefit of all men and women (Genesis 1:28-29).

The gift of the earth to humanity as a whole, and not to a select few, “remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2403). This principle makes it clear that the right to private property has its limits, and that those limits are defined by the common good.

Here the Church, up to a point, affirms the modern American liberal’s concern that it is possible, without appropriate oversight, for a capitalist economic system to become disordered to the point that it no longer provides opportunity for the advancement of disadvantaged individuals and groups within a society.

So, what does this mean for us, here and now? It means that both the Left and the Right have legitimate concerns, but often do not express the complete picture.

There is indeed a danger that an ever-expanding state can create undue burdens upon individuals and private enterprise, jeopardizing the ability of each person to achieve their full potential and further the common good. The Church recognizes in the principle of subsidiarity that governments are required “to refrain from anything that would de facto restrict the existential space of the smaller essential cells of society. Their initiative, freedom and responsibility must not be supplanted” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 186).

The smallest and most essential cell of society is the family. The bishops have been unwavering in their support of the family and in the right of families to make decisions appropriate to them, particularly in the rearing of children.

For this reason, they support state policies that empower parents with greater freedom in choosing the type of education received by their children, while also maintaining a strong system of public schools.

Also, financial profit is not to be seen as an end in and of itself, but as a means to achieve the common good. If profits are being acquired through unjust means that undermine the common good, the state may need to regulate a private industry.

For this reason, the bishops also support initiatives such as a cap on payday loans, which have been shown to trap the financially vulnerable in a cycle of debt. The defense by the industry that they are simply engaging in “free enterprise” does not absolve them of moral responsibility for the harm they cause in the pursuit of financial gain.

The principles of Catholic Social Teaching are not expressed completely in the platforms of either major American political party. As Catholics, we are called to work within the political system, including within any party to which we may belong, to advance policies that further respect for the dignity of the human person and the greater realization of the common good.

May we always be followers of Jesus Christ first, and only then Republicans or Democrats.


Jason Hall is an attorney and Catholic convert. After spending some time working in the political world followed by a brief sojourn in seminary, he apparently discovered the value of moderation and now works as a the Executive Director for the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. In his spare time, he likes to read great books, analyze political and social trends, and cheer on his beloved Cincinnati Reds.
Jason Hall is an attorney and Catholic convert. After spending some time working in the political world followed by a brief sojourn in seminary, he apparently discovered the value of moderation and now works as a the Executive Director for the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. In his spare time, he likes to read great books, analyze political and social trends, and cheer on his beloved Cincinnati Reds. - See more at: http://www.catholiclane.com/author/jason-hall/#sthash.7VlJdLrA.dpuf

  • goral

    This is the kind of “middle of the road”, moderate thinking that always
    grows the Left and shrinks the Right. Catholic social teaching and the
    thinking of most US bishops is correct on this yet, incredibly naive.
    One
    has to analyze how the dynamics of this play out in the political
    world. We have, to date, many models to decisively demonstrate that in a precarious partnership of church and state for the betterment of the population,
    the State always wins and the Church along with the populace always
    loose.
    Knowing this full well, the church continues to court the favor of the state and
    moderates continue to write their moderate manifestos. Why, oh why?
    Because, otherwise they would have to call their work and their ideology by it’s real name – The Communist Manifesto.
    The later is a non-starter while the former is so darn appealing that it always wins the day for moderates and communists.

  • Kevin Symonds

    Mr. Hall’s discussion needs to be balanced with the proper function of caritas in this matter. Pope Benedict XVI elucidated this quite well in his first Encyclical.

  • Guy C Stevenson

    I only have one comment: Got Freedom Under God?

  • Guy C Stevenson

    “Long Lost” Book by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Republished

    Arlington, Virginia, Monday, September 2, 2013. In 1940, on the eve of the
    United States’ entry into World War II, the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) published Freedom Under God. The all-volunteer, interfaith Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) has republished a new, annotated version of this neglected classic under its “Economic Justice Media” imprint, complete with an in-depth foreword written especially for this edition, as well as a bibliography and index not included in the first edition.

    While Freedom Under God addresses the loss of true freedom throughout the world, Sheen’s special concern was freedom of religion. This is under increasing attack today. Individual life as well as marriage and the family are
    also in grave danger as the State continues to expand its power to fill the vacuum left by the growing powerlessness of ordinary people.

    Then-Monsignor Sheen traced the rise of totalitarian State power in the first half of the 20th century to the fact that fewer and fewer people in America and throughout the world owned capital — what Sheen called “creative wealth.” As Sheen argued, only widespread private property in capital has the capacity to restore the material foundation of true freedom.

    In conformity with the precepts of the natural law on which Sheen relied to develop his thought, CESJ adds that genuine economic reform must also comply with the three interdependent principles of Economic Justice: Participative Justice, Distributive Justice, and Harmonic Justice. Lawyer-economist Louis O. Kelso and Aristotelian philosopher Mortimer J. Adler first described these principles in Chapter 5 of their bestselling The Capitalist
    Manifesto (1958).

    Sheen’s warnings fell on deaf ears. Thanks to the acceptance of Keynesian economics, the wage-welfare system within a State-controlled, inflationary, debt-ridden economy has become the dominant model for economic development throughout the world.

    The world needs the wisdom of Fulton Sheen now more than ever. The republication of Freedom Under God helps introduce the work of this pivotal thinker to a new generation of readers and students.

    Fulton J. Sheen’s Freedom Under God, ISBN 978-0-944997-11-6, cover price $20.00, will soon be available on-line from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and by special order from selected other bookstores. Quantity discounts are available for schools, religious institutions, and civic groups.

    Contact:
    Michael D. Greaney
    (Enable Javascript to see the email address)
    4318 North 31st Street
    Arlington, Virginia 22207
    Telephone: (703) 243-5155

    “Without property, the saint may achieve spiritual liberty, but within the present social order it is impossible for anyone short of a saint to achieve it without property.” ~ Fulton J. Sheen, Freedom under God, (1940).

  • texasknight

    Top 10 Intrinsic Evils perpetrated by the US Government:
    10. Wealth Redistribution & unabated expansion of the National Debt: Theft sold as “social justice.” In reality, it has enslaved generations and crippled our economy causing a growth in poverty.
    9. Legalized & Funded Embryonic Stem Cell Research: an insidious form of cannibalism.
    8. Legalized & Promoted Pornography: breeds lust & destroys the ability to properly bond in marriage.
    7. Attacks on Freedom of Conscience (e.g., HHS mandate): erodes our ability to live & practice our Faith.
    6. Attempts to Redefine Marriage: denies the primacy of God’s Word. Promotes acceptance of disordered sexual behavior, thus encouraging more of the same.
    5. Non-Abstinence only Sex Education: Promotes & encourages sexual acts outside of Holy matrimony.
    4. No Fault Divorce Laws: destroys the foundation of civilization & breeds selfishness with no regard for children.
    3. Legalized & Funded Hormonal Contraception (despite it being a category 1 carcinogen): separates couples from the Grace of God and leads to the acceptance of all the other top 10 evils.
    2. Legalized & Funded Abortion: 58+ million innocent lives ripped from their mother’s womb. And know that Jesus has watched each and every one.
    1. Removal of God from public life: a clear disregard of the 1st commandment.

    “Woe to you if you do not succeed in defending Life.” Pope John Paul II, 1993
    “More souls go to hell for sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” Our Lady of Fatima, 1917

  • Bill_B

    I would like this article, except for this statement in the 4th-to-last paragraph: “Profit … is … to be seen as … a means to achieve the common good.”

    Mr. Hall makes this statement to lead into his reference to a real problem, the problem of profits obtained by unjust means. The mistake is that profits, like wages and salaries, are to be seen as individual goods. Assuming these are not unjustly earned, they belong to the individual according to the God-given right of private property.

    (Also, as Mr. Stevenson has reminded us in his comments on this article, the principles of Catholic social teaching include the principle that WIDESPREAD ownership of capital assets is to be sought, There is a proposed “Just Third Way” that is neither Left or Right, and I honestly believe it is based on justice, but it is proposed as an act of charity.)

  • Michael D. Greaney

    The article is a little confused and confusing. The right TO property IS absolute. The right to own is inherent in human nature, a reflection of God’s Nature, and cannot be changed or removed without making people less than or other than human. As Leo XIII explained,

    “[E]very man has by nature the right to possess property as his own. This is one of the chief points of distinction between man and the animal creation.” (Rerum Novarum, § 6.)

    Thus, every human being who lives, has lived, or will live has an inalienable right to be an owner. In that sense, the right to own is absolute.

    What is NOT absolute is the EXERCISE of property, the rights OF property. Saying that the right to property is not absolute is socialism, as it implies a change in essential human nature. Saying that the rights of property are absolute is capitalism, as it implies that someone can do as he or she likes with what is owned, which is not the case.

    The problem is that, trapped by “the slavery of past savings,” most people don’t see any way in which people without property can become owners unless they take it from someone else. The only way that can be justified is if the right to be an owner is not absolutely part of human nature, as socialists have been maintaining for centuries.

    Changing human nature is unnecessary once we realize that ownership can be financed out of “future savings” as well as past savings. Instead of limiting financing to what can be saved by reducing consumption, which necessarily restricts ownership to a private sector elite (capitalism) or the State (socialism), new capital can be financed by turning the present value of future increases in production into money and repaying the loan of new money out of future profits. In this way it would be possible for every child, woman, and man to own capital without redistributing what already belongs to others.

    This is described in the book, “Capital Homesteading for Every Citizen” (2004).