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The Right to Own Property is Important, but Not Absolute

farmhouse[1] [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.