The Catholic Church, then, is the protagonist on the one side, and a body of thought, vaguely grouped under the term “Socialist.” The protagonist on the other-and this division rules throughout Europe.
Let us now examine the exact doctrine of the Catholic Church in this matter.
I think it may be fairly stated as follows :-
1. The right to property in material things is a moral right, attaching not only to the community, but also to private corporations, .i.e., corporations other than the community, to families, and to individuals.
2. This right extends not only over objects consumed in use, but also over objects consumed in production, and over land. It does not attach to particular categories of things. Its boundaries may vary with varying customs and traditions. But its presence as a normal institution of human society is essential to the health of that society.
3. Like every other right, this right stands in a certain scale of proportion to the rest. It may be suspended for the service of a greater right; it must not be suspended for the service of a lesser.
4. Finally, this function of property, like all other human attributes, is distorted when it is defined in isolation. It must be taken in with the mass of all other human functions, and is subject, as is every one of them, to the general modifications imposed by the generalities of human existence.
This definition is a long one, and contains several terms necessarily vague. It is none the less, I think, inclusive and exclusive, and if we put it to the test of a few concrete instances, we shall find it will stand the test.
(a) During a siege, or in a boat of shipwrecked men, when one individual or portion of the community owns the sole store of food, has he a right in property over it? Can he use it or withhold it at pleasure?
No. His right in property yields to a higher right, which is the right of human beings to subsistence. What was his property in normal circumstances can be claimed for the use of all and distributed to all.
(b) A portion of the community owns all the stores of clothing, housing, and food. In the exercise of this right, many of the community suffer wretchedness; they have not a normal human subsistence. Is the government bound to respect the right of Private Property to such a degree as to allow the wretchedness to continue?
No. The general needs of human existence here modify the strict isolated definition of Private Property. Human subsistence must be found and the wretchedness must be relieved. It is better that this be done by the owner of his own will. Such an action is of profit to him as well as to his neighbour. But if he fail in this, the executive power of the community has a moral right to interfere.
(c) I suffer some discomfort and annoyance, not to the degree of wretchedness or misery. I am disturbed, but not lowered in my human dignity nor seriously interfered with in my main human functions, by the unequal distribution of goods. Have I the right to compel a more equal distribution under these circumstances, or has the executive of the State, the “Prince” as it may technically be called, the moral right to interfere with the institution of Private Property for my relief?
No. I have not the right to do so-it would be theft. Nor has the government the right to do it for me. It would be injustice. It is, of course, a question of degree and of circumstances. But the distinction between wretchedness and annoyance or discomfort is a very important one, for in it lies one great part of the modern quarrel. If Property be not a moral institution with moral rights attaching to it, then even a small measure of discomfort due to unequal distribution has a right to relief at the expense of the better off. But if it is a moral institution, then only acute necessity has an imperative right to relief at the expense of existing property.
(d) If by the vote of a conscious, active, and sincere majority-the real expression of strong majority opinion-it be determined that Private Property shall cease to exist in the State, and that the control of material objects shall be vested solely in the officials of the State, is the execution of that decision, with the consequences it involves, moral or not?
It is immoral. No mere majority vote can justly suppress a normal human right. The right of a majority to govern is less than the right of a man to normal living. Thus a majority would not have the right to forbid marriage to the minority merely because it was a majority, and because those thus unjustly treated were a minority.
(e) If the whole of a political* community comes to such a decision that property shall cease among its members, would that decision be moral, and might it stand without offence to justice?
Yes; supposing such a purely hypothetical state of affairs to be possible it would create no injustice. Supposing a political body of men to adopt this inhuman conclusion, then, while they were in that mood, obviously they could so act without doing wrong to any member; being all agreed.
In both these cases, you have again what comes in everywhere in human affairs-the question of degree. The former of the two propositions just mentioned is quite clear in the case of fifty-one men with an income of £200 a year establishing Communism by a majority vote, because the other forty-nine had £250 a year each. But it is less obvious, and indeed less true, as the proportion changes. An overwhelming majority of a community in which a very few controlled all land and machinery would have the right to effect a better distribution but not on that account to deny the fundamental principle of Property.
Again, a community wholly Communist with one or two small proprietors in its midst might justly insist on the disappearance of such anomalies.
But none of these cases can, in the real world, arise. Men do not desire to dispossess themselves of property, nor by a free vote would they ever destroy its existence where it was generally established. But in pure theory an overwhelming majority, and still more unanimity of opinion, is the master of its own temporal arrangements. It would be ridiculous to deny, for instance, that a few score emigrant families, filled with a Communist enthusiasm and starting out to found their Utopia, had no moral right to pool their private properties and make the experiment. Of course they have that right.
And here I must note a principle which will have to be repeated more than once even in these few pages.
Though Catholic principle does not deny the right of an isolated community to act thus, and it certainly does not call it sinful to act thus, yet it does most emphatically deny the normality of the action. Catholic principle does most certainly affirm that men in their right senses and with any hope of establishing a permanent organization, must base this upon the co-existence of Private Property side by side with Public. Catholic common sense perceives that, in a very short time, Communist experiment would lead in practice to the contravention of certain other Catholic principles which are absolute.
Among other things, it would lead to the super-session of the authority of the Family by that of the State, and to the negation of individual freedom in things where such a freedom is essential to the salvation of the soul.
* Religious orders are not a case in point. They abandon property precisely because property is normal to ordinary human life in this world, from which they withdraw themselves for a peculiar unpolitical, unworldly end. Their community of goods is no more an argument against property than is their celibacy against marriage.
Originally appeared in a tract for The Catholic Truth Society.