Now we have considered wealth to some extent but the possibility of wealth presupposes the institution of private property. The liberal Catholics who hold Capitalism to be an article of the faith love this topic believing that it proves that the Church supports the Capitalist ethic. They point to Leo XIII’s acknowledgement of private property in Rerum Novarum and conclude therefore the Church supports private property. This conclusion is true in general but not in the way it is often meant. The Church does not defend private property in the same sense as Capitalism does. We have to read Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum in light of what the Catholic Church has always understood by the “right” to private property. I, actually, am going to refrain from using the term the “right” to private property as I do not believe the word right accurately conveys the concept of property taught by Catholic principles. I will use the term “the institution of private property.” For the concept involves much more than mere “rights.” Private property involves duties, which duties give rise to certain rights.
For our purposes I am going to pass over the philosophical debate over whether the institution of private property existed in the natural law from the beginning or whether it was established after and as a result of the Fall (although I do not mean by doing so to imply this debate is of no importance). We will deal with private property as part of the natural law at least as of the Fall.
St. Augustine in addressing the place of private property in the natural law says: “We must ascribe to the true God alone the power to grant kingdoms and empires. He … grants earthly kingdoms both to the good and to the evil, in accordance with his pleasure…. It is beyond anything incredible that he should have willed the kingdoms of men, their dominations and their servitudes, to be outside the range of the laws of his providence.” We can observe two things from this statement. God wills the institution of private property by including it in the natural law, again ignoring for the moment when that occurred. Secondly, since God willed such an institution, it is senseless to assert that it is outside of his province. It is like saying: “Thank you very much for the private property God, but now go back to heaven and let us do with it as we please.” This is the classic enlightenment view of God as clock maker who winds up the world and then detaches from it. That is not the true God, the God that the Church proclaims.
So, what is private property and why does it exist, why did God place it in the natural law? St. Thomas provides a great summary of several centuries of thought on this question. I am going to quote the passage at length as it is so important in understanding the nature of the institution and why it exists:
Two things are competent to man in respect of exterior things. One is the power to procure and dispense them, and in this regard it is lawful for man to possess property. Moreover this is necessary to human life for three reasons. First because every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens where there is a great number of servants. Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately. Thirdly, because a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to be observed that quarrels arise more frequently where there is no division of the things possessed. The second thing that is competent to man with regard to external things is their use. On this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need. Hence the Apostle says (1 Timothy 6:17-18): ‘Charge the rich of this world … to give easily, to communicate to others,’ etc.
St. Thomas’s definition of private property contains two parts. First it involves the ability to acquire and to dispose of things. We usually refer to these two concepts by the term “ownership.” He explains why this ownership is helpful to human society. It solves what modern economic theory would call a prisoner’s dilemma. It thus has efficiency benefits. Secondly, he explains that private property brings order to human affairs. Order in human society is a good. Third, St. Thomas points out that, connected to order, private property promotes peace and harmony, states of existence which are conducive to growth in the spiritual life. Notice, although there are efficiencies caused by the institution of private property, efficiency (getting more stuff) is not the only justification proposed. It creates other goods for the community other than the ability to produce more wealth.
The second aspect of the definition of private property is an ability to use the material good involved in the exercise of private property. So it is possible to acquire things “as your own” but not to use them completely “as your own” but “in common.” The right to use may not be exercised solely with an eye to the individual benefit of the owner. Individual use must be considered in light of the common good. This does not mean that we are obligated to use property against our interest or in a personally harmful way but we need to use property in a way that harmonizes with the common good. This second aspect of the definition conflicts with the modern, Capitalist sense of private property—the right to do with my stuff as I see fit. My home is my castle! Due to this modern exaggeration of property, St. Thomas’s understanding of the limitations on our use of private property is difficult for us to comprehend. To aid in doing so it is necessary to contemplate how we go about acquiring objects of private property. Here, Giles of Rome can provide a useful insight. “There may be no lordship with justice over temporal things or lay persons or anything else which is not under the Church and through the Church: for example, this man or that cannot with justice possess a farm or a vineyard or anything else which he has unless he holds it under the Church and through the Church.” Giles is describing the origins of property in terms of the feudal system. This system of dividing property is based on the correspondence of rights and obligations. The head of the feudal system, the king, invests someone with a fief, land which becomes the vassal’s property. This vassal in turn invests other vassals with parts of this land which in turn pass to them. Each vassal is, however, invested with his fief only after he takes an oath to fulfill the obligations which are associated with the property. The feudal lord’s use of his fief is limited by the rules of the feudal system. He may not just decide one day to tell all the serfs to get off of his land as he has decided to hire workers to farm it claiming “a man’s home is his castle!” He has the right to benefit from the produce of his fief but does not have the right to do with it whatever he chooses.
In addition to the duties running down from the lord of the manor, he has duties running up to the person from whom he received the fief. He must render service to his lord and must obey the laws and customs set down by his over lord with respect to the fief. This essence of this specific system of rights and obligations as applied to the lands of Europe was seen as providing principles which could be abstracted to understand the nature of property philosophically. God as creator owns everything; He is the ultimate overlord. Everything men use, they receive from Him. God has granted it to us for private use by dispersing it as He sees fit through the Church. The idea is that the Church as Christ’s representative on earth is the seniorial overlord of all property owners. Thus, we owe duties to the Church with respect to what we do with our property. Further, as overlord, the Church has the right to set rules regarding our use of the property allocated to us. If the Duke of a manor breaks the feudal laws regarding the use of his fief established by his overlord, he has violated the rights of the overlord who granted the fief. The terms of grant, the promise to honor the obligations connected with the property, has been broken. Thus, under this view we cannot understand “property rights’ without understanding the “obligations” embedded in the system of distribution of that property. Thus, “our” property is not “ours” absolutely in that our use of property is limited by rules established by God and His Church. In the next section we will see how the obligation to give alms (or use some of our property to aid those in need) is one of the restrictions on our use of property.
Before turning to this topic, however, we need to say a word on how individuals acquire property. We have established that it is held from God through the Church but in what manner is it acquired? Fortescue, commenting on Genesis explains the origin of this process: “[I]n which words there was granted to man property in the things which he by his own sweat [my italics] could obtain…. For since the bread which man would acquire in sweat would be his own, and since no one could eat bread without the sweat of his own countenance, every man who did not sweat was forbidden to eat the bread which another had acquired by his sweat…. And thus the inheritable ownership of things first broke forth. For by the words bread our elders teach us, we are to understand not only what is eaten and drunk but everything by which man is sustained; and by the word sweat, all the industry of man.” Passages such as this are often seized upon to justify “You can eat what you kill.” The products of your sweat are yours to do with as you wish. Yet, such a view takes the process of acquiring property out of the context of the overall system. Yes, we acquire property through work but our use of the property once acquired is still governed by the obligations God has decreed as ultimate overlord. Thus, although the feudal knight would receive his fief through work (performing a military service to the lord), this work produced the fief but did not exempt him from the feudal obligations attendant to the fief. Thus, we earn the right to particular property through our work but once obtained we hold that property subject to the rules of the true owner, God. Such an idea is at odds with both the Communists’ and the Capitalists’ notion of property. To the Communist, the state takes the place of God and owns all property. Work does not give rise to property rights. The state distributes property in its caprice. To the Capitalist, property exists without obligation. It is acquired by work and once acquired its use is within the sole discretion of the owner.
Charity, Justice and Almsgiving
Almsgiving or acts of charity are often characterized by capitalistic Catholics as a subject of free choice. You may have encountered the argument: “Charity is great. Capitalism encourages it by encouraging the production of excessive wealth that can be used in almsgiving. Everyone is free to perform charity if they so choose.” This argument can be summarized as “almsgiving is optional. If you want to do it that is great for you.” Catholic teaching on the other hand sees almsgiving as more than a mere pious option.
Peter Lombard placed together two apparently contradictory texts from St. Augustine:
“Justice is in the relief of misery” and “Almsgiving is a work of mercy.”
The first passage appeared to consider almsgiving, the relief of misery, an obligation of justice. The second passage in contrast asserts that almsgiving is an act of mercy. By definition, mercy is not something required by justice but something above and beyond the requirements of justice. It is not merciful to do what justice demands. There is a reconciliation of this apparent contradiction. St. Thomas’s explanation of this reconciliation is well reasoned, as always: “Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): ‘It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.’”
Thus, each man is obligated to give alms from the amount of wealth which he possesses which is above and beyond abundance. We met the concept of abundance earlier; it was the list of licit reasons for acquiring wealth. Superabundance is above and beyond these. If we have gained wealth to this magnitude we are obligated to give alms to those in need out of this superabundance. The obligation is so great that if we fail to fulfill it, our retention of this property is a theft, we eat another man’s bread. Our use of this superabundance is restricted by this obligation.
Yet, there is a second obligation of almsgiving beyond superabundance. St. Thomas continues: “Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.” Thus, when a person is in extreme need we are obligated to give to him the property we have, not qualified by superabundance, which will enable his survival. This obligation is clearly one of justice for if we fail to perform it the one in need may take what he needs. Since all property is God’s in the first place and since God wills that owners are obligated to use their property to aid one in extreme need, the one in need has property rights in that which he needs to survive, exemplified by the fact that St. Thomas says taking it is not theft or robbery. The man is taking what belongs to him. Translating this concept into modern legal parlance: extreme necessity establishes a property right in the one in need with respect to the goods of another. Now I must emphasize that this obligation to give succor is limited to cases of extreme need. So you cannot take your neighbor’s wallet to pay for a new plasma TV because you really “need” it. Extreme necessity involves real danger of actual survival.
Thus, Catholic teaching has identified two instances when almsgiving is not optional but required. St. Thomas uses these instances to reconcile the statements of Augustine: “Accordingly we are bound to give alms of our surplus, as also to give alms to one whose need is extreme: otherwise almsgiving, like any other greater good, is a matter of counsel.” Thus, Augustine was not contradicting himself. In certain cases (superabundance and in cases of extreme need) almsgiving is a requirement of justice. Our acceptance of our property from God is bounded by these requirements. When these conditions are not present, then almsgiving is optional, a counsel.
In the first instance, where almsgiving is required by justice out of superabundance, we may wonder to whom is the almsgiving owed. Since we have seen that the Catholic institution of private property is rooted in relationships (the lord to his vassal) Catholic thinkers have worked out orders of obligation in giving alms based on relationships. Thus, one owes a duty of alms to one’s family in preference to strangers. If there is none in one’s family in need, among strangers, some gave priority to groups such as: all Christians, the old, the sick, and those who fell blamelessly from wealth to poverty. An example from English literature explains the order thus: “Nevertheless us must keep order in giving and take need to the cause and to the manner of need in them that we give alms to, for why some be poor by their will and some against their will. And they that are poor by their will, some are poor for the love of God and some for the love of the world. They that be poor for the love of God must be helped passing other, for their poverty is profitable, perfect, and virtuous.”
Catholic teaching, ever vigilant to prevent extreme interpretations of moral norms, places two qualifications on the obligations to give alms. First, superabundance is not a mechanical formula; it depends on the facts and circumstances of a particular station in life. Thus, what is super abundance for the prince of a kingdom is not the same for an artisan. The determination of superabundance depends on the station in life of the person considered. St. Thomas explains: “Yet it would be inordinate to deprive oneself of one’s own, in order to give to others to such an extent that the residue would be insufficient for one to live in keeping with one’s station and the ordinary occurrences of life: for no man ought to live unbecomingly.”
Thus, consistent with the needs of one’s station in life, one is obligated to give to the poor out of superabundance. In addition if one can assist another who is in extreme necessity, there is an obligation to give beyond superabundance. Besides these two instances of required almsgiving, doing further is a matter of permissible mercy regulated by prudence. Thus, charitable almsgiving is both a requirement and an option.