Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Catholic Doctrine of Property Part One

by Rev. J.B. Maclaughlin, O.S.B.


It would seem that there is need for a simple statement ot the Catholic doctrine on the subject of property. Some of our people are being touched with Socialism, and their talk makes it evident that they have no knowledge that there is any such Catholic teaching. They do not even see the bearing of the snatches of Catholic teaching that they come across. I find a Catholic quoting St. Gregory the Great on the neglect of the duties of property, evidently under the impression that he is denying the right of property. The speaker comments as follows: "If Victor Grayson had said that in the twentieth century, the Catholic Church would have rung with denunciation; and if I in those old days had contended that private individuals had a right to the common land I should have been told that I was setting myself against the Bishops." It is useless to tell such a man that the Church is unchanging, that the teaching of St. Gregory is the teaching of Pius X. We must tell him that he cannot hope to understand what he is quoting until he has 'grasped the teaching of the Church as a whole. Will he take the trouble to do this? There is little hope of it in an unthinking age when most men are habituated to a position of irrational compromise in religious matters and employ an armoury of mutually destructive arguments to attack their neighbours on the right hand and on the left.

Some minds ask why there should be a Catholic doctrine of property at all and what the Church has to do with State ownership and private ownership. Tell me: are you not pleading for justice for the worker and denouncing the present system as wrong, unjust, immoral? Then you are arguing a question of justice and injustice, right and wrong, a question of morals; you have entered the domain of the Church. In matters of morals she is to us Catholics an infallible guide. Do not think, then, that she has left us without a clear statement of principles as to the rights and duties of property. Where will you look for her principles? If you are a Catholic you will ask them from the living voice of the Church now speaking; for that is the Catholic rule of faith. If you are a Protestant you will select isolated passages from the Scriptures and the Fathers and understand them in your own sense, making "prophecy" x of them by private interpretation; for that is one Protestant rule of faith. And you will assure the living Church that she does not understand her past sayings and the teachings of her Founder; asking her to recognize her own fallibility and to let you lead her back to the truth. We shall consider the doctrine under four heads:-

The Right to Daily Bread (p. 2).
The Right to Own Sources of Supply (p. 7).
Founded on Natural Law (p. 8).
Sacred from State Law (p. 1 1).
The Duties of Ownership (p. 14).
Property gives power over others (p. 14).
Duties of Charity (p. 17).
Duties of Justice (p. 19).
Voluntary Communism (p. 22).

The last chapter deals with the
Difficulty of Understanding the Fathers (p. 26).

I. The Right to Daily Bread.

1. Let us first be clear as to the difference between the right of managing or controlling property on the one hand and the right of using and enjoying it on the other. The two are quite distinct. You may have one without the other. In a family the children have the use of their clothing, but not the control of it. The parents have the control, but not the use of it. My right to enjoy the use of a public park or library gives me no right to manage and control it. The Prisons Commissioners have the control of the convict's cell, but not the use and enjoyment of it. The distinction of the two rights is recognized by all schools. What change does the Socialist ask for in regard to the means of production? This. In order that every individual may have the use of them, let no individual have the control of them; let the State take control. That is, the right of use and enjoyment for every individual; the right of control and management for the State. Now, it is evident that either of these rights may be called in question. You may question my right to use the park or you may question the Council's right to manage it. In writing about property a man may discuss the right to use things or he may discuss the right to control them. And the reader must know which of the two he is discussing. When a Socialist attacks private control of property do not think he is attacking your private enjoyment of your daily bread. That is simply to misunderstand him. There is a type of Socialist who turns on us with a sneering congratulation that at long last we understand this distinction between control and use. Yes, we understand it. Not at long last, but from long, long ago, from the Apostles and the Fathers. To them and to us it is a commonplace. But it has to be insisted on for your sake. You, who see it so well in your own argument, cannot keep it in mind while you read ours. When we speak of monopolizing the use of things you take our words about the control of things. When we say the use is for all men you understand that the control is for all men. If I misunderstood your demand for public control as a demand for public meals and public beds, very rightly would you ask me to understand you before I criticize. But when you fill pages with what the Fathers have written you take no trouble to see which they are speaking of, the use or the control of property. When they denounce selfish use of property you say they are attacking private ownership. And when we point out the blunder you have nothing but a sneer for our fine-drawn distinctions and scornful laughter for our suggesting that a Socialist does not understand.

We shall deal first with the right to use things to meet our daily wants, and afterwards with the right to possess permanent property. As to the first, the Church teaches that external things were made by God to supply the needs of all mankind. From this two things follow.

Whoever owns property inherits with it the duty of seeing that it does its appointed work of supplying the needs of men.

And a man in extreme need has the first claim on the things that will relieve his need, no matter who may "own" them.

2. This doctrine, that private property is still at the service of all the needy, seems strong. It will seem stronger when we have it in the words of the Teachers of the Church.

St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa, II II, 66, 1 and 2) asks first, "Is the 'possession' of external things natural to man?" and secondly, "Is it lawful for any one to 'possess' anything as his private property?"

From comparing the two questions it is evident that in the first "possession" only means making use of what we need, while the second deals with taking exclusive possession and control of permanent things. With this in mind let us read St. Thomas's answers.

"I. Is the possession of external things natural to man? An external thing may be considered in two ways: (1) As regards its nature. This is not under human power, but only divine, which all things obey absolutely. (2) As regards its use. In this man has natural lordship over external things. For by his understanding and by his will he is able to use external things for his own purposes, as being made for him. For always, as we have seen, the less perfect are for the sake of the more perfect ; and this is the argument Aristotle uses (Politics, I) to prove that possession of external things is natural to man. This natural lordship over other creatures, belonging to man because of his reason, wherein lies his likeness to God, is made plain at his creation (Gen. 1.), where it is said, ' Let us make man to our image and likeness, and let him be over the fishes of the sea,' &c.

"II. Is it lawful for any one to possess anything as his private property? In regard to an external thing man has two powers. One is the power of managing and controlling it, and as to this it is lawful for a man to possess private property. It is, moreover, necessary for human life, for three reasons [which he proceeds to give]. The other power man has over external things is the using of them; and as to this a man must not hold external things as his own property, but as every one's, so as to make no difficulty, I mean, in sharing them when others are in need. Whence the Apostle says (1 Tim.): 'Charge the rich of this world to give easily, to communicate their goods,'&c".

3. It is useless reading St. Thomas rapidly. But a careful reading of these passages will show that he is mapping out the ground scientifically. So far he has laid down that the use of lower creatures to meet his own wants is a natural right of man. That private property in the sense of private control and management is lawful; and necessary. That the property so owned still remains what God made it a source for supplying man's needs. So that private ownership is only a "stewardship and governance" of things that were made by God for a definite purpose. This he makes yet clearer when he comes to set forth the doctrine that a starving man may and must use his neighbour's goods. It is worth while translating his statement of this doctrine (II II, 66, 7) :-

"Human law cannot repeal natural law or divine law. Now, according to the natural order determined by Divine Providence, lower things are meant to satisfy the wants of men. Therefore the division and appropriation of these things which comes from human law does not affect the fact that a man's wants must be satisfied from such things. Therefore the things which some people have beyond their own need are by natural law liable for the support of the poor; whence St. Ambrose says, 'The bread that you hold back is the bread of the starving; the clothing that you lock up is the clothing of the naked; the money that you bury is the ransom and deliverance of the wretched.' But since the needy are many and they cannot all be relieved with the same thing, the applying of each man's property to the relief of the needy is left to his own judgement. Nevertheless, if there be a plain and urgent necessity, such that it is clear that a present need must be relieved by whatever means is at hand (for instance, when personal danger threatens and there is no other help), then a man may lawfully relieve his own necessities with somebody else's property, whether he take it openly or secretly; nor I is this really theft or robbery."

4. The newspaper Socialist is quite capable of reading these passages triumphantly as if they denied the right of private management of property, whereas they affirm it as strongly as can be. Observe exactly what St. Thomas does say of private ownership in the sense of control and management: It is lawful. Further, it is necessary. Even for the relief of the needy, the management of each man's property is left to his own judgement. Except in urgent necessity. But on the other side he says to the private owner, Do not imagine you can change the nature of your property. It was made by God to meet men's wants: it is put under private management to carry out that purpose, not to defeat it. All human law is to find ways and means how, when, and where to carry out the divine law; not to defeat the divine law. As the manager's duty is to arrange ways and means to carry out his chiefs orders, not to defeat them. If this property is yours, then you are answerable for seeing that it supplies the wants of men.

We shall have to build on this principle when we come to consider the duties of property. For the present the important thing is to see that it is for Catholics a foundation principle. By it the Fathers judged the rich. On it Pope Leo XIII bases his plan of reform.

5. The axiom that "All things are common in extreme need" has been misunderstood. The real meaning is clearly stated above by St. Thomas. When "it is clear that a present need must be relieved by whatever means is at hand: for instance, when personal danger threatens and there is no other help "then whatever means is at hand is common property, and the "owner" cannot refuse the use of it. That surely is common sense. If to save a life we want instantly a loaf, or brandy, or a life-buoy, then it does not matter whose loaf or brandy or life-buoy it is that is at hand; it must be used. Used, of course, for the relief of the needy; not for the world at large. And used for the time of need only, not permanently confiscated. When your life has been saved, you return the life-buoy and pay for the brandy. "In extreme need, all things are common": all things of course means all things that are required to meet the extreme need. If there is a man overboard, he must have my life-buoy; but that does not make the whole ship common property. It is no reason for "socializing" the captain's charts. There are sick men in England this moment to whom brandy means life or death; that is a good reason for giving them the nearest brandy, but not for socializing our railways.

Yet I find a Socialist gravely understanding the axiom to mean that because men are starving in England, everything has become public property. It is an instance of the confusion above mentioned, the inability to bear in mind the distinction between use and control. The Fathers say, If any one is in extreme need, he must have the use of anything he needs. The Socialist takes them to say, If any one is in extreme need, the State must take control of all property.

Interview with Thomas Storck

On Cooperative Ownership

John Médaille Interview in Romania

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