The Church’s Teaching on the Right to Private Ownership
The Biblical and Church’s view on material wealth is not really a negative one in a sense that it sees accumulation of wealth as part of the means to people’s salvation. Since the goods of this earth’s are God’s gift to all people, it must be seen as a means to sustain one’s personal and familial needs as well as the needs of society. What is forbidden is accumulation of wealth as an end in itself or to make it an absolute purpose in life, depriving others the right to have legitimate access to economic goods and services.
The Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has always taught that the earth’s created goods are intended by God to be used by all for their personal and group needs. Thus, the first most important principle of CST on economic life that tends to encompass all other teachings on material wealth is the social doctrine called the “Universal Destination of Earth’s Goods.” This principle which is often reiterated in many social encyclicals, simply states that all the material goods, whether immovable or movable property, are created by God to be enjoyed by all. This is the universal purpose of all created things as taught in the Book of Genesis when God created the world in 7 days (Gen. 1). “God intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of every human being and people. Thus, if all people follow justice and unite in charity, created goods should abound for them on a reasonable basis (GS, n.69). The goods of this world are originally meant by God to be distributed equally–following legitimate social categories–without favoring a particular person, group, or country.
The Church teaches that people can own privately the goods of this earth for their personal and communal needs. The right to own private property is an extension of human freedom and a God-given right. However, “[t]he fact that God gave the whole human race the earth to use and enjoy cannot indeed in any manner serve as an objection against private possessions. For God is said to have given the earth to mankind in common, not because He intended to indiscriminate ownership by all, but because He assigned no part to anyone in ownership, leaving the limits of private possessions to be fixed by industry of men and the institutions of people” (Rerum Novarum n.8).
The Church teaches that these goods do not cease to serve the common interest of all even though people can use them to satisfy their personal, family, and communal needs. In short, the ownership of the goods of this earth for the Church, whether movable, immovable or intellectual property, is not an absolute right. It has limits. If accumulation of private goods and services jeopardizes the common good and pushes people to poverty, this human right ceases to be legitimate and morally acceptable from the point of view the CST. Private ownership for the Church is always subordinated to the common good of society.
“Private property, in fact, is under a “social mortgage,” which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of earth’s goods” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n.42). In short, only God is the absolute owner of all created goods. People are His stewards or caretakers. The use and ownership of material goods, therefore, must be guided by this basic truth and purpose set by God in the Holy Scriptures and taught by the Church: the goods of the earth are created by God for everyone! The CST has always advocated a balancing act between ownership of goods and the respect of the common good. A person, group, company, institution, or state can morally accumulate and consume economic goods and services as long as social justice and the general welfare of the community are taken into consideration. Private ownership of goods and services becomes morally unacceptable if the poor are deprived of their economic rights to enjoy the wealth of this earth. It is in this sense that the Church is against rigid capitalism or any economic system which lacks the intervention of state authority that controls to some extent private ownership of big businesses and multinational companies which tends to control the country’s natural resources. A strong state with an independent and efficient bureaucracy that oversees and control the ownership of wealth in any economic system is necessary to avoid monopolies, cartels, hoardings, and other forms of economic sabotage by big businesses and powerful elite families.
The Rise of Private Ownership in Society
One of the major issues which is often tackled by the CST is on private ownership in society. Thus, to appreciate this social teaching and how it applies historically, one first needs a bird’s eye view on the emergence of private ownership in the evolution in societies. Why there are so much economic injustices in the accumulation of wealth in today’s world is related substantially with the rise of social classes and structural growth of society in its food procurement or subsistence system. The distribution of created goods in primitive and less advanced societies, for instance, does not pose a serious problem to the general population compared to the more advanced and modern societies. In primitive form of society such as the hunting and gathering tribe, hoarding of goods is not a problems since there is no private ownership in egalitarian societies. Thus, unjust accumulation of wealth is not a social issue sense in this type of society. Material goods are often held in common. There are no social classes and so there are no poor or rich persons.
For social anthropologists who follow the social evolution theory, the shift from primitive to a more advanced form of subsistence system in society which is largely attributed to population growth and technological advancement is an important cause in the unequal distribution of wealth in advanced societies. In more primitive types of society private ownership is limited to certain tools and ownership of land such as communal farms is considered common to all its members. In pastoral societies such as those in the Old Testament, private ownership consists mainly of animals and slaves. But when society has reached sedentary or fixed agriculture such as farming as its basic procurement system, private ownership especially land ownership will intensify resulting in the rise of social classes and social inequality in the distribution of property. In agrarian societies, it is inevitable as some people occupy vast and fertile land and become big landowners and feudal lords, while poor tenants become landless farmers.
Many anthropologists and sociologists believe that as society becomes agrarian and its subsistence system uses at least the plow and beast of burden for farming to produce food surplus to meet the needs of its growing population, classification of people based on wealth or social classes as well as social status would become highly unequal resulting in a bigger gap between the rich and the poor.
So the issue of social inequality in the distribution of wealth in society is intimately related to rise of social stratification of people. When society starts to classify people based on wealth and social status as population increases and technology advances, one can expect social inequality to occur. In more advanced societies like industrial societies, this stratification can even more become pronounced, resulting in the marginalization of many people who belong to the lower levels of the social strata and who have less access to education, legitimate income, and social services. In other words, social inequality and unequal distribution of world’s wealth can be unintended consequences of the evolution of society. This is the reason why state intervention and a strong political will to protect the common good and redistribute society’s resources are necessary. In a highly feudal society, for instance, the state must intervene to institute land reform and provide the poor farmers with land and capital to fight rural poverty.
When Pope Leo XIII wrote the first social encyclical Rerum Novarum, Europe had just experienced this massive marginalization of people in the lower social classes, particularly the industrial workers who were exploited by their capitalist employers because of low wage, longer working hours, and inhuman working conditions.
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