The Universal Destination of Goods: The Ethics of Property in the Theory of a Christian Society

By Spieker, Manfred | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

The Universal Destination of Goods: The Ethics of Property in the Theory of a Christian Society


Spieker, Manfred, Journal of Markets & Morality


In its property ethics, the theory of a Christian society tries to bring together two statements that at first glance are not easily reconciled. The first statement underscores the importance of private property to the freedom and personal development of a person and declares that the right to personal property is a natural law. The second statement reminds us that God has destined the goods of this earth to the benefit of all people and nations, and, therefore, they must also be enjoyed by all. When either statement is divorced from the other, misunderstandings, controversies, or even ideologies easily result. This holds for the Catholic theory of society as well as for Protestant social ethics. Even though most of the following citations are taken from the social encyclicals and other documents of the Roman Catholic Church, all of the fundamental statements also hold for Protestant social ethics in the tradition of Martin Luther. (1)

Two Pillars of the Ethics of Property in the Theory of a Christian Society

The first statement of the property ethics of Christian social theory, the emphasis on the right to personal property, held up by Leo XIII in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (RN 4) (2) against socialism, which, along with Karl Marx, saw in private property the source of all human alienation and all social misery and hoped--at least until 1989--for a paradise on earth by its elimination, can, if taken in isolation, lead to the misunderstanding that Christian social theory wants to legitimize the existing property system in the industrialized Western nations. The second statement, also developed by Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum (RN 7) and then in greater detail by Pius XI in 1931 in Quadragesimo Anno (QA 45ff.), can lead to the opposite error, that Christian social theory weakens the importance of private property and holds alternative forms of property, even public property, as no less legitimate. Pius XI warned as early as Quadragesimo Anno against the "two dangerous unilateral positions" resulting from the denial or weakening of the social function of property, on the one hand, and the function of the individual, on the other, and leading either to individualism or collectivism (QA 46). However, even when these unilateral views are avoided and both statements are given consideration, it is not easy to determine their proper relationship. This is already reflected in the history of Christianity.

Property in the History of Christianity

In the first millennium of Christianity, the social-ethical question of property as an ordering idea did not yet play any role. At the center of the deliberations was the individual-ethical question of the correct use of property, which finds its answer, first, in the Ten Commandments and, second, in the first letter of John. The seventh commandment says, "Thou shalt not steal," and the tenth, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods," and the first letter of John admonishes not to be proud of possessions and wealth (1 John 2:16). A Christian's possessions should be as naught. If he acquires something, he should behave "as if he were not the owner" (1 Cor. 7:30). However, the "communism" of primitive society, the community of goods of the first Christians in Jerusalem as described in the Acts of the Apostles (4:32-34), was not adopted as the rule for Christian living. Private property still existed. Even for the church fathers, whose judgments on private property are often very critical, a community of property under the conditions of the fall of man was only possible in families or cloistered communities. As a form of social existence, it would have disastrous consequences because it paralyzes the feeling of responsibility and willingness to work and reduces the prosperity.

Only in the thirteenth century with Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), do we encounter social-ethical considerations on property as an ordering idea. Whether it is permitted to possess a thing as property, he answers in the affirmative, first, because "a man uses more care in acquiring something that belongs to him alone, than something which belongs to many or all," and second, "human affairs are better managed when each individual has his own concerns in the acquisition of things," and third, "the peaceful constitution of men is better preserved.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Universal Destination of Goods: The Ethics of Property in the Theory of a Christian Society
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.