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

Article excerpt

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. …