THE RIGHT TO PRIVATE PROPERTY
Revolutionary, Not Comfortable, Teaching
To What The Christian Is Bound In Justice
Bg The Editor
IF there is one thing more than another which holds back the generous and keen Catholic from a radical outlook and conduct in the social question, it is the teaching about private property, as commonly interpreted in Catholic circles.
THE CARICATURE The Catholic outlook is certainly sharply differentiated from the Communist or Socialist outlook by their respective views on this question. The Catholic bases his outlook upon the right to private property; the Communist upon the denial of that right. That is a fundamental distinction. It really means that the Catholic makes man and the family the focus whence radiate all the details of sociology and civics, whereas the Communist repudiates man and the family, making them, at best, the lucky beneficiaries of an impersonal society; at worst, its unlucky victims.
Unfortunately this vital distinction is
extraordinarily easy to caricature. It is easy to say that the Communist wishes to control the whole of a society's wealth so that each person may receive an equal share of it, that being in fact according to the law of nature the quantity of the community's property to which any individual can be said to have a right. Did not St. Thomas teach that property remains the common right of mankind as a whole? How else apply that common right? It is equally easy to say that the Catholic in maintaining the right to private property is forced to maintain the present system in which that right is vigorously defended. or, at most, to suggest palliative remedies
to its grosser abuses. Essentially he is on the side of the " haves" since he must defend the " having." As for the " have riots "—no doubt something ought to be done, but they are not his personal concern, since the Church teaches that he has a moral right to his own property.
THE REALITY What exactly does the Church teach? The fact is that a close study of that teaching reveals that the " right to private property " is a very different affair from what both Communists and not a few Catholics make out.
Pius XI himself uttered the warning about this common caricature. "There are some," he said,. " who falsely and unjustly accuse the Supreme Pontiff and the Church of upholding the wealthier classes against the proletariat. . . . We have thought it well to defend from calumny the Leonine doctrine in this matter, which is also the Catholic doctrine, and to safeguard it against false interpretations... The right to own private property has been given to man by nature, or rather by the Creator Himself, not only in order that individuals may be able to provide for their own needs and those of their families, but also that by means of it, the goods which the Creator has destined for the human race may truly serve this purpose," To understand what this involves in detail, it is worth going to the fountainhead of the doctrine, which is to be found in the writings of St. Thomas and his followers. I Everything in Catholic teaching springs from a belief in a personal God, which belief is itself founded on reason and not
on revelation. God created a world so ordered that material things can minister to man's needs in order that man may. in his turn, live a life worthy of a creature made to Gods image. The idea of property or possession springs from man's dependence on things outside himself in order to fulfil his own supernatural destiny. There is nothing in the nature of these material goods which marks them out as one man's possessions rather than another man's. Hencle the fundamental property right is the right of man as such to use and adapt what he needs in order to attain his end. Some of these things are of such a nature that their use by one man does not prohibit t eir use by another, e.g., air or poetry. Bit this is not the case with most material' goods. To use them is to prevent somenne else from using them. Hence one Must distinguish between the administration and disposition of property, on the one iand, and the purpose for which they are administered on the other. Because of the nature of matter and the nature of man administration is private, that is, it is the business of the individual or the corporate personality. But property in itselli still remains. the common right of man ind as a whole. The purpose, then, f r which it is administered, must remain a common, not a private purpose.
WHAT WE ARE BOUND TO
What does this mean in practice? It means two tAings. It means, first, that private property must be used by the private administrator for himself only in so far as he takes his place as one roan working among many in order that he may be able to work with and, for the rest. Secondly, it means that what is over and above his needs in this respect must he directly used for the common good. There are two senses in which a man may he said to need s property (or someone else's) for his own se. He may need it to keep body and so 1 together. This need is so urgent that it is the teaching of theologians that a starvi g man does not steal when he takes foo wherever he can find it. The reason is that property has in that case reverted to its original state of being common property. He may need it also in order to keep in such a state of health that the soul has a chance of governing the body and is not left at the mercy of a body crying out f r physical needs. Property that serves tijese needs is said to be neces
sary propert . At the other end of the scale is supe fluity, and it is the duty in justice of a flan who owns superfluous property to give it away or use it entirely for the common good, not merely because others in want may need it, but because of the common purpose of all property by
nature. Between the necessary and the superfluous lies a buffer state which may be called either relative necessity or relative superfluity. The life of Christians it must be remembe d is not tied down to its last detail by law . Much is left to the spirit and freedom of the individual. It is for the individual to define for himself and in his own conscience the limits of this buffer state in his own case. But even so he is urged in charity to do with as little as possible and distribute the rest or use it for some social or cultural purpose, and he is obliged in justice to do this when he knows of the need of an individual or of the State.
MAN'S NORMAL MINIMUM NEED
What is this individual's need which in its extreme cases admits of a starving man rightfully dispossessing his neighbour, against the latter's will and knowledge, of the wealth which will maintain the starving man's life?
The Church, in the wards of her Popes and Pastors, has again and again asserted that a man's minimum share of the society's wealth is measured by the right of himself and his family to human lives and reasonable security.
Listen to what Cardinal Manning wrote forty-six years ago:
". . . It is clear that the normal state of man in the natural order is that every man should have and should dwell in his own home, surrounded by the duties and charities of life . . . Homeless men are reckless. There would be but little patriotism in a country ,where no man cares to stand pro ariS et for's. The hearth-money of our forefathers was the sure pledge of their loyalty. The policy of the law--that is, its aim and spirit.-is that homeless men be few, and that the homes of the people he the broad and solid foundations on which the commonwealth, in all its social and political life, shall repose."
Listen to what our present pastors wrote a year ago:
" The defects and injustices of the (economic) system are so great that there is a constantly rising tide of hatred against it and against all who seem to support it. . . . We therefore your pastors in the tradition of our predecessors, and notably of Cardinal Manning, publicly raise a united cry against injustice, and against the oppression of the poor and the workers, against the exploitation of the helpless . . . If Christian teaching is not accepted, then atheistic. Communism will surely come," SPIRITUAL VIOLENCE No, the more one meditates upon the full implications of the Catholic social teaching in regard to property, the less will it seem that it is a comfortable, easy-going doctrine that justifies the individual Catholic in accepting the present order. It demands sacrifices and self-denial fully as hard as any demanded by Communism. Fully as much as Communism it is a doctrine of revolution and violence, a revolution and violence of the spirit, infinitely harder than mere material violence because the latter depends upon the exploitation of wayward passion, whereas the former involves the objectiye, passionless re-ordering of the world according to the Will of God and not the will of men.