The Personalist Project

Catholics believe in both

  • the universal destination of goods, and
  • the legitimacy of private property.

So which is it? Does property belong to everybody or somebody in particular? Ane how does it play out in everyday life?

The both-and approach is perplexing to people who prefer to keep things simple. At the socialist extreme, everything (theoretically!) belongs to everybody; on the libertarian fringe, everybody has an absolute right to do as they will with what's theirs. Things get murkier for the collectivists when we ask who gets to distribute or administer all the goodies. ("Everybody" turns out the mean "the few, the higher-ups, the well-connected.") And things get murkier for private property absolutists when claims to ownership start competing with each other. 

 I'm assuming here that both the universal destination of goods and property rights are legitimate. That is, I'm taking it for granted that God didn't say, "Let there be food, but let some have more than they know what to do with and others less than they need to survive." I'm assuming, too, that we can all see the value in private ownership--that it doesn't conflict with concern for the poor. People who work in countries where a man's deed to his own little plot of land isn't respected realize this. Improving a slum-dweller's lot may well involve giving him stuff--people need food, clothing and shelter as big-picture changes gradually settle into place--but it will also mean working to establish and defend property rights for everybody. 

Still, balancing the two principles can be vewy, vewy twicky. 

Here's how the Catechism of the Catholic Church harmonizes things:

The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge....(2402)

The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise. (2403)

The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (2404, emphasis mine)

I don't have the expertise for a macro-analysis of such stuff, but at my house, every single day brings new opportunities to address it at the most nitty-gritty of micro-levels. How do I, an overly comfortable American, put into practice the things I say I believe? How does it play out in everyday family life?

It's not just a question of whether to acquire this minivan or that quarter-pounder, but also: How should I use it? How much time and money should I devote to maintaining it? How much mental energy do I spend stewing about it? How much does that, in turn, encroach on my clear duties and worthwhile pursuits?

The idea of stewardship can serve as a kind of litmus test to see if I'm taking the universal destination of goods seriously. Am I "making it [whatever it is] fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all to [my] family?"

The family aspect is important--my own son is not on the same level as a stranger in need, but neither should I use the son as an excuse to neglect the stranger. And then, what about investing in my Susanna's piano lessons or my JD's baseball uniforms? How do I judge between needs and wants, legitimate expenses and unconscionable luxuries? 

For example, if I order Little Caesar's to serve to my daughter's book club, that probably passes the stewardship test (it's a "fruitful" investment). If I buy it for the homeless guy on the corner, I'm definitely "communicating the benefits" of my property "to others.". If I order pizza because I'd rather surf social media than fix a nutritious meal for my family, I flunk the test. If I order so much that we're all guaranteed to descend into gluttony, it's hard to spin that as either "fruitful" or "of benefit to others."

Of course, maybe things aren't that simple. Maybe the book club is an occasion of snobbery and gossip. Maybe I need the money for my daughter's medicine and the homeless guy has other eating arrangements. Maybe I've fixed nutritious meals every night for the last six months and the attempt to do it again tonight will subject my hapless family to a maternal meltdown.

Also, we who live in abundance have lots of room for creativity in stewarding. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, I read the other day, used to trade in the first-class train tickets his father would buy him for third-class ones and give the extra money to the poor. If you're looking for ways to do good with your property instead of excuses not to, ideas present themselves a lot more readily. And people who are always finding ways to "pay it forward" seem to enjoy themselves a lot more than the calculating types.

I don't see any alternative to the constant weighing of options, constant openness to being a lot more generous than conventional wisdom would dictate, and constant willingness to double-check your own honesty.

Do you? 

Comments (2)

Rhett Segall

#1, Jul 8, 2016 12:37pm

Devra, your reflections on a Christians responsibility towards possessions are important. I agree with the principles which underlie them: the goods of the earth are God's gifts to humanity, possession of those goods by individuals are just but relative rights; the goods and possessions must be viewed under the principle of stewardship.

 What are the practical applications for a Christian? Maise Ward tells of a family who would calculate at the beginning of the month how much money was needed to get to the end of the month. Any extra money they had they'd give to "the poor". I think this was during the depression. I don't think it would be applicable today. 

Regarding your pizza example, don't forget the pizza parlor has workers who won't get paid if people don't buy pizza. And your money given to the homeless guy could very well be used by him for booze.

There was a research bio-scientist in the  70's who developed a strand of rice that yielded 20% more rice. This saved millions of people from starving in China. His education must have cost thousands. Could the money have been better used? I think not!



Devra Torres

#2, Jul 8, 2016 1:25pm

Yes, I agree, it's complicated! I was thinking of giving the actual pizza to the homeless guy. And it's true, money spent on take-out, and of course money spent on education, especially the kind of education that yields discoveries of benefit to millions, can be considered invested, not wasted, not an example of selfishness. 

My mother-in-law, who grew up in El Salvador, said it used to be easier in her childhood home: poor people would come to the door and they would give them food. That was it. In America, she'd get endless mail from organizations advocating for poor people and have the job of sorting through which ones were honest and efficient and how much she could or should give.

St. Josemaria has a couple pretty simple principles: don't have anything superfluous, and don't mistake luxuries for necessities. That still leaves the task of assessing what counts as superfluous and what counts as necessities and luxuries. Demanding, but clear.

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