The Personalist Project

One of the sharpest differences between the political left and right is their respective views of private property. For the (extreme) left, it's the root of social evil, the cause of social conflict. For the (extreme) right it's sacred and absolute.

For the Church, of course, it's neither/nor.

Just as we are, as individuals, radically our own, and yet, almost constituted by our relation to others and fulfilled only by making a sincere gift of ourselves in love, our property both belongs to us and is destined for others.

This came home to me in a new way visiting some of the great English estates this month. We toured Alnwick Castle, ancient seat of the Dukes of Northumberland.

Its library was particularly impressive, both because of the magnificent collection of books (a first edition of Paradise Lost, for instance, signed by the author) that filled its sumptous shelves, and because it also had a TV and a Fussball table, family photos, and drinks set out on the sideboard. The Duke's family had gathered there the evening before. It's their den, really—where they hang out together.

Sunday we visited Blenheim Palace. It was given by Queen Anne to John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, to commemorate his victory over Louis XIV at Blenheim. It is the birthplace of Winston Churchill, whose father was younger brother to the 8th Duke. Its size and splendor can hardly be conceived, never mind absorbed.

What particularly struck us was this double aspect: that it's a private home and that the family who own it consider it a public trust. It's theirs and not theirs. It was crawling with visitors. It was arranged to be able to receive huge crowds on a daily basis. For a modest membership fee, locals can go as often as they like and use its magnificent grounds as a park. At the end of the tour of the state rooms, visitors watch a video of the present Duke, wherein he welcomes everyone to the palace and makes more than clear that he understands himself to be its custodian, not really its owner. It belongs to everyone. 

You get a correlative impression from the local people. They project a definite sense of ownership and belonging to the palace. They take pride in it. They have a real affection for the Duke and his family.

We have nothing like this in America, really, do we? We have public spaces and private spaces, but nothing so mixed.

It occurs to me that this makes it harder for us to grasp intuitively this mystery of personal existence: our essential self-possession and our essential orientation toward others.  It also makes it harder for us to grasp the social teaching of the Church regarding private property. We don't understand that it can be both ours and not ours. Being rich doesn't mean being able to do whatever I want—after all it's my money; I earned it—rather it means being responsible to serve in a particular way.

If the Duke were to close Blenheim Castle to visitors, and sell its artwork to fund a lavish personal lifestyle, we would think he was acting badly, wouldn't we? Similarly, unless we realize that everything we have is a gift, entrusted to us to use for the good of all, we have a disordered relation to our property.

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