Msgr. Luigi Civardi
Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1961
Published on the World Wide Web with Permission of the Publisher.



Preliminary Notions 

1. The right of property is the moral power to possess and to use a thing as one's own

This right is a corollary of the right to live, since it is impossible to live without the possession and the free use of definite material goods. 

There are various kinds of property. The principal ones are: 

(a) Individual or personal property when the owner is an individual or physical person; collective or social, when the owner is a community or a moral person. 

(b) If it belongs to a public community, such as a State or the Church, collective property is called public. Otherwise it is private. 

Private property, therefore, may be either individual or collective; in the latter case it belongs to a private community, like a corporation. 

The State has the power to dispose of private property when the public interest requires it. For example, it can require the property of citizens for war purposes and by paying compensation it can condemn property to construct a road, erect a building, etc.

2. There are also other classes of property. 

(a) Productive property that serves to produce other goods [for example, lands, factories, machines, raw materials, etc.]; consumer goods that satisfy human needs [such as merchandise, furnishings, clothing, etc.]. 

(b) Real property, that is, immovable property [such as lands, mines, buildings] and personal property [to wit: merchandise, money, securities, etc.]. 

False Systems 

1. Some regimes and systems, such as the liberal system, concede too much to the right of property, by failing to impose necessary limitations and obligations; other systems instead either deny such right or restrict it unduly. Such is the communist system, which advocates the communion of goods [hence its name]. 

There is absolute communism that insists upon the common ownership of all goods, even of consumer goods. Accordingly it denies every right of ownership. This utopian system is defended by the old-line communists, like Charles Fourier, who conceived the so-called phalanstery [large buildings in which citizens live a community life under the direction of the president, like the internes of a college]. Today the trend is toward a moderate communism that attributes to the State [socializes] only productive property. Hence it does not insist upon the common ownership of consumer goods which may be privately owned. 

2. What are we to say about the socialization of productive goods, which is such a major issue today? 

The socialization ----- or nationalization ----- of the means of production and of exchange [lands, factories, commerce] may either be total or partial

When socialization actually contributes to the common good it does not contravene the principles of Christian ethics on the subject of property. This should be our compass in this matter also. 

Relying upon this fundamental principle, the sociologists in the Christian tradition acknowledge that a partial and gradual socialization [of the great means of production and of exchange] may be legitimate, provided it contributes to the welfare of the community and not merely of a group. Expropriation is, of course, contingent upon the payment of an indemnity

Our Holy Father Pius XII confirmed this principle in his message of March 11, 1945, to the Christian Association of Italian Workingmen, in which he states that one may consent "to socialization only in those cases in which it seems really required by the common good, that is to say, as the only truly effective means of remedying an abuse or of preventing a waste of productive forces of the country, to insure the organic coordination of those same forces and to direct them for the good of the economic welfare of the community, so that the national economy in its normal and peaceful development may open the way to the material prosperity of all the people, a prosperity such as will at the same time likewise afford a solid foundation for religious and cultural life." 

The Right and the Use of Property 

1. The Church, following the teachings of Jesus Christ, has always taught that the right of private property is natural, that is to say established by the Author of nature Himself, namely God. This is so for the following reasons: 

(a) Because private property stimulates personal interest which, in turn, stimulates production

(b) Because the system of private property is more apt to guarantee the liberty and the dignity of man

(c) Because the just division of property fosters social peace, while the community of goods easily gives rise to quarrels and litigation. 

These reasons seem contradicted by the fact that there are communities ----- religious orders and congregations ----- in which the communion of goods exists in the most perfect harmony and with due regard for personal dignity. 

One must bear in mind, however, that these communities exist under peculiar conditions. First of all, every member has made a spontaneous surrender of the right of personal property by embracing the state of voluntary poverty. In the second place, the members of these religious societies tend toward a state of perfection, for the attainment of which they have taken, in addition to the vow of poverty, the vows of obedience and chastity. In the third place, it is always a question of small societies in comparison with civil society. For these reasons their example cannot be urged in justification or as proof of the possibility of the communistic system which has to be realized under entirely different conditions and circumstances. 

2. Nevertheless, the Church, having affirmed the right of private property as an essential factor and a condition of a prosperous, well-ordered, respectable and peaceful life, has always distinguished between the right and the use of private property, by teaching that even the natural law imposes limitations upon the use of property

One must bear in mind two great truths in connection with this point: 

(a) God alone, Creator and Bestower of every good, is the absolute Owner of all things, while men, with respect to Him, are nothing but tenants and simple administrators of them. 

(b) God has created and bestows the goods of the earth that they may serve for the support of all men; since all have the duty and the right to live. 

3. These two fundamental truths, naturally, give rise to several conclusions of the utmost practical importance. 

(a) The first is this: the owner must use his goods not as it pleases him, but as it pleases God, to whom he must render an account of the use he made of them. Therefore, the definition of the right to property given by paganism: ius utendi et abutendi: the right to use and misuse, is false. 

(b) God wishes the owner to use his property in such a way that, when his legitimate needs have been satisfied, he should distribute the rest to the needy

(c) Property, therefore, has not only an individual function, insofar as it has to provide for the needs of the owner, but has also a social function insofar as it has to provide for the needs of other members of society. 

This social function, moreover, is not merely a counsel but a command, a command of charity which, in certain cases, becomes a command of justice. We will now give a few proofs of these summary statements. 

The Teachings of Christ

Jesus Christ has implicitly affirmed the right of property and its social functions. 

1. In fact, He never condemned the ownership of private property, a thing He would certainly have done if such ownership was wrong or contrary to natural law. 

But He did explicitly and emphatically condemn all abuses, both private and public, of His times and of His fellow citizens. He condemned phariseeism, false legal justice, pride, divorce, etc . . . How could He have failed to condemn property too if it were a theft, as it was called by the communist Proudhon? 

On the contrary He affirmed, at least implicitly, on different occasions the right of private and individual property. Let us recall an episode already well known to us. The publican Zacheus says to Our Lord: "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor, and if I have wronged any man of any thing, I restore him fourfold." Jesus, approvingly, said to him: "Today salvation has come to this house, since he, too, [Zacheus] is a son of Abraham." [Lk. 19:8-9]. Zacheus has thus obtained salvation by giving away half of his possessions, but not all. That means that he had the right to own the other half

2. However, Jesus also affirmed the social function of property, by pointing out the duties of the owner toward others. And that was in contrast with the opinions of the teachers of Israel, who shared the pagan idea of property which gave its owner unlimited power. Here are His plain and unequivocal words: "Nevertheless, give that which remains as alms." [Lk. 11:41]. Jesus employs the imperative mood. Therefore, to give to the poor what is superfluous is a true precept. And that is superfluous ----- as we know ----- which is not necessary for the support of self and family, according to what is suitable to one's condition in life. [See preceding chapter]. 

Furthermore, the idea of the social function of property is implicit in the broader idea of human brotherhood, which is one of the chief points of Christ's message. Among good brothers, in fact, the cold words mine and thine lose their strict meaning, since one brother cannot feel satisfied if the other's stomach is empty. 

3. The conduct of the first Christians of Jerusalem, while still under the spell of the words of Christ, is concrete proof of the teachings of Christ on this subject: "And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul: neither did anyone say that aught of the things which he possessed was his own, but all things were common unto them . . . For neither was there anyone needy among them. For as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the price of the things they sold and lay it at the feet of the Apostles, and distribution was made to each one, according as anyone had need."
[Acts 4: 32-35].

It should be noted, however, that this communism of the first Christians, the fruit of a great spirit of fraternal charity, was altogether free and spontaneous, and, since it was not imposed upon anyone, it was never practiced with strictness. This is evidenced by other statements of St. Luke himself. Like for instance the famous episode of Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, who brought St. Peter the money derived from the sale of a field that belonged to them, retaining, however, a part of the price for themselves. God punished them in a miraculous manner by causing their sudden death. What was the cause of the terrible punishment? Not because they had kept a part of the price, which they could have retained even in its entirety, but because they had lied and deceived the Apostle, to whom they had promised the whole price. This is very clear from Peter's reproach: 

"Ananias, why hath Satan tempted thy heart, that thou shouldst lie to the Holy Ghost and by fraud keep part of the price of the land? Whilst it remained, did it not remain to thee? and after it was sold, was it not in thy power? . . . Thou hast not lied to men, but to God." [Acts 5: 1-10]. 

The Teachings of the Church 

The Church, too, while it has at all times proclaimed the right to private property, has also insisted upon the social function of property. 

(a) The teachings of the Apostles

St. Peter writes to the early Christians: "As every man hath received grace, ministering the same one to another." [1 Peter 4: 10].  The Apostle is here speaking both of spiritual and material gifts. 

St. Paul writes to his disciple Timothy as follows: "Charge the rich of this world . . . to do good, to be rich in good works, to give easily, to communicate to others." [1 Tim. 6: 17-18]. 

(b) The teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church

The Angelic Doctor St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, offers us this clear and precise teaching: "With respect to external goods man has two faculties, to wit: (a) the faculty of procuring and distributing these goods; for which reason it is lawful for man to possess these goods as his own (right of property), indeed, it is necessary to human life . . . (b) the faculty of using the goods themselves; and, as far as their use is concerned, man ought to consider external goods not as his own, but as in common, so that he may readily share them with those in need." 
[II-II, Question 66, Art. 2.]. 

All the Fathers of the Church have used very plain and forceful language on this point. Let this statement of St. Basil suffice: "We call him who strips another of his clothing a thief; why should we not apply a similar name to him who does not clothe the naked when he is able to do so? That bread which you are storing away belongs to the hungry; that suit which you are locking up in the closet belongs to the naked, those shoes which you are allowing to rot belong to the barefooted, and that money that you are hiding under the ground belongs to the poor. Therefore, you are doing as many wrongs to your neighbor as the number of things that you could give him and withhold from him instead."

(c) The teachings of the Pontiffs: 

Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno writes: "It follows from what we have termed the individual and at the same time social character of ownerships, that we must consider in this matter not only their own advantage but also the common good. To define these duties in detail, when necessity requires and the natural law has not done so, is the function of those in charge of the State. Therefore public authority, under the guiding light always of the natural and Divine law, can determine more accurately upon consideration of the true requirements of the common good, what is permitted and what is not permitted to owners in the use of their property.

Pius XI, in his Encyclical Divini Redemptoris [on Atheistic Communism] wrote: "The rich must not place their happiness in the things of this world, but considering themselves merely as administrators who know that they will have to render an account to their Supreme Lord, let them avail themselves of worldly things as precious means which God has placed in their hands to do good; and let them not neglect to distribute to the poor whatever is left over, according to the Gospel precept." 

Pius XII in his radio broadcast commemorating Rerum Novarum stated: "Without doubt, the natural order established by God requires also private property.

But this right of private property must not hinder "the primary and fundamental right that grants its use to all men." 

A primary and fundamental right the Pontiff calls it, because the use of goods is necessary for the preservation of life, and the right to life comes before the right of property. So much so that ----- according to the teachings of Catholic morals ----- when a man finds himself in extreme need, he may take as much of his neighbor's goods as is necessary to keep from starving to death. 

The same Pontiff [Pius XII] on another occasion said: "While the Church condemns every unjust violation of the right of private property, she admonishes, however, that it is not unlimited nor absolute because it has precise social obligations." [Address to workers, Oct. 28, 1956.] 

From all this it appears that Catholic teaching holds a position midway between the communistic doctrine, that would suppress every right of individual and private property, and the liberal doctrine that does not recognize its due limitations, thus justifying unjust inequalities. 

Pius XI, in his Encyclical Divini Redemptoris, reminds us of this other truth: "Unjust disproportion of wealth in the economic field and vexing inequalities are one of the causes of the rapid spread of the communist idea in the world." 

The Fioretti of St. Francis, Chapter XXI, tells us of "the wonderful miracle performed by St. Francis when he converted the ferocious wolf of Gubbio, which 'not only devoured animals but even men, so that the citizens were in great fear  . . . ' Francis, wishing to free the city from that scourge, goes forth to meet the beast and says to it: 'Brother wolf, I command you in the name of Christ not to do any harm either to me or to anyone else.' The wolf cast himself at his feet like a lamb and the Saint invited him to make peace with the people of Gubbio by telling him: 'I promise you that I will have the men of this town provide for you continually as long as you live so that you will not go hungry anymore, for I know full well that it was on account of hunger that you did all the mischief.' Thereafter, peace was actually made in the town square when the people, in the presence of St. Francis and the wolf, promised the latter 'to give him each day the things that he
needed.' " 

This charming Franciscan anecdote contains many lessons. Among others is this most timely one: All efforts to preserve social peace will avail little unless we see to it that the people, claiming their just rights, "are given each day the things that they need." This will, no doubt, be true when everybody will make use of the right of property in a Christian manner, as already explained.


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