Private Property: a Right, but not Absolutely

It is easy for capitalists, free-market types, freedom lovers, and enemies of socialism to get the idea that because the Catholic Church condemns socialism in essentially unconditional terms, the Church must consequently be on the side of the capitalists. Even a cursory review of the Church’s social doctrine makes it clear, however, that far from wholesale endorsement the Church has long warned against the abuses of capitalism. These abuses keep cropping up, unsurprisingly, and so the Church has to keep repeating herself.

These criticisms go back at least as far as Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum. In this post I plan to present just a few brief snippets from RN which give something of the flavor of its perspective on property and capitalism. The first thing to note is that private property is unquestionably legitimate:

the practice of all ages has consecrated the principle of private ownership, as being pre-eminently in conformity with human nature… The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property. (RN §11, §15)

This does not mean, however, that the Church uncritically endorses (or even critically endorses) the modern capitalist system.

Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others. (RN §22)

Leo also quotes St. Thomas Aquinas to the same effect:

Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the apostle saith, ‘Command the rich of this world … to offer without stint, to apportion largely.’ (ibid., quoting Summa Theologiae II-II q.66 a.2)

In short, and as Leo argues persuasively in RN, the massive centralization of wealth in the hands of a relative few is intrinsically unjust. Yet this is precisely an effect (if not the express purpose) of the modern capitalist state. Consequently there is no getting around the fact that the Catholic Church opposes capitalism as ordered and structured today, despite its firm endorsement of the legitimacy and necessity of private property. The latter in no way implies the former.

I can’t help but make one other observation related to the illegitimacy of the modern capitalist state. It is this: the corporation does not want employees who are human beings. It wants cogs. It wants sprockets. It wants Eli Whitney’s interchangeable parts: when a sprocket breaks, you put in a new one. In response to this notorious habit, Leo writes:

It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies. (RN §42)

This is not an artifact of the nineteenth century when the barons of Wall Street could (and did) work their employees into early graves in the steel mill or the coal mine or wherever. It still happens today. It is in fact the specific purpose of salaried positions: they cost the employer nothing extra in terms of overtime pay, and the employers are free to dump as much work on the salaried workers as they wish. This, not to put too fine a point upon it, is to do exactly what Leo condemns as unjust and inhuman: “…so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies.”

It is no coincidence that many corporations tend to favor younger employees, because the young (despite their relative ignorance of corporate culture and lack of experience) will happily work for less and are able to work longer hours than more mature staffers.

I am starting to ramble on. Or maybe I have been rambling for a while now. The point, in the end, is that private property is not an absolute right, and neither you nor I nor our employers are free to do just whatever we want with our goods. The more that we have, the more God expects from us.

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Posted in Rerum Novarum
2 comments on “Private Property: a Right, but not Absolutely
  1. Dear Fred,

    Can I just say that I think we are completely screwed? Because if the State has the right and duty to correct this radical injustice when it occurs, if it has the wrong telos itself (which it most certainly does) then it will undoubtedly make it even worse! One thing though: If I ever get elected, I want to set a goal to be denounced as a “liberal” and a “socialist,” for then I will know, given my predilections, that I am close to the heart of the Church!

    P.S. Can I say ‘screwed’ on a Catholic blog?

    P.S.S. Keep rambling. Sheesh. I wish I could blather pointlessly so well!

  2. aquinasetc says:


    Honestly I am inclined to agree that we are, in fact, completely screwed (there: in one sentence I have answered two of your questions). God does not ignore the oppression of the poor forever.

    On the other hand I am not certain that it is the responsibility of the State to fix such things (although that is one political order that could be implemented to address the problem). The Church has always carefully avoided making recommendations about implementations, and with respect to this subject I think that practice is consistent with Scripture. Notice in the OT: there are no civil laws enforcing the care of the poor. Instead, there is God’s warning that He will enforce it Himself.

    So that is at least two different models (the state-enforced and the voluntarist) for dealing with the problem. There may be others (there probably are; imagination is not something I am famous for).

    I agree that right now the State would almost certainly make things worse; it is part of the problem, and that is one reason (alongside my inherent conservative bent) that I think it cannot be part of the solution.

    Mark Shea has observed that he routinely gets lambasted by the left (for being various kinds of fascist) and the right (for being a lefty moonbat). When both sides hate you, I think what you say may very well be correct: you are close to the heart of the Church :-)

    I will vote for you. :-)

    Thanks for the kind words,


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