Lectio Magistralis

Defense of private property and the social doctrine of the church

IV National Day of the Social Doctrine of the Church

October 1, 2022

Most Rev. Giampaolo Crepaldi[1]

 

The Social Doctrine of the Church has always maintained and taught that the right to private property is a natural right, and therefore non-negotiable, original, true, perfect and stable[2]. We can define it as the right to the exclusive ownership and use of the fruits of one’s labor and savings for one’s own benefit, that of one’s family and for social benefit.

Man is an embodied soul and therefore needs to possess something to live on, something without which neither he nor his family could or would be free. Like all rights, the right to property stems from a duty, the duty to support oneself and provide for one’s family. Moreover, it is said to be a natural right both because it is inscribed in human nature and because reason alone also recognizes it.[3]

This right, therefore, sets individuals and families free, roots them firmly in relation to reality and allows them to have a space in which to live their lives. Moreover, it accustoms them to living in a concrete context and appreciating tradition while preserving them from the dissipation of anonymity. It fosters the maturation of responsibility regarding the use of property, and also founds charity through moral commitment to one’s neighbor. Without attachment to property, the individual and families would be merely terminals of a state or global political system and potential victims of ensuing manipulation, conditioning and blackmail.

Private property is linked to work, just wages, savings, taxation, the banking system, inflation, productive and financial concentrations, and the role of the state in the economy. This right is therefore central to social life and for this reason must be understood correctly. Today we must take note of the persistence of past threats to this principle and the emergence of new and novel ones. The old threats come, for example, from a resurgence of communism in the West, and especially in Latin America. However, new threats are also emerging, and, surprisingly enough, most evidently so in liberal political systems themselves. The possibilities that technology, especially digital technology, now offers for social control motivated by real social emergencies, or more often ones constructed on purpose or at least instrumentalized, project new and disturbing scenarios. It should not be forgotten that when people in the past wanted to abolish private property, they actually enacted such  a ‘policy’ by doing nothing more than transferring that property into other hands. Nowadays, however, there are forms of limitation, control and elimination of private property that we never expected. Even in the so-called “free” West, efforts are deployed to condition how people behave through systems of rewards or punishments in the management of personal possessions.  With these novelties in mind, it is my intention today to share some thoughts on various controversial points that have to be clarified with regard to the nature of the principle of the natural right to private property. I will focus my attention on the three aspects that the current situation brings to the forefront in such a vivid way.

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A first aspect to be clarified concerns the relationship between the principle of private property and that of the universal destination of goods.[4]  The uncertainties repeatedly arising in current debate, and which may act as drivers behind erroneous policies, concern the question of whether one prevails over the other. The Magisterium of the Church has always taught that private property “depends” on the universal destination of goods. However, it would be wrong to understand the word “depends” as if the latter were original and private property were a derivative principle. To do so would undermine its natural character, that is, related to human nature, and therefore original, since what is essential is also God-given at the very moment that nature is placed in reality through creation. If private property is an original right, as the Magisterium of the Church also teaches, it cannot “depend” on anything else; ‘it is there’ from the very beginning and in its own right. The word “depend” actually means that this principle must necessarily connect with the other principle of the universal destination of goods. This,  however, must also happen in the reverse sense, that is, the principle of the universal destination of goods must link with – and thus “depend on” – private property. The dependence of one on the other does not indicate a priority of one over the other, but an equal and complementary mutual relationship, substantial and not accidental,  as required by the specific nature of each of the two principles. The thesis that one is primary and the other secondary is to be avoided. One can be said to “depend” on the other, but not said to be secondary to the other.

It should also be noted that this reciprocity does not indicate that it is a single principle. This sort of approach could also create misunderstandings in various ways. The two principles should be kept distinct as equally original, but instituted “together“ by God the Creator: not first one and then the other, but together, that is, so that one cannot stand without the other. God did not give humans the earth so they would receive a mere portion of it — or a share, or a slice — in ownership and then exploit that portion received. God gave men the earth so that through their labor they would also distribute it among themselves and make it bear fruit, with commitment, effort and justice. He did not give it so that some time later they may possibly  work it, but gave it to man as the object of labor, thereby establishing labor or work as the act of man rendering his ownership legitimate. At the same time He merged both principles so there can be no universal destination of goods without labor legitimizing property.

This flags another possible danger, namely, understanding the two principles as instrumental to one another. It is correct to say that the universal destination of goods is achieved through access to private property. But this does not mean that private property is only the instrument for realizing the universal destination of goods. That would be another way of considering it a secondary principle. Private property is already there in the universal destination of goods and vice versa.

Since  these clarifications rather relate to concrete political propensities considerably different from one another,  they have to do with more than just abstract definitions During this time in history, private property is faced with numerous threats as we have already noted, and asserting its secondary character with respect to the universal destination of goods runs the risk of fanning the flames of attacks underway. On the other hand, simply claiming the originality of private property, if not accompanied by the affirmation of its substantial complementarity with the universal destination of goods, would put us in the clutches of freedom without truth.

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I will now turn to a second aspect that can lend itself to misunderstandings. I am referring  to both the personal and social nature of the right to private property and the famous distinction between the possession and use of goods[5]  made by Leo XIII and always confirmed by his successors. Here as well we can find instrumental interpretations that are less than appropriate to say the least. It should be considered that these two aspects, personal and social, are present in the right to property from the very beginning and are essential to it. The social dimension is not added on “after” the ownership and exercise of the right, as if this right were non-social and required some sort of later intervention to assume this dimension. When the person, employee or entrepreneur, develops his property for the sake of his person and family, he also creates social value. Obviously, this happens not automatically, but because the moral qualities of the worker and entrepreneur must already be at work from the outset in his or her property development activity, and not added on at a later stage. To think otherwise would entail separating economics and ethics. Precisely in order to avoid thinking of it in automatic terms, whereby every way of working and every way of doing business would be valid in itself, the Church calls for distinguishing right and use, but never separating them. Nonetheless, it is necessary to be careful. Use cannot have retroactive effects on the right. A bad or improper use of property does not justify the denial of that right. [6]  Social use, moreover, as an ethical dimension of the right, affects that right from the outset; it does not justify it on the legal level, but renders it legitimate in moral terms. For the Social Doctrine of the Church, It is not permissible to separate right and use, bringing use into the picture after the right and independent from it. This approach would lend itself to numerous deviations in private property policies. The main one is that attributed to the state or  to political power in general, would be the aptitude to guarantee from above the good use of private property, which instead pertains first and foremost to the worker or entrepreneur. They, in fact, have a duty to support their children and thus have not only the right to property but also the first say on its use. Corporate income or capital taxes levied to politically correct the misuse of private property or to guarantee its social dimension, or confiscations without compensation, are practices contrary to the Social Doctrine of the Church because they do not respect the principle of private property and attribute to the state a power it does not have, namely to impose an arbitrarily  established [7]social use.

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Last but not least in this lecture, I would like to say a few words about the participatory diffusion of private property[8]  and its opposite, namely the concentration of property in a few hands. [9] The Social Magisterium has dealt with both of these aspects. Regarding the first one, it has always held that property should be wide spread because it has to do directly with the family, freedom and the roots of sense. Here is the best way to realize the universal destination of goods: encourage participation in property through work. Regarding the second aspect, it has always warned against tendencies inherent in the economy itself towards monopolies and oligopolies that place the future and fortunes of many in the hands of a few. The social encyclicals do not pretend to ignore certain market requirements for enlarging and merging enterprises in order to achieve greater market presence. They say, however, that this phenomenon should not be left to itself, but balanced and governed by the enhancement of small property, small business, especially family business, in which capital and labor naturally cooperate with each other. Let us not forget that the first principle enunciated by Leo XIII in Rerum novarum was precisely this, namely that capital and labor should cooperate with one another and not clash in social conflict [10].

In our present day and age, the concentration of economic, financial and therefore technological power has increased considerably, with well-founded concerns for one and all. The most obvious field is the digital world, where a few power centers compete for a planetary market. Another readily evident realm is that of distribution and logistics related to online trade. And yet another area to which I would like to draw your attention is that of huge global ‘Foundations’ that, under the guise of being philanthropic,  actually guide world policies given their close connection with the governments of the strongest nations. [11] Nor can I overlook the concentration of that particular power called “knowledge” which today involves  world centers engaged in artificial intelligence, robotics and transhumanism. Some people speak of a global Deep State [12], that is, of non-institutional, and therefore invisible, transnational power centers that nevertheless condition institutional levels by determining their policies. Contributing to these concentrations are the new technologies that now dispense with the physical space necessary for small property and congenial to it. When one thinks of small property one thinks of the homestead and the home , realities that are being abandoned today given the global drive towards sharing .

Such concentrations of wealth and power embody many dangers. There is a move toward the anonymity of large multinational concentrations and the new corporation of international managers, unconnected to any context but cohesive with one another in the new pro-efficiency ideology, which often has a negative impact on workers and their families.

The Social Doctrine of the Church flags the dangers of these trends while at the same time urging us to preserve the economy’s “real” links with life and to avoid falling into the web of artifice. Current globalist tendencies do not erase the sense of small property, small business and family enterprise, just as they do not wipe out the significance of new organic and bottom-up forms of entrepreneurial cooperation, also rediscovering some suggestions proposed by the Social Magisterium up to Pius XI and never denied thereafter. [13] In the ‘depersonalization’ and endemic conflict so characteristic of today’s economic life, seriously revisiting said considerations or suggestions becomes a must.

 

 

[1] Archbishop, Bishop of Trieste.

[2] Cf Rerum novarum, 4, 5; Quadragesimo anno, 44-52; Gaudium et spes, 71; Centesimus annus, 31; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church  della Dottrina sociale della Chiesa, 171, 176, 282.

[3]  Cf Rerum novarum, 5, 6, 7, 8; Mater et magistra, 96.

[4] Cf Quadragesimo anno, 45; Gaudium et spes, 69; Populorum progressio, 22; Laborem exercens, 19; Sollicitudo rei socialis, 42; Centesimus annus, 31; Compendium of the Scial Doctrine of the Church, 171-175.

[5] Cf Rerum novarum, 19; Quadragesimo anno, 47; Gaudium et spes, 69.

[6] Cf  Quadragesimo anno, 47.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 72-77, 100, 102.

[9] Ibid,, 105, 109.

[10] Rerum novarum, 15; Quadeagesimo anno, 54-60; Centesimus annus, 11-15.

[11] Cf   N. Dentico, Le trame oscure del filantrocapitalismo, EMI, Bologna 2020.

[12] Cf  M. Lofgren, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, New York 2016; B. Dumont, “Un État profonde planétaire?”, “Catholica”, n. 153, pp. 4-14.

[13] Cf Quadragesimo anno, 84-88, 94-96.

 

 

 

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