Today I fulfill a longstanding promise of providing my readers with a collection of pontifical texts concerning private property. The tumultuous situation of the times had led me to other themes. Now, however, I have the satisfaction of making these golden teachings – so neglected in certain Catholic publications – shine once again by giving them public exposure.
Private property is being presented more and more – in this epoch of hypertrophied concern about the social as a disagreeable and anachronistic privilege to which only a few egotists, insensitive to the misery surrounding them, have obstinately attached themselves.
Is that the thinking of the Church? This question is of capital importance for our public.
In order to answer such questions by the very voice of the Roman Pontiffs, here follow some of their teachings on this matter.
First of all let us consider a question closely related to our topic. I spoke of hypertrophied concern about social issues. This expression may undoubtedly have made some readers shudder. For if this concern corresponds to the general interest, can it really be overdone?
Yes, it can. Its hypertrophy is very harmful to the general interest itself; the Roman Pontiffs called it socialism.
Therefore, the Church undertook “the protection of the individual and the family against a current threatening to bring about a total socialization which in the end would make the terrifying image of the ‘Leviathan’ become a shocking reality. The Church will fight this battle to the end, for it is a question of supreme values: the dignity of man and the salvation of souls” (Pius XII, Radiomessage to the Katholikentag of Vienna, September 14, 1952 – Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. XIV, page 314).
Moreover, Pius XII sees total socialization not only as a general catastrophe but also as a maneuver of a privileged minority against the common good: “in attributing to the people as a whole is proper, albeit partial, task of ordering the economy for the future, we are very far from admitting that this charge should be confided to the State as such.”
“However, upon observing the proceedings of certain congresses, even Catholic ones, about economic and social matters, one may note an ever growing tendency to call for State intervention so that one has at times, as it were, the impression that this is the only imaginable recourse. There is no doubt, according to the social doctrine of the Church, that the State does have its proper role in the ordering of social life. To fulfill this role, it must even be strong and have authority. But those who continuously invoke its strength and authority, making it responsible for everything, lead the State to ruin and really play the game of certain powerful interest groups. The result is that all personal responsibility in public affairs comes to an end. So when anyone speaks about the State’s obligation or negligence, he is, in fact, referring to the obligations or faults of anonymous groups among whom he naturally does not think of counting himself.” (Pius XII, Speech of March 7, 1957 to the VII Congress of the Christian Union of Italian Employers and Managers (UCID) – Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, no. XIX, page 30).
For his part, Leo XIII shows that to fight in defense of private property is to favor the most fundamental interests of the people: “… the socialist theory of collective property must be absolutely repudiated because it is harmful to the very ones whom it seeks to help, contrary to the natural rights of individuals, denaturalizes the functions of the State and disturbs the public peace. Let it therefore be firmly settled that the first foundation to be established for those who sincerely seek the good of the people is the inviolability of private property” (Leo XIII, Encyclical Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891 – Editora Vozes, Petropolis, page 12).
Socialist equality, regarded by so many as the liberation of the poor was denounced by Leo XIII as the cause of the general misery: “Inasmuch as the Socialists, therefore, disregard care by parents and in its place introduce care by the State, they act against natural justice and dissolve the structure of the home. And apart from the injustice involved, it is also only too evident what turmoil and disorder would obtain among all classes; and what a harsh and odious enslavement of citizens would result! The door would be open to mutual envy, detraction, and dissension. If incentives to ingenuity and skill in individual person were to be abolished, the very fountain of wealth would necessarily dry up and the equality conjured up by the Socialist imagination would, in reality be nothing but uniform wretchedness and meanness for one and all, without distinction” (Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum St. Paul Editions, Boston, Mass., 1942).
One would say that the celebrated Pontiff had foreseen, with an inspired gaze the economic failures of Cuba and the misery of laborers such as those who have risen up in Gdansk and other cities of Poland.
And now to private property. What are its origins?
One of them is the very wages of the worker. To deny property is to deny wages and thus to reduce the worker to slavery. Leo XIII says: “Clearly the essential reason why those who engage in any gainful occupation undertake labor, and at the same time the end to which workers immediately look, is to procure property for themselves and to retain it by individual right as theirs and as their very own. When the worker places his energy and his labor at the disposal of another, he does so for the purpose of getting the means necessary for livelihood. He seeks in return for the work done; accordingly a true and full right not only to demand his wage but to dispose of it as he sees fit. Therefore, if be saves something by restricting expenditures and invests his savings in a piece of land in order to keep the fruit of his thrift safer, a holding of this kind is certainly nothing else than his wage under a different form; and, on this account, land which the worker thus buys is necessarily under his full control as much as the wage which he earned by his labor. But, as is obvious, it is clearly in this that the ownership of movable and immovable goods consists” (Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, St. Paul Editions, Boston. Mass., 1942, pages 7-8).
Another way in which ownership is legitimately established, is by the appropriation of things that have no owner. Pius XI states: “Titles for the acquisition of property are the takeover of things without an owner… in fact, he who takes possession of something abandoned or with no owner, does injustice to no one, however much some may say to the contrary” (Pius XI, Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, May 15, 1931 – Editora Vozes, Petropolis, pages 21-22).
As a consequence, man may also legitimately become the owner of land. Leo XIII teaches: “Man by his intelligence grasps innumerable things, adding and linking the future with the present; in addition, he is master of his own actions; furthermore, under the direction of the eternal law and the universal government of Divine Providence, he is, in a certain way, his own law and his own providence. Wherefore he has the right to choose the things which he considers most apt not only to provide for the present but also for the future. Whence it follows that dominion not only over the fruits of the earth but also over the earth itself must rest in him, since by its fecundity he sees that it is destined to furnish his needs in the future. Man’s necessities continuously repeat; satisfied today, they make new demands tomorrow. Therefore, nature necessarily put at his disposal something stable and permanent capable of continually providing him with means. That element can only be the earth, with its ever fruitful resources.” (Leo XIII, Encyclical Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891 – Editora Vozes, Petropolis, p.7).
These considerations have already taken me quite far. The texts that have been cited offer more than sufficient material for reflection. So we shall stop here for now.
The preceding article was originally published in the Folha de S.Paulo, on May 30, 1971. It has been translated and adapted for publication without the author’s revision. –Ed.