Were the Early Christians Communists?

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To justify the Marxism that they preach, the spokesmen of the “Catholic left” frequently allege that the early Christians lived in a regime of a community of goods. To justify this assertion, they cite a passage from the Acts of the Apostles, which, obviously, they interpret in their own way.

This is the text: “And the multitude of believers had but one heart and one soul: and not one said that any of the things which he possessed, was his own; but all things were in 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 laid it down before the feet of the apostles. And distribution was made to everyone, according as had need.

“And Joseph, who, by the apostles, was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, by interpretation, the son of consolation,) a Levite, a Cyprian born, having land, sold it, and brought the price, and laid it at the feet of the apostles.

“But a certain man named Ananias, with Saphira his wife, sold a piece of land, and by fraud kept back part of the price of the land, his wife being privy there unto: and bringing a certain part of it, laid it at the feet of the apostles.

“But Peter said: 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? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thy heart? Thou hast not lied to men, but to God” (Acts 4:32, 34-37 and 5:1-4).

What should one think about this? Those among our readers more familiar with the ecclesiastic milieus of some time past may have already heard of a magazine that was renowned in its time: L’Ami du Clerge (The Friend of the Clergy).

Founded in France in the last century by Msgr. F. Perriot, a protonotary apostolic, it was published weekly until the onset of the Second World War. A magazine of a high intellectual caliber, its specialty was responding to questions of ecclesiastic interest, be they doctrinal, liturgical, canonical, or others. It would thus provide orientation, above all for the clergy but also for faithful Catholics, in matters concerning the Church of God.

In 1928 the director of the magazine was Fr. A. Rozier, doctor of theology and titular canon of Langres. Among the questions to which this most respected magazine responded, we find one about the “Right of Property in the Theology of Saint Thomas” (issue of the 45th year, 5th series, no. 42, October 18, 1928). In it are ten pages of enlightening explanation, of which we will only extract the part that refers to the supposed community of goods among the early Christians.

In this text from a safe and secure source, our readers will find a trustworthy interpretation of the aforementioned passage from the Acts of the Apostles. Only the subtitles are our own.

The Heresies Against Property

“Would the religious life constitute an obstacle to the right of property? For in religious life, communism, or poverty, is the rule. Would this not be, then, an ideal for which it is necessary to strive? Did not the early Christians install among themselves a true communism (cf. Acts 4:32)?

“Saint Thomas does not neglect this objection but rather he placed it in proper perspective. Neither religious life nor the ‘communism’ of the early Christians constitutes a serious obstacle to the legitimacy of private property. For the objection to have any value, the community of goods realized in the primitive Church would have had to have been imposed upon the faithful, and religious life would have to be a precept, and not a counsel. The perfection of the evangelical counsel does not exclude the licitness of a different practice, which, of itself, conforms to natural law.

“The argument [of Saint Thomas] (Sed Contra, II-II, quest. 66, art. 2; also Summa Contra Gentiles, bk. 3:II, chap. 127, 8) supports this response perfectly. Saint Thomas, in effect, recalls the heresy of the Apostolici mentioned by Saint Augustine (“De Haeresibus,” no. 40, in P. L., vol. 42, col. 32): ‘The Apostolici,’ writes St. Augustine, ‘assumed that name with an extreme arrogance, because they refused from their communion married persons and those who possessed property, such as both monks and clerics who in considerable number are to be found in the Catholic Church. But the Apostolici are heretics precisely because, separating themselves from the Church, they consider condemned those who make use of these goods, of which they deprive themselves.’

“‘The heresy of the Apostolici does not lie in taking the vows of chastity and poverty: monks and numerous clerics do the same. But the error lies in wanting to impose the same discipline on all the faithful under pain of condemnation.’ And St. Thomas concludes: ‘It is, therefore, an error to say that it is not permitted for a man to possess property.’

“This response is of use a fortiori for the problem presented by the perfection of evangelical poverty. Religious life, be it in a monastery provided with an income or in a community living from alms, is a life of counsel, not of precept, and it cannot be imposed on everyone. Moreover, even from the point of view of the perfection of the spiritual life, St. Thomas shows that the evangelical counsel of poverty most absolutely does not prevent the rich from sanctifying themselves amidst riches: ‘Great was the virtue of Abraham, who, possessing great riches, nonetheless knew how to keep his heart free from love for his riches. . . .’

It Was Not Obligatory to Hand Over One’s Possessions to the Apostles

“In reality, the community of goods in the primitive Church coexisted perfectly with private property: The supposed ‘communism’ of the first Christians is a historical error. It suffices to attentively read the texts of Saint Luke (in the Acts of the Apostles) in order to be convinced of this as is seen in this commentary:

“The community of goods resided fundamentally in the disposition of each one of the faithful in looking at everything that belonged to him as belonging to all. In practice, the rich, to the degree necessary, would sell some of their properties, hand over the sum to the Apostles, and thus, under the direction of the heads of the Church, help to establish a common fund of goods destined to provide for the needs of the poor. In this way, indigence did not exist among the first faithful. But, as one sees, all this leads to the supposition that private property existed alongside this sentiment of extraordinary generosity, and was even necessary so that the common fund of resources could be unceasingly replenished to meet the needs of the Church that arose.

“On the other hand, this generosity was spontaneous. No precept imposed it: ‘Whilst it remained, did it not remain to thee? And after it was sold, was it not in thy power?’ (Acts 5:4). Elsewhere in the Acts (12:12) it is said that Mary, the mother of Mark, owned a house’ (P. Knabenbauer, Comm. in Actus Ap., p. 91).

“St. Peter only censures Ananias for one thing: He had tried to deceive him about the price he had received. But this very deception proves that the good would remain in the possession of each of the faithful, who did not have any obligation toward the faithful to sell his possessions and deliver the sum to the Apostles’”(Jackier, Les Actus des Apotres, p. 152).

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