The right to private property, says the encyclical Fratelli tutti, is a mere “secondary” natural right, “derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods.” It should therefore not “displace primary and overriding rights” (no. 120). Pope Francis refers especially to John Paul II and some of the Fathers of the Church, who held that “if one person lacks what is necessary to live with dignity it is because another person is detaining it” (no. 119).

What was the context of this ancient Christian conception? What did the tradition mean by “secondary natural rights”? Has the Church’s social doctrine since Rerum novarum understood the derivation of the right to private property from the principle of the universal destination of goods as implying a relativization of the right to private property, in favor of a superior right of the community?

The Ancient Roman Economy: A Zero-Sum Game

The principle of the universal destination of created goods is unchallenged as a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching. Its roots are found in the ancient Greek myth of an original Golden Age. Seneca reports of a time of the “carefree possession of the commonwealth,” in which one was “concerned for one’s neighbor as oneself.” In this “most happily ordered world,” however, greed seeped in. Possessive accumulation of property by a few was the cause of the poverty of all others; that is to say, it was a zero-sum game. This was the Stoic narrative of the economically decadent state of the contemporary world, and it is still the basis of all criticism of private property today.

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The most important transmitter of this narrative was Cicero, but in no way was it used as a narrative against private property. Even if “by nature there is no private property,” Cicero said, it has nevertheless come into being in the course of time through war and the resulting power, or through laws, treaties, agreement, and lot; whoever does not respect it “will violate the legal foundation of the human community.” However, he said, in the use of private property, each “should follow nature as a guide, focusing on the common benefit.”

This was a nuanced position that was cultivated by the ethos of the Roman nobility. After all, the Roman plebeians—the large majority of citizens—were dependent for their survival on regular, gigantic grain imports financed by the rich. Donating for the good of the people was understood as a civic duty of the rich, but it was also a matter of survival for a system based on power and patronage. In this system, one could only become—and remain—truly rich at the expense of others.

Necessary Contextualization of the Ancient Christian Criticism of Wealth

Clear traces of all this are present in the early Christian critique of the rich and the associated property ethic. However, now it was no longer out of patriotic civic duty, but to leave their wealth to the Church, who instead were now caring for the poor. In this way they would acquire treasure in heaven and at the same time be protected from the moral dangers of wealth.

The first church leader to preach and practice this was a wealthy descendant of a Roman senatorial family named Ambrose, named bishop of Milan in 374. It was also Ambrose who praised the “favorite view” of the Stoics that all products on earth are created for the use of men and for their general benefit, and are therefore common to all. Unlike Cicero, however, he uses this doctrine to deprive private property of any moral dignity by referring to it as an usurpatio—usurpation.

Such statements must be read in their original context. This is equally true of statements made by John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople. His ideal was not that of the Roman nobleman, but the first Christians of Jerusalem, who shared their goods in common (cf. Acts 4:32–35). In his Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Chrysostom does not advocate organizing the Church’s provision for the poor with the help of the rich; rather, he wants to put the entire society of Byzantium on a new footing: he calls for the wealth of the rich to be radically redistributed. All society, every household, should become a monastery, where everything is common to all.

Clement of Alexandria saw it quite differently: If there were no rich, he wrote, who would be able to support the poor? Augustine, too, was of a different mindset than Chrysostom: common property only worked in small monastic communities of volunteers; for society as a whole, he adopted Cicero’s point of view, but in a now Christian version: even if private property was not intended in nature, in the present state of man—i.e., after the Fall—it is the only way to live together peacefully in society.

Precisely in this tradition, which was also present in medieval scholasticism, the right to private property has been considered since the nineteenth century as a “secondary” natural right: not in order to relativize it as subordinate to “rights of the community,” but in order to place it in the time after the Fall in terms of salvific history.

Even if private property was not intended in nature, in the present state of man—i.e., after the Fall—it is the only way to live together peacefully in society.


When the Franciscans Discovered Capital: Natural Law Property Ethics in the Middle Ages

The High Middle Ages, when commercial capitalism and banking began to flourish, saw a different mindset from Christian antiquity. The Roman zero-sum mentality seems to have disappeared; rather, people thought of money as a “fruit-bearing capital.” The pioneers here were members of the Franciscan Order, especially Petrus Iohannis Olivi (1248–1298). In his highly influential Treatise on Contracts, he was probably the first to reflect systematically on the fact that there is wealth that is not based on injustice and robbery but on the creation of value, and that money invested at risk in profitable transactions is “capital” that not only yields commercial profit but also benefits the community and improves people’s lives.

It is precisely in this period that Thomas Aquinas offers a natural law justification for private property: Due to that nature, which, according to Thomas, humans share with non-rational living beings, nothing concrete belongs to this or that person. However, as regards the efficient and peaceful use of goods, private property is that which is natural to man as a rational being: it is a dictate of natural reason, and a component of the ius gentium—the law of all peoples (ST II-II, q. 57, a. 3). Here too, we find a two-tiered justification—different from the one provided by Augustine—which prompted later theologians to define private property as a “secondary natural right,” as I said, not at all to relativize it, or classify it as subordinate or as having secondary importance.

Aquinas uses realistic anthropological arguments to justify why private property corresponds to a hardly altruistic human nature, and why it is—in contrast to common property—precisely for this reason useful for society (ST II-II, q. 66, a. 2). For the same reason, he emphasizes that private property must always be used for the common good. Therefore, in an extreme emergency—if it is a matter of basic survival—no one has a right to insist on his property claims: everything is then common.

Petrus Iohannis Olivi was probably the first to reflect systematically on the fact that there is wealth that is not based on injustice and robbery but on the creation of value.


The Modern View: Property and Work

At the end of the nineteenth century, however, the principle of the universal destination of goods reappeared in the social encyclical of Leo XIII Rerum novarum, which marked the beginning of what we now call the “social doctrine of the Church.” The first social encyclical appeared in the era of industrial capitalism, a world of unprecedented productivity of human labor, the accumulation and deployment of an enormous amount of capital, and constant innovation. However, it was also a world in which workers were largely unprotected, at the mercy of their employers, who in turn often risked everything to realize their entrepreneurial visions.

How is it to be explained that the principle of the universal destination of goods now reappears in precisely this context? Rerum novarum does not cite any Christian authors for it. As is well known, the authors of Rerum novarum drew on the property doctrine of the English philosopher John Locke. Right at the beginning of the fifth chapter of his Second Treatise on Government (“On Property”), it says that God “has given the Earth to the Children of Men, given it to Mankind in common.” [5, 25]

Locke goes on to say that God has not only “given the World to Men in common,” but has “also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of life, and convenience” [5, 26]. Through work, what God has created for the good of all people becomes the property of individuals. This does not take anything away from anyone, because—and this is the decisive argument—through labor one “does not lessen, but increase the common stock of mankind” (5, 37). The intention of the Creator that the goods of this earth have to serve all people is thus realized precisely through private property, and the latter receives its deepest justification from this value-creating function. Private property as such is therefore in itself—precisely as a “secondary” natural right—according to its deepest nature, a social institution that serves the common good.

This is precisely the teaching of Rerum novarum and, with a brief interlude in the sixties, would remain the position of the papal magisterium until John Paul II and Benedict XVI: Private property is the means by which the “earth” and its fruits benefit all people. That “God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race” is therefore, according to Rerum novarum, in no way opposed to “special ownership,” for it is precisely through this that the earth “ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all” (no. 8).

Thus, by this reference to the universal destination of goods private property is not limited “for social reasons.” Rather, according to Leo XIII, private property is the very means by which the goods of this world fulfill their destiny “of serving the whole.” The principle formulated by Thomas that property should always be used with a view to the benefit of the community, as well as the anthropological arguments he put forward in favor of private property, can be seamlessly integrated into this perspective—but now in a modern, “economically enlightened” way in which the focus is no longer on almsgiving and mercy in emergencies, but on entrepreneurial value creation for the sustainable increase of general prosperity.

The intention of the Creator that the goods of this earth have to serve all people is realized precisely through private property, and the latter receives its deepest justification from its value-creating function.


From Quadragesimo anno to Centesimus annus

In the late seventies, Oswald von Nell-Breuning said in reference to Rerum novarum that it was a “bad blemish that the workers’ encyclical begins with such an apology for property.” However, Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo anno (1931), of which he was a major co-author, adopted this “apology for property.” Pius XI said that apart from its importance for the well-being of the individual, property also had a social function, namely: “The goods which the Creator destined for the entire family of mankind may through this institution [of property] truly serve this purpose” (no. 45). This had been precisely the argument of Rerum novarum. Moreover, according to Pius XI, the work “by virtue of which a new form or increase has been given to a thing grants [. . .] title to these fruits” (no. 52). Locke sends his regards!

Here we no longer find thinking in categories of zero-sum economy and distribution, but in those of value creation through property-creating work. This includes—as John Paul II will emphasize—primarily the work of the entrepreneur. For this work is by nature “social” and serves the common good. Private property is central to sustainable value-creating work for the benefit of all. The social function of property does not only result from its restriction—through taxation or regulation—or from its use in a charitable sense, but is part of its intrinsic nature when it is used entrepreneurially or invested productively.

These connections remain surprisingly unmentioned in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes. They are also not a topic in the encyclical Populorum progressio of Paul VI (1967); rather, private property, capitalist profit-seeking, and free-market competition are presented there as dangers to the common good, and a global redistribution is instead advocated. Thus, the magisterium temporarily fell into the temptation of promoting redistribution of wealth in place of wealth-creation.

This changed again with John Paul II. As early as his first social encyclical Laborem exercens (1981), the theme of “work” is central. It is through work that universal participation in the goods of this world takes place. In Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987), no. 42, there appears the concept of a “social mortgage” that property is “under,” according to John Paul II. The concept of social mortgage is often understood as a limitation to the right to private property. However, the text says this “social [mortgage]” is an “intrinsic” quality of property, which is based on the “principle of the common use of goods.” Private property is “social” precisely because it serves as a way for the goods of this world to benefit all people.

As John Paul II declared on December 17, 1987, private ownership of the means of production, properly unleashes “the economic initiative, which serves not only the individual but also society.” However, he also states that this requires a regulating function of the state with regard to property. Sollicitudo rei socialis concludes from this: The poor, too, should be able to acquire property through work and entrepreneurship, or to engage in entrepreneurial activity through the protection of their property rights. The “right to free economic initiative” is therefore a fundamental right of the poor.

Finally, Centesimus annus (1991) would further specify this teaching. In the chapter “Private Property and the Universal Destination of Material Goods,” the Lockean theory of the justification of property through labor reappears. Labor is understood as a factor of production, and thus the focus is on productivity and value creation rather than distribution (no. 31). The “possession of know-how, technology, and skill”—human capital—appears as an essential form of property. Thus the “role of disciplined and creative human work and, as an essential part of that work, initiative and entrepreneurial ability becomes increasingly evident and decisive” (No. 32). Consequently, the most important resource for human beings is seen as the human being himself. The way to a just world is therefore through education, “human capital”—perhaps the most important but also the most democratic form of property today—and the legal protection of all types of property, so that no one is excluded from the opportunity to achieve their rightful share of wealth through their own labor.

A further development of the Church’s doctrine on property should therefore logically turn to the subject of the legal protection of property titles, especially in poor countries. However, the development of the Church’s social doctrine seems at present to go rather in the opposite direction, and thus it runs the risk of being used as a justification for socialist experiments. Others still cling to the idea—already explicitly rejected by John Paul II in Sollicitudo rei socialis no. 41—of the Church’s social doctrine as a “third way” between capitalism and socialism. This idea is a free pass for ultimately utopian conceptions which, although well-intentioned, are all bound to fail in the face of the real requirements for economic and social progress.

The social function of property does not only result from its restriction—through taxation or regulation—or from its use in a charitable sense, but is part of its intrinsic nature when it is used entrepreneurially or invested productively.


Conclusion: Not a Relativization, but a Foundation of the Right to Private Property

Appealing to the tradition of the Church’s social doctrine since Rerum novarum and its further development up to Centesimus annus, but also to the property ethics based in scholastic natural law, it is difficult to justify a position of relativizing the right to private property as a “merely secondary,” “subordinate” right to be restricted in the interest of the common good or for social reasons. The tradition has never considered the relationship between the principle of universal destination of goods and the right to private property as one between a “primary” and a “secondary” right. The former does not formulate a right at all, but only a fundamental principle from which the right to private property receives its ultimate justification.

The statements of some church fathers, originating from the context of an ancient Roman zero-sum economy, that wealth is robbery of the poor, do not fit into a world in which capitalism, a market economy, and entrepreneurship set the tone within the framework of democracies governed by the rule of law and freedom. In this world, the generation of wealth is not a zero-sum game as it was in Christian Roman antiquity, but a process from which everyone benefits. Such a world presupposes the protection of the right to private property and for that very reason, makes possible an economy of increasing general prosperity. For poor countries, too, as John Paul II emphasized in his last social encyclical, this is the way to help their citizens live in dignity and prosperity.

This is the abridged version of an article published by the Austrian Institute of Economics and Social Philosophy (Vienna, Austria), both in a blog version and as an Austrian Institute Paper (PDF). Originally published in German in Herder Korrespondenz. English translation by Thomas and Kira Howes.