Economics 101 & Public Square & Theology 101

Five Insights About Private Property from Aquinas

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Is private ownership of property contrary to human nature? Since the “earth is the Lord’s” (Psalm 24:1), it would seem that humans have no right to own anything. Is there a natural precedence to reject private property?

Reading church history often provides answers to what appear to be novel questions in our own day (Ecclesiastes 1:9), to support and explain what Scripture teaches. Thomas Aquinas provides a solid argument for private property in his Summa Theologica (See especially, Part I–II, Q66, answers 1 and 2). Here are five of the most important aspects of his argument:

1. God designed creation to support life, especially human life.

God has sovereign dominion over all things: and He, according to His providence, directed certain things to the sustenance of man’s body.

Here, Aquinas clearly demonstrates a basic recognition of the uniqueness of humans in creation, and that God intended humans to utilize natural resources for personal benefit. This doesn’t get to the heart of the private property question, but it does deflate the argument that humans are alien parasites on the earth that should avoid using natural resources. This thought from Aquinas is a beginning point for the discussion: Man is a unique part of creation. Men and women have a unique role in nature that is different than the animals and plants because of the Imago Dei (Genesis 1:26).

2. Private property engenders good stewardship.

Every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one will shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community.

Work held in common, without someone designated as responsible, is typically poorly done because everyone assumes that it is some else’s responsibility. This was one major problem (but certainly not the only one) with production on collective farms in the Soviet Union: they both under-and over-produced because there was no personal ownership of the land or its product.

In the 1980s, the Soviets were buying American grain, though the USSR had as much arable land dedicated to grain production as the United States. Farmers who had once owned their own farms and built wealth through their efforts were now deprived of the work of their hands because any profit from their hard work was granted to the collective. If the Soviet farmers had owned the land and the produce from it, their productivity levels would most likely have increased.

3. Private ownership supports order in society.

Human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately.

Watching a group of six-year-olds play soccer is an apt illustration for society without private property. Most of the children don’t understand the differences between the roles of each position, so they all cluster around the ball, madly trying to kick it toward a goal.

Even if everyone is actively engaged in working toward a common goal, the opportunity for success is diminished without a clear distinction of roles. Aquinas points out that when people have ownership, they can have a better understanding of their role as steward of that to which God has entrusted them.

4. Private property helps maintain peace in communities.

It is to be observed that quarrels arise more frequently when there is no division of the things possessed.

Aquinas observes that people cannot be content with what they own if there is no understanding of what they own. In other words, when things are held in common, everyone has an equal right to it. Who then decides how to determine who should get the use of the communal property? Is it simply according to the order that someone requested it, or should there be a determination as to the relative need? According to Aquinas, these are questions that private property helps to answer, which, in turn, helps to reduce conflict.

5. Private property benefits the community.

Man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need.

For the contemporary reader, this is the most challenging aspect of the concept of private property. Aquinas shows that we can and should own things, but that we should be holding these things as stewards. What we own is held in trust for God, so we can use our resources for his glory. Private property is necessary to provide us the opportunity to be generous.

The problem with the rich man with big barns (Luke 12:16–21) was not his private property, but the manner in which he held it. The rich man in this parable held his wealth only for his own gain and was “not rich toward God.” This is a sin to avoid, but according to Aquinas, it does not preclude private ownership.

How can we be good stewards of the property that we own? Leave your comments here.

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  • FA Miniter

    This is a dangerous argument, and doubly so in our times when a perverted gospel of wealth is being promulgated.

    First, let me correct an error. Mr. Spencer cites Summa Theologiae, I-II, Q.66, 1 and 2. He is wrong. The proper citation is Summa Theologiae, II-II (that is, Secunda Secondae Partis), Q. 66, and I submit that without the remaining parts (3 – 9), the discussion is incomplete. That is because Question 66 is not a discussion of private property, but rather one part of a long analysis of types of sins, this question being addressed to theft and robbery.

    Now, taken in context, Aquinas is not arguing FOR private property, as Mr. Spencer suggests. he is arguing that some private property is NECESSARY, there being a considerable difference between its desirability and its necessity. Wealth is not necessarily a good thing. The desire for it is itself a sin. Indeed, in Article 2, reply to 2nd objection, Aquinas states: “On like manner a rich man does not act unlawfully if he anticipates someone in taking possession of something which at first was common property, and gives others a share: but he sins if he excludes others indiscriminately from using it.”

    The inference is that a rich man cannot hold the excess over that which is necessary for himself, but must be ready to share it with others or simply turn it over to them directly. The corollary of this is that Aquinas excuses theft altogether if it is done out of necessity. This is discussed in Articles 6 and 7 of Q. 66. In Article 6, he says: ” First, when a person is led to thieve through necessity. This necessity diminishes or entirely removes sin, as we shall show further on [Art. 7].”

    And in Article 7, he states: “Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come
    to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.”

    In some circumstances, theft is not only not a sin, it is the right thing to do. (Should Jean Valjean not have stolen that loaf of bread to feed his sister and her child?) These words of Aquinas should be a dire warning in our America, where we have just learned that the wealth gap is greater now than at any time since 1928, where, because of the existing Reagan tax cuts for the rich, the gap continues to widen, as it has done every year since 1983.

    Now I deem it necessary to state why Mr. Spencer’s argument is dangerous. Andrew Carnegie first announced the Gospel of Wealth a little over 100 years ago. But he, like Aquinas, proclaimed that a rich person was only a steward of the property for the benefit of all, and that the worst thing that could be said about a man was that he died rich.

    That altruistic view of wealth was stood on its head in the 1950s when Billy Graham gave a now (in)famous television sermon in which he declared that Jesus was not a communist; Jesus was for private property; Jesus wanted you to own things. Thus began the Gospel of Greed which now permeates much of so-called American Christianity. I say so-called because what is now called Christianity in America has little or nothing to do with following the sayings of Jesus, which include the following: Matthews 19:21: “Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”

    The Prosperity Gospel, which I call simply the Gospel of Greed, is essentially Economic Calvinism (my own term). It preaches, in effect, that wealth is the reward given by God to those whom he deems faithful (i.e., they are the elect, the chosen, the saved), while poverty is a display by God of his disfavor with those whom he has punished for all to see (the damned). That is so much mullarkey. We have seen its consequences in the political life of the nation. Those who so believe also believe that the rich should not help the poor in any fashion (not with health care, not with food stamps, not with school lunches, not with social security, etc. etc. etc.), because the poor are, in the eyes of such believers, the damned, and what use is it to help those whom God has already preordained to be damned. Best to enjoy the fruits of God’s grace oneself. Thus is greed justified.

    • Andrew Spencer

      Thanks for taking the time to write. You’ll find me in agreement that we ought to steer clear of the prosperity gospel. That will be a post for another day, perhaps.Thanks for your contribution to the ongoing conversation.
      Andrew Spencer

    • The Manz

      Acquinas was a Marxist before it was fashionable. God gave man dominion over the earth, not government. Where do you think the Jesuits got the communist ideas for their creation of Marxism/communism? Acquinas.

  • Justin

    There is a legitimate debate within the Catholic tradition over whether private property was intended as a fundamental right or whether it is a necessity as a consequence of the fall. Either way it is necessary to man now. The more limited view is typically associated with the Franciscan school. I believe St. Thomas is more arguing along the lines of what the author posted. I should refresh my memory on this though. Glad to see a Baptist referring to the Angelic Doctor!

    • FA Miniter

      Umberto Eco emphasizes that debate in his novel “The Name of the Rose”. And yes, the Franciscans were the main proponents of the idea that the vow of poverty was a serous one as well as a necessary one. It was all the more dramatic at the time of the story, 1327 CE, because the pope was living in unusual magnificence in the Pope’s New Castle (“Chateauneuf du Pape”) in the south of France.

      I like the way that James Michener had one of his characters put it in his novel, “Hawaii”: “Everything you own owns you.” I must sadly agree with that proposition.

      • Andrew Spencer

        Thanks for taking the time to write. You’ll find me in agreement that we ought to steer clear of the prosperity gospel. That will be a post for another day, perhaps.Thanks for your contribution to the ongoing

    • Andrew Spencer

      Thank you, Justin for taking the time to write. I appreciate your kind comment. I also appreciate much of Aquinas’ theology and have found his four types laws paradigm especially helpful in doing ethics. He always reasons well and writes clearly, and is a pleasure to read even when I disagree on certain points.

    • Andrew Spencer

      Thank you, Justin, for taking the time to write. I appreciate your kind comment. I also appreciate much of Aquinas’ theology and have found his four types laws paradigm especially helpful in doing ethics. He always reasons well and writes clearly, and is a pleasure to read even when I disagree on certain points.

    • The Manz

      Perhaps the Catholic Church should concern itself with spiritual things and leave the temporal world to civil entities.

  • anarchobuddy

    I think we can be good stewards by deciding what property rights are and are not legitimate. I’m giving less and less credence to intellectual property, as that seems to impose artificial scarcity where it need not be. I’m also trying to understand the mutualist position against absentee land ownership, as that might also be a property right that is illegitimate.

    • Andrew Spencer

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. There are certainly different opinions on what forms of property should be honored. However, Scripture is clear that there is such a thing as private property and that it should be respected. As well, there is a common theme among prosperous nations that they respect ownership of private property. Aquinas provides some excellent reasoning for the reality and necessity of private property.Thanks again for reading!

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