Man’s Dominion over creation: The universal destination of goods and private property

For some time now I have been writing about social justice, seen through the eyes of faith, built around the pillars of the right worship of God, through the Mass, on the Lord’s Day, and the life of marriage and family. From there I moved on to write about the place of work, the dignity of the worker and the dignity of work. This led to a discussion of the dignity of the human person, the fundamental equality in the dignity of human nature, the gradations of dignity in the order of nature and of grace, the legitimacy and role of privilege, and the supreme privilege of divine grace, which is brought to fulfillment in the glory of eternal life.

It remains to say something about the relation of work to property and the environment, or the relation of man, through work, to the property and the environment.

At the root of this discussion we must always turn to the original creation of man and the words of God: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all living things that move on the earth.” God also said: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food.” (Gen 1:28-29) This passage should be read also in the light of the words: The Lord God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate it and care for it. (Gen 2:15)

If we simply read the words ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ we might make the mistake of seeing the earth purely as raw material for human industry, to be used according to our will and good pleasure. Our dominion over the living things would, in turn, mean the dominion of a master over a slave, free to dispose of the slave as he wills. Nevertheless, the expression from the second chapter, ‘to cultivate it and care for it’, clearly shows that human dominion over creation is beneath God, according to the laws of God, respecting the nature of what is ‘cultivated and cared for’. Our dominion is a dominion that a steward exercises beneath his Lord.

So, on the one hand, while the earth is to provide us with what we need to sustain our life, and on the other, we are to care for the earth, bringing it to its own perfection. The earth is not perfect in its ‘wild’ state, coming forth from the hand of the Creator, because the Creator did not make the earth to be perfect without man. The earth needs man to bring it to perfection through ‘cultivation and care’. In some way, the perfect earth will be the ‘domesticated’ earth. Or the perfection will consist in wild part being ordered to the domesticated part, so that the whole receives its perfection through the part that is domesticated.

Nevertheless, proper domestication would not mean leveling and killing everything in order to pave it over with concrete or asphalt but would rather mean a harmonious development of nature. That, at least, would have happened had man gone forth from Eden, to fulfill his mission, without having rebelled against God and fallen into sin.

Note that by seeing the whole earth as given to our first parents by God, we see also that the earth was given to the whole of humanity to provide for human need. This gives rise to what has been called “the principle of the universal destination of goods”. Vatican II stated: “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity.” (GS 69)

We can get ahead of ourselves a little bit here and observe that this principle implies the need for a legal and juridic order to organize and govern man’s use of the earth. This would have been the case even had Adam not sinned. The order of justice, however, by itself will not work unless ‘tempered by charity’. Love, specifically the love of God, must motivate the practice of justice, the making and obeying of laws. This leads us back to our first principle of worship of God, because charity is impossible without grace.

The earth is given to mankind as a whole, but its use will necessarily be divided among individuals, families, and groups. “Universal destination and utilization of goods do not mean that everything is at the disposal of each person or of all people, or that the same object may be useful or belong to each person or all people.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 173)

Indeed, it is precisely through work, which transforms the earth, that the earth is appropriated to one or another person. “By means of work and making use of the gift of intelligence, people are able to exercise dominion over the earth and make it a fitting home: ‘In this way, he makes part of the earth his own, precisely the part which he has acquired through work; this is the origin of individual property.’” (Ibid. 176; Citing Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 31)

(To be continued)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.