The Universal Destination of Goods and Private Property (Part II)

Last Sunday I introduced the topic of the relation between human work and both property and the environment. This involves the “dominion” that God gave to man over the physical creation. This dominion that is not absolute, does not give man the right to exploit the world as raw material, to be manipulated at will, but is rather a ‘stewardship’ entrusted to man. Man, through his work, is rather to serve God by guiding things to their proper perfection; this requires care for rather than domination of creation.

This stewardship of man over the physical world, established by work, involves two basic principles of Catholic social teaching: the universal destination of goods and private property. Three quotes from important Church documents summarize these principles.

“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)

“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)

“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)

Allow me to begin with what might be called a sort of ‘methodological’ observation.

Modern thought tends to be extremely abstract, meaning that it pretends to view reality from a so-called ‘objective standpoint’, as though from the outside. When this mentality governs the practical realm, especially as it pertains to the political and social life of man, it can be extremely dangerous and destructive.

Looking at reality from the outside, always an illusion, look sat reality as an object that man can manipulate and control at will, rather like a machine. It means looking at the ‘machinery’ of the world and how we can tinker with it and even refashion it. Indeed, in relation to the environment this gives rise to the exploitative mentality; the question of whether not something should be done takes second place as to whether or not it is in our power to do it. The same mentality, when applied to human life itself, becomes even more dangerous and destructive. Human nature becomes something to be tinkered with and refashioned at will by the powerful in terms of political leadership, wealth, and scientific know-how; these, usurping the place of God, refashion the lives the less powerful. It is the cruelest tyranny of all; this is the mentality that has given rise to all the totalitarianisms of the modern world.

With respect to the relation between the universal destination of goods and private property the temptation is to look at the actual situation, see that goods are inequitably distributed and seek to invent mechanisms that will redistribute the goods in a more equitable fashion. At best, the mechanisms are artificial, having little regard for human nature and the actual circumstances of human life. Indeed, human life becomes subordinated to an ideal goal of mathematical redistribution. This, we could say, is the fundamental economic error of the various forms of socialism.

What is actually needed is a more organic consideration of how through human work the earth has been both naturally and historically apportioned to different individuals and groups. This perspective views man within his natural position in the order of creation. This in turn will allow a more realistic evaluation of both the just and the unjust in the distribution of the goods of the earth.

In the Acts of the Apostles we hear St. Paul telling the people of Athens that God “made of one, all mankind, to dwell upon the whole face of the earth, determining appointed times, and the limits of their habitation.” (Acts 17:26) The appointed times seem to bear on the rise and fall of kingdoms and civilizations, while the limits of their habitation would refer to the different territories of the nations and peoples.

With Adam and Eve humanity begins with a family. That family multiplies to many families who then begin to spread out over all the earth, separating into different tribes and tongues, peoples and nations. (cf. Rev 5:9) In part that is simply the natural process of the growth of the human race. Nevertheless, we learn in Genesis – in the story of the tower of Babel – that in part it results also from human rebellion and sin. The separation becomes a separation of misunderstanding and hostility. Christ’s coming, in part, had the purpose of overcoming not the distinction of tribe, tongue, people, and nation, but of overcoming the hostility.

What actually results are different manners of apportioning care for the earth, together with different customs and juridical frameworks, arising from the historical expansion of man over the face of the earth, together with the conflicts that have arisen in the process. It is a process in which the just and unjust have been mixed together like the weeds and wheat in the parable. (cf. Mt 13:24-30,36-43)

Always, in that appropriation of the land, human labor is involved. (To be continued)



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.