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

I have been writing about the universal destination of the goods of the earth and private property, which emerges through the appropriation of the earth through human work. While God intended the earth to serve the needs of all men, since the earth only yields its fruits (literal and metaphorical) through human work, the earth has historically parceled out among individuals, families, and other groups as mankind fulfilled the Lord’s command to fill the earth and subdue it. (Gen 1:28) This has resulted in different customary and legal arrangements according to different historical circumstances. At the base of this distribution of the earth there is a fundamental order of justice found in the appropriation through different kinds of work, but the fundamental order of justice has been scarred by countless historical injustices arising from human sin.

The historical parceling out of the earth, though marked by human sin, has also been guided by divine providence. It has started with the growth of families into clans and tribes, and moved to the building up of kingdoms and nations, which during the course of history have risen to power, maintaining within their realms a certain order of distribution, and in turn fallen from power, giving way to new kingdoms and nations.

Modern economic theories, and this is especially true of Marxism, by failing to grasp the order of justice and divine providence in the organic development of kingdoms and nations, start with the evidence of present injustice and seek to overturn the existing order, imposing on it an abstract, artificial, purely man made order of justice. It is as though a doctor, faced with a sick patient, thought the best way to treat the patient would be to kill him and replace him with a robot.

We might say that just as sickness presupposes an underlying health, so injustice presupposes an underlying order of justice. A true doctor does not impose health on a patient but works so that the underlying health that belongs to human nature, is able to come forth and overcome the sickness. So also, a true statesman, would not impose justice on a society, but would work to strengthen the underlying justice that is present, enabling it to wax strong and expel the injustice.

Nevertheless, before we get into the role of the statesman, or of government and law, it is necessary to continue further on the relation between work and property and the related theme of work and the environment.

I will try to apply the principles, illustrating them in relation to the settlement of the Pacific Northwest. First, I have to acknowledge that I am not an expert in this area in any way, so I am only making some observations and raising some questions. This enters into very controversial territory, but I am in no way making absolute claims, nor pretending to judge the matter. More than anything I am simply trying to illustrate the general principles in relation to work and the acquisition of property. Nevertheless, illustrating these principles in relation to a familiar historical development that bears on our life today will inevitably raise questions and present a perspective that is far from the usual and even farther from being politically correct.

So, in the first place, if we set aside for a moment the Native American claims to the land, from the perspective of the United States of America, the notion of ‘homesteading’ made great sense and is deeply rooted in the natural order of human life. First of all, homesteading shows us that the land itself is really the primary and most fundamental sort of ‘property’. Next, by allowing someone to lay claim to land that was seen as unused, precisely by settling and making use of the land, homesteading followed the natural manner of appropriating land by way of work. The homesteader, by his work, appropriated the land to himself and his family. Private property is first of all order to the sustenance of families and the acquisition of larger holdings needs also to be justified in relation to the good of families. Further, raising crops or running cattle on the land the homesteader not only sustained himself, but also provided a good that would benefit others as well. In this way, the use of the land as private property returns to the good of many.

But what about the Native Americans? Didn’t homesteading fail to recognize the prior rights of the Native Americans? Didn’t it involve stealing the land from them? That is what certain signs displayed at the Portland ‘protests’ have claimed.

I will address this in my next essay.



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.