One of the principles shared by classic Catholic social thought and economics is the human right to private property. By neither tradition is the right held to be absolute. By both it is held to be a pivotal principle of a just social order. The reasons are several.
One of the main purposes of the right to private property is to limit the state. The institution of limited government is basic to every other human right. The right of individuals to the disposition and use of property offers them both moral and economic barriers to the self-aggrandizement of the state.
A second purpose is to establish rules which make possible a benevolent social order. The institution of private property supplies persons motives for care and responsibility, on the one hand, and imposes limits on their actions regarding the property of others, on the other hand. These reasons were cited by St. Thomas Aquinas. They are the foundation of social order. They are implicit in the Seventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.”
A third purpose appertains to human liberty. As a free agent, a human being requires physical means of action and expression; these are afforded him by the right to use property of his own. A human being is an embodied person; freedom of spirit requires material instruments to express itself in this incarnate world.
A fourth purpose for the right to private property is to respect the human person as a subject, as a co-creator with God. In provident use of his own property, as a wise steward, a human being acts in the image of the Provident God, the Creator of all things. In the same way, private property also makes possible the practice of giving of one’s own to those in need. This purpose is related to the third, but the third brings out the reliance of human liberty upon material things (its incarnational side), whereas the fourth highlights the divine model of human liberty in provident stewardship.
In our time, several new dimensions of private property need to be elucidated. Many of the older discussions of private property envisage an agrarian society, in which the almost inevitable image of property is that of land ownership. The advent of patent laws and copyright laws show that property can also have less tangible forms. The invention of productive machinery generates questions about the ownership of the means of production.
In the United States, the Homestead Act and many other acts of government (including the tax deduction for mortgage interest) have favored a very widespread pattern of home ownership. Most Americans, even if they choose to rent their dwelling place, share in significant ownership in personal goods. Through insurance, pension plans, and stock ownership, many families also share in the ownership of industry.
Nonetheless, it can be argued that it makes sound social sense to seek methods for increasing the numbers of Americans who participate in the ownership of industry. It is an ideal of the economic system itself that all citizens should participate in it not solely as employees but also as owners. Such participation would instruct them in the risks of ownership, as well as enable them to share in its rewards. In an important sense, ownership means deferred gratification; funds committed to it are withdrawn from immediate consumption. Thus, increased participation in the ownership of industry has moral instruction in it.
Again, by a kind of arithmetical law, wealthy people own disproportionate shares of stock in US industries. Clearly, it is a greater social good that wealthy persons invest in productive industries than that they should consume their wealth according to the aristocratic patterns of the past: on castles, balls, tournaments, and private armies. This is because the wealth created by productive industries is participated in by its employees, by associated industries that would suffer without them, by the government in taxation, and by the entire society through goods and services which otherwise would not be produced. Nonetheless, the love of citizens for their own society is enhanced by having as many as possible share in as many forms of ownership as possible. It is not necessary to bring the wealthy down in order to lift the poor up.
For it is by no means morally evil that a society should have a small minority of very wealthy people. Wealth is extrinsic to personal character; of itself, it makes persons neither good nor evil. How they use their wealth determines the moral character of the wealthy. Their wealth is given them so that they may more amply serve their society; it imposes upon them far greater responsibilities than are imposed upon those of lesser wealth. “It is as hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven as for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” This text is important for underlining the responsibilities that go with wealth. The vocation to use wealth as a good steward — whether that wealth has been created through one’s own inventiveness or whether it has been inherited — is a noble Christian vocation. But some, too, are called further: “If thou wouldst be perfect, go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor.” Each person hears the personal call of God in conscience. What is demanded of all Christians, wealthy or poor or in-between, is a certain detachment from the things of this world, equanimity whether in prosperity or in adversity, and deeds of service to other human beings commensurate with their abilities.
Private property is a form of stewardship. It requires a recognition that the earth belongs to God and is given for the perfection of every human being. Thus, those who own property or possess wealth must act in such ways as advance the condition of their fellow human beings. This principle holds true for those who are the stewards of the wealth of others; e.g., government officials who dispense the wealth of taxpayers, or managers of the investments of others.
The view that Catholic social teaching and the gospels require egalitarian incomes cannot be sustained. For centuries, classical thought, like evangelical thought, has praised inequality. Such thought has often been explicitly hierarchical. It has observed that the Creator made human beings equal in his love for them but by no means equal in their talent, fortune, or gifts of grace. God is no egalitarian. Neither nations nor persons are equally endowed. Yet all nations and all persons are bound equally to the precepts of responsibility for one another.