Populorum Progressio 23: The Use of Private Property

Let’s begin today with a question from Saint John:

23. “He who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him, how does the love of God abide in him?” (1 John 3:17)

The tradition extended beyond the New Testament era. Early Church leaders never forgot:

Everyone knows that the Fathers of the Church laid down the duty of the rich toward the poor in no uncertain terms. As St. Ambrose put it: “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.” (De Nabute, c. 12, n. 53: PL 14. 747; cf. J. R. Palanque, Saint Ambroise et l’empire romain,Paris: de Boccard (1933), 336 ff.) These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.

There is, of course, human fear to deal with. Is it old animal instincts of millions of years past? Is it a fetish for more and more? Do you think many parishes under the patronage of the fourth century Bishop of Milan emblazon that quote?

No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life. In short, “as the Fathers of the Church and other eminent theologians tell us, the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good.” When “private gain and basic community needs conflict with one another,” it is for the public authorities “to seek a solution to these questions, with the active involvement of individual citizens and social groups.” (Letter to the 52nd Social Week at Brest, in L’homme et la révolution urbaine, Lyon: Chronique sociale (1965), 8-9.)

For Christians, we look at what we have and wonder about the good we can do. Others may worry about the piles of wealth they have and fret it isn’t enough.

This encyclical letter is © Copyright – Libreria Editrice Vaticana, and can be found in its entirety at this link.

The image is of Lady Justice at the Central Criminal Court of London.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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