In many discussions of Catholic Social Justice Teaching, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are often prominent. Solidarity is the principle wherein I am my brother’s keeper and I cannot simply ignore the needs of others or injustices experienced by them. When others suffer I suffer too. When others are treated unjustly so am I. Hence I am compelled to act on behalf of others who suffer actual injustice or who experience poverty. Subsidiarity is the principle wherein we ought to solve these social ills and injustices at the lowest level possible. Making everything a “federal case” is not wise and can lead to worse injustices and to a loss of legitimate freedom. Further “biggie-wow” solutions are often impersonal and often ill suited to the particular needs of a given community. Some problems do require federal Government solutions but others are better suited to state, local, church or family based solutions.
But a third principle in the Catechism is almost never mentioned and that is the principle of the “Universal Desintation of Goods.” The Catechism treats of this principle under its analysis of the 7th Commandment not to steal. Here is what it has to say:
In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. … The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men. [But] the right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise. [Hence] in his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.”The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (CCC # 2402-2404)
So in effect, all the goods of this earth belong to all the people of this earth. We need to uphold the concept of private property which is an efficient way to deploy the goods of this earth and link them to to an enlightened self-interest. But we cannot allow private property to overrule the more basic truth that everything belongs to God and it is his will that his property benefit all. Hence, whatever I have I ought to use to benefit others, beginning with my family but not ending there. Maybe it is raw capital or entrepreneurial opportunities that I can turn into job opportunities for others. Maybe it is savings that I consistently set aside for my kids college one day, maybe it is simply the fact that I have money to spend which then enters the economy and creates markets which create jobs and incomes for others. But the bottom line is that my money is not simply my money. My talents are not simply my talents. My gifts are not simply mine. All these are given to me not only for me but for others. If I have two coats, perhaps one belongs to the poor. If I have excess money perhaps it can benefit others. This need not be in a simplistic sort of way which merely gives it away indiscriminately. Perhaps I can invest in way that helps it grow so that, down the line even more can benefit. But the bottom line is that I should be thinking that this money, or these talents, or these things are not just mine. How can I use them to benefit others and to create greater opportunities?
Now here comes the tough point. To fail significantly in any of these regards is a form of theft! First of all we rob God. All the things we have really belong to him. Now if I use his stuff in ways that he doesn’t approve, in ways that are against his will, I am stealing from him. Suppose you loan me your car to go to the store nearby. Fine, no theft there. But now suppose I took your car and started drag racing with it. Or suppose I decided to use it to go off to California for a trip. Now this would be theft since you did not give me your car to use with any of this in mind. To use your things against your will is a form of theft. Well, if God gives us his creation to use then it is clear if I start hoarding it, or refuse to use it for the good of others in some way then it is clear I am using his things against his will. I am stealing.
Further, I am stealing from the poor who have a rightful claim to some of what I have. Wait a minute you say, they didn’t earn it! Well, what the Catechism says is that it belongs to them in the first place since God gave all the good of the earth for all the people of the earth. It is true that we should be able to benefit from the work we do and that there is such a thing as earning and enjoying the fruits of our labor. This is just but it cannot ultimately cancel the fact that everything I have belongs to God and that he intends for everyone to enjoy the fruits of this world. If I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor and I ought to generously return it to its owner.
Please understand neither I nor the Catechism is denying personal property rights. But what the principle of the universal destination of all goods does is to balance, not cancel, personal property rights. No one, especially the government, ought to be able to come and merely take your stuff. It’s yours viz a viz them. However, we ought to be more mindful that what I have is not absolutely mine. It is all God’s and he intends for the poor and needy to be blessed as well.
So, when was the last time you thought that everything you “have” really belongs to God. When have you thought to ponder what God might have you do with all “your stuff?” When was the last time you looked into your closet and thought, “A lot of this stuff really belongs to the poor?”
Think about it. Remember its about balance. It’s not communism, or socialism or that the State should control things. It’s NOT about there being no such thing as private property. There is private property. But it is about balance, like most things orthodox. Its about remembering to balance the concept of “my stuff” with the concept that it’s really God’s stuff and that some of it belongs to the poor by God’s will who gave everything for all.
Fr. Barron does a pretty good job of sorting all this out as he reviews the latest (crazy) Michael Moore movie.