The Forgotten Principle of Social Justice

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.

10 Replies to “The Forgotten Principle of Social Justice”

  1. Just the other day I was praying before Holy Communion:
    Dear Lord you own every stick of wood in my home, every thread of my clothing and every hair of my head.
    They all belong to You and I thank you for everything. Amen.
    If there was a disaster could I live without ‘things’, of course the answer is yes,
    I would miss the picture albums and any pets that perished but 100% of the things I own is only through
    God’s blessings. His grace prevents me from hanging on to them like they are needed for my life.
    We all have too many things, I did inherit a lot, my Dad gave me many things after Mom died. But slowly but
    surely I am moving all these things off to thrift stores and selling some; hoping other people will enjoy them as much as she did. You have to think about who else is in need and then let it go.

  2. What are your, or the views of the church, on political correctness. Could you please explain how this fits into the current socialism/liberalism/capitalism conundrum? (Especially in relation to ‘the war on terror’) and money markets that are both western and eastern in power and origin.

  3. It’s OK father. I have reread your article and I think you will classify it as a biggie-wow solution. Thanks. It gets a bit difficult at times.

  4. ** If I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor and I ought to generously return it to its owner. . . . No one, especially the government, ought to be able to come and merely take your stuff. It’s yours viz a viz them. **

    This latter point, of course, makes all the difference in the world, and a point that is sorely missed all too often. Yes, we have a duty of charity and justice to give to the poor. But that duty to give does not mean that the government has the rightful authority to take, much less to take it and then give it to whom they dictate is to have it, some favored few, rather than who really deserves it (and then only after government takes it’s cut of the goods).

    If an individual is wrongfully greedy and materialistic, why should that person all of the sudden be deemed to be virtuous simply because he is a government bureaucrat? The sad experience of government throughout human history is that, however bad individuals might be, governments invariably end up being worse.

    We need only look at the last few months, when government took hundreds of billions of dollars out of the hands of employers and businesses and individuals, obstensibly in order for the government to create “or save” jobs, and the whole fiasco has only ended costing jobs, with soaring unemployment. How much better might it be, instead of taking money from employers, to allow them to keep that money so that they might hire people?? Even consider that greedy rich guy — nobody keeps their money buried in the yard anymore. They invest it, which provides capital for businesses to grow and hire people. Or they buy things, perhaps totally useless things. But somebody has to make those useless things, and that creates jobs. Jobs which feed and clothe and shelter people. Instead of getting a government check, the poor guy can go and get one of those jobs.

    And those who cannot work for whatever reason, individuals have the monetary resources to help them. Individuals have the ability to personally do charity and justice to their neighbors, rather than having that charity and justice usurped by government. You actively doing and giving yourself is a virtue. You passively watching government take your money by tax withholding is no virtue at all.

  5. I am mindful also of 2 Thessalonians 6 – 15:
    “6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching[a] you received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, 8nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. 9We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
    11We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. 13And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right.

    14If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. 15Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”

  6. Totally amazing article! Thank you! – I am really sad that being an orthodox Christian seems to be synonymous lately with capitalism and conservative Republican economic philosophy. Traditionally, Catholics were Democrats. I can understand why so many devout Catholics fled the party over the abortion question, but why did they become economic neocons and champions of war? We need more instruction about social justice and then perhaps there would emerge a party that would combine the economic principles of real social justice, respect for human life from conception to natural death, and the abandonment of war as the only path to peace.

  7. I think the most “Forgotten Principle of Social Justice” regarding Subsidiarity is that one of the most appropriate places to resolve economic issues is in the workplace through collective bargaining. Subsidiarity is not just a discernment as to which level of government, but also of what social organ. Trade Unionism gives workers a voice in the workplace,allowing labor and management to address concerns rather than government at a higher level. Of course, this only works when workers are allowed to organize. The Popes have been making this point since Leo XIII.

  8. Has anyone seen Clash of the Titans yet? I want to know if it’s worth seeing. Thanks!

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