A Theological History of Private Property

Author’s Note: On this, the birthday of Karl Marx, amid the shaping of an unprecedented political landscape, I felt moved to repost this reflection on property and Christianity with a few minor edits.  This post originally appeared in April 2013 as a part of DT’s fourth Shark Week, entitled, “Pope Francis, Theology, and the Church of the Poor.”

The limits of human freedom in the 21st Centruy
The calling card of a Western democracy

Let’s begin with a simple statement: private property is a modern invention and private property is not inherently Christian.

This is not to say that the early Christian communities were “socialist” or “communist” in any sort of modern sense, but they were also most assuredly not “capitalist.”  Capitalism–with all its convoluted structures of markets, brokers, inequality and disasters–rose swiftly in 18th and 19th century Europe with names like Francois Quesnay, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Jean-Baptiste Say.  While the many forms of capitalism that rose during the 1800’s differed rather wildly from one another, they nearly all embraced a conception of individual freedoms and individual property.  While these conceptions are commonplace to us today, that were quite new to the public in the 19th century.

Of course, private, individually owned property did not begin with the 19th century rise of capitalism.  In the late 1600’s, amidst the throes of those intimidating historical constructions like the Scientific Revolution, the Reformation, and the beginnings of the Enlightenment, the philosopher John Locke began to popularize the radical idea of basic, individual property rights (as a side note, in Locke’s case, he was talking about rights for white men):

Every man has a ‘property’ in his own ‘person.’ The ‘labour’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.  

While he was quite influential, John Locke was not the first major figure to argue this case. That honor goes to St. Thomas Aquinas, interpreting the writings of Aristotle in light of Christianity in the 12th and 13th century: “To possess private property…is necessary to human life.”  Theologically, St. Thomas’ arguments are invaluable because he directly laid the foundation for the Pope Leo XIII to officially sanction the notion of private property in 1894.  

Because of this very relevant connection,  I’d like to briefly discuss St. Thomas’ three reasons for defending private property, as they directly address the underlying question of this entire discussion: Is private property Christian?

The universal symbol of intellectual copyrights.

First, St. Thomas argues, private property is necessary because someone is more careful to acquire something for him/herself alone as opposed to something in common: “since each one would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens where there is a great number of servants.”

Here, St. Thomas’ concern is a common capitalist and often anti-poverty subsidy argument: if you give too much away, you will not inspire the lazy ones to work.

Second, private property is acceptable, says St. Thomas, because human affairs are “more orderly” if everyone has only to look after one thing or another, compared with the “confusion” that would ensure “if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately.”

This argument is not really applicable to the modern day, where things are often rented, borrowed, in debt, and yet owned at the same time.  Even if you “own” a house or land, do you own the sky above, the soil below?  How much of the world can one dole out?  For example, who owns the poverty-stricken countries of the world: the governments that run them, or the people that inhabit them?  What is the difference between the United States “investing” in a country’s well-being and “owning” the country?

Third, St. Thomas argues, private property is necessary because “a more peaceful state is ensured if each person is contented with his/her own….Quarrels arise more frequently where there is no division of the things possessed.” 

This, alas, well encapsulates the allure of “private property,” even if it doesn’t capture the entirety of Aquinas’ arguments.[1]  If each person can have what she rightfully owns, and each can own enough, then quarrels will not exist in society

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

As you can see, not only are the arguments tenuous in political terms, but none of them speak to the Christian necessity or modern Christian assumption of private property.  Christianity has existed and still exists mostly in the hands of those who have little or no private property.  In fact, St. Ambrose, writing “On the Duties of Clergy” in the 4th century, argued quite the opposite of St. Thomas:

Consider, perhaps, what effect “private property” had on…say..enslaved Africans, Native Americans, uncountable women, any colonized area, etc, etc, etc…

St. Ambrose writes:

Nature has poured out all things for the common use of all, for God caused all things to be produced in such a way that there might be food common to all, and that the earth might serve as a kind of common possession for all.

Nature, then, ushered in the right to things in common.  

Usurpation created the right of private property.

While many of the theologians of St. Ambrose’s time took a middle ground on this issue, we would be amiss if we appropriated a notion of “private ownership as an individual right” and placed it alongside the Christian doctrine of charity, love of neighbor, evangelization, and justice.  One need one remember the “property” tag that enabled a whole of modern evils: for example, the entire African slave trade, the colonization of the Americas and the horrific treatment of the native populations, the value of wives and women, the value of children.  Perhaps St. Ambrose, not St. Thomas, should have been read more closely in the end.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Our entire economic and political system is centered on the notion of private property and individual wealth.  If we cannot conceive of world where these notions do not exist, then we become guilty of mistaking economic values over Christian values.  Likewise, if we think our current economic priorities–such as saving money for retirement, or getting a nicer car–are value-neutral, we forget the history of these doctrines, and the men who grew rich devising an economic system for the sake of personal and national prosperity.

Private property is not inherently evil, but it should not be understood as inherently Christian.  Pope Francis’ call for a “poor church for the poor” should bring into stark relief the economic disparity around the world and should force us to question exactly what we have done for the poor lately.  Whether we are widows offering two coins or the wealthy doling out like Bill Gates, when it comes to economics, one must remember the basic steps that Jesus outlined in order to focus our lives.

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed…For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’


[1] I feel obliged to rescue Aquinas a bit here through a comment from Michael Jaycox in the original posting. He wrote: “I think you are basically right to note that Aquinas defended (in a highly nuanced way) the institution of private property as a convenience of human civil law, not something required by natural law. Moreover, you are right to point out that there is a great diversity of opinions on this matter in the tradition, as Jean Porter also observes to be the case even among Aquinas’s fellow Scholastics (Nature as Reason, 21ff.).  Even so, I must point out that Aquinas had something more to say on the subject than perhaps you give him credit for. First, he did claim that “man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in need” (II-II.66.2c). Second, this insight enables him to argue that we don’t really own our goods in an absolute sense, claiming that the case of taking another’s property in extreme need does not constitute theft properly speaking (II-II.66.7). John Paul II cites these very texts from Aquinas as precedent when he himself argues, in line with the tradition of Catholic social thought on the universal destination of goods, that there is a social mortgage on private property, i.e. that it is not an absolute right as Locke claimed (On Social Concern, 42).”

Tagged with: