In the previous posting in this series we saw that the so-called “logic of gift” that seems to have achieved currency in many circles actually reverses the roles of God and man. By implicitly imposing the duty of giving on God so that we can comply with His command to give to others, we put man in charge; man (in a sense) creates God.
There is also in the declaration that we must first receive before we can give the implication that God has somehow vested actual title to everything in the human race as a whole, that is, in the collective. This is the construction many people today put on the “generic right of dominion” or “the universal destination of all goods.” In this understanding, the entire human race is granted common ownership of everything. Private ownership is only allowed for the sake of expedience.
This is completely wrong — as both common sense and the popes tell us. As Leo XIII pointed out, “Is it just that the fruit of a man's own sweat and labor should be possessed and enjoyed by any one else?” (Rerum Novarum, § 10.)
Such a construction forced on the universal destination of all goods makes a mockery of human initiative and effort, implying (as it does) that we do not need to heed the command to be fruitful (i.e., productive) and multiply. We will be taken care of by others by divine fiat, or those others will incur grave sin . . . begging the question as to who will take care of those others. Simply because we need something, it will be given to us, as it was to the Israelites in the desert.
This understanding limits the command to produce to reproduce — which is nonsense. Understanding “the State” in the following passage in the broad sense of “community” or “the collective,” Leo XIII made this clear:
“[M]an not only should possess the fruits of the earth, but also the very soil, inasmuch as from the produce of the earth he has to lay by provision for the future. Man's needs do not die out, but forever recur; although satisfied today, they demand fresh supplies for tomorrow. Nature accordingly must have given to man a source that is stable and remaining always with him, from which he might look to draw continual supplies. And this stable condition of things he finds solely in the earth and its fruits. There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.” (Rerum Novarum, § 7.)
The ordinary way in which we are to obtain what we require to sustain life is to produce marketable goods and services for our own consumption, or to exchange our productions for the productions of others (Say’s Law of Markets). Further, we are to produce those marketable goods and services by means of what we own as private property: our labor and our capital. As Paul reminded the Thessalonians, “if any man will not work, neither let him eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10.)
What God grants generically to the whole human race — and that which thereby defines each human being as a person — is not title itself, but, one, the right to obtain title, and, two, the right to exercise possession. These are, one, the right to property, and, two, the rights of property. The legal (i.e., based on justice) generic right of dominion (the universal destination of all goods) refers to the former. The moral (i.e., based on charity) duty of stewardship refers to the regulation of the latter.
Even though the right to obtain title is, as a natural right, inalienable, there are limitations on both the right to property, and the rights of property. In theory, the only limitation on the right to be an owner is that no one may take what already belongs to another without that other’s consent. Taking from the surplus of another without the owner’s consent in extreme cases without the sanction of duly constituted authority may not incur moral guilt, but should incur human penalties for breaking human law, although a merciful judge will allow for extenuating circumstances.
In practice, of course, not everything should be privately owned. It is simply not expedient. Atomic weapons, for example (assuming you even agree they should exist at all) are probably not something that should be privately owned, even though theoretically there is nothing wrong with private ownership of anything.
The limitations on the use of what is owned are similarly governed by common sense. In general, no one may use what is owned to harm one’s self, other individuals or groups, the property of another, or the common good as a whole, or have so much or have it in such a way as to make ownership by others difficult or impossible.
There is also the problem of justice versus charity. The claim that we have legal duties to God, or that He has duties to us, necessarily implies the functioning not of charity, but of justice. There can, however, be no question of justice between God and man. The functioning of justice implies not only an equality of status between parties (a ridiculous notion when referring to relations between God and man), but also an equality or proportionality of exchange. In either case, the creature can in no way claim equality with the Creator on the basis of justice, only on charity.
The only thing that makes sense is that rights are “granted” (if you insist on that term) to each and every human being in such a way that they cannot be separated from existence or “being” — nature — itself. The sense of Jefferson’s phrasing in the Declaration of Independence, for example, is that (consistent with Aristotelian philosophy), by a single act the Creator made humanity and “built in” natural rights such as life, liberty, and property in order to “pursue happiness” (i.e., acquire and develop virtue) as part of the essence of what it means to be human.