Monday, June 8, 2015

Yet More on Property, II: Hudock’s Alleged Errors

Last week we noted that we had received a link to a three-year-old article in U.S. Catholic, “How Much Do You Really Own?” by Barry Hudock, sent to us in refutation of our contention that the right to be an owner (the right to property) pertains to the natural law, while the rights of ownership (the rights of property) come under human positive law, custom, and tradition — as long as these do not nullify the underlying right to be an owner in the first place.  This posting was originally titled, "Hudock's Fatal Errors," but we have since discovered that the individual who sent us the link asserting that it disproved our position may have been a little mistaken, and might have slightly misunderstood Hudock's position as well as our own.  We (mistakenly) assumed that our commentator could substantiate his interpretation of Hudock's article, which he could not.  We've taken this opportunity to correct this, and (incidentally) get rid of the bold typeface that somehow sneaked into the last two paragraphs.  And screwed up the rest of the formatting, of course.

Dr. Samuel Johnson: Definitions are important.
Last week we gave our definitions of terms and understanding of property as it appears in Catholic social teaching.  Today we can examine the errors made in attempting to refute our position without understanding it.

The idea that the right to be an owner (the right to property, the generic right of dominion) is of human positive law and not the natural law — which the individual who sent the link incorrectly implied was Hudock's position, rests on the primary error of confusion over the definition of property, and the derived error over the distinction between access and use stemming from a misunderstanding of property.  These are the “small errors in the beginning that lead to great errors in the end.”

First, Hudock quoted John Paul II, and gave his, Hudock’s, understanding of what John Paul II meant.  Fine.  Nothing wrong there.  Unfortunately for our commentator's argument, John Paul II’s — and Hudock's — discussion was not about access as our commentator supposed, but use.

Paul VI: "Yes I can . . . write an encyclical."
Paul VI put a similar argument under the heading “The Use of Private Property” in Populorum Progressio when he explained that “the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.”  The fact that this is under the heading “The Use of Private Property” clearly indicates that the sense is “the right to use private property is not absolute and unconditional.”  You would otherwise have to make the argument that Paul VI didn’t know how to write an encyclical and was unable to put subjects under the proper heading:

The Use of Private Property

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?" 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." These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.

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."

Fer th' luva Mars, just say it in Latin!
The official Latin is clearer on this point than the English translation, which leaves out a few key words and concepts.  Where the English has, “These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional,” the Latin has: Quae verba declarant, privatam bonorum proprietatem nemini ius tale concedere, quod supremum sit nullique condicioni obnoxium, a transliteration of which reads —

“These words declare that no one may take away such goods belonging to the private right of property [i.e., the rights that accompany ownership], subject to the condition that such [i.e., exercise of the rights that accompany ownership] is not overriding [“uppermost to none,” i.e., absolute].”

Thus, to understand this passage we must take into account the fact that the entire discussion is in a section headed “The Use of Private Property,” and that the official Latin text includes specific words that emphasize this point that are only implied in the English text.  No one, therefore, can legitimately claim that this passage overturns previous papal teachings that every human being has by nature the right to be an owner (the right to property, Rerum Novarum, § 6).  This is despite the fact that the good of the individual and common good as a whole require that the exercise of the rights of property be limited — as long as this is done without prejudice to the underlying right to be an owner in the first place.

"Even a dumb ox like me gets it."
Second, Hudock cites Aquinas’s strictures concerning the use of “external things.”  Again, no problem — with Hudock. What the commentator carefully ignored or failed to take into account, however, was Aquinas’s preceding discussion and conclusion on access to ownership of those same things (ST IIa IIae, q. 66, a. 1), and Hudock's assumption of its validity:

 It is by this argument that the Philosopher [Aristotle] proves (Polit. i, 3) that the possession of external things is natural to man.  Moreover, this natural dominion of man over other creatures, which is competent to man in respect of his reason wherein God’s image resides, is shown forth in man’s creation (Gn.1:26) by the words: “Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea,” etc.”

The bottom line here is that if you try to understand papal teachings on private property as proving that private property is not a natural right, having already concluded beforehand that private property is not a natural right, you are arguing from the conclusion you claim to reach, rather than from the evidence or by logic — and you're going to misrepresent what people such as Hudock are actually saying.  This is the circulus in probando (“circle in proving”) logical fallacy, i.e., a “circular argument” in which you begin with what you are trying to end with.

You also commit a “logical fallacy of equivocation” by confusing property in the sense of the right to be an owner inherent in every human being under natural law, with the sense of property as the necessarily limited and socially determined bundle of rights under human positive law, tradition, and custom.


Baseball Billy said...

I think Paul VI knew how to write an encyclical and was able to put subjects under the proper heading.

Barry Hudock said...

Mr. Greaney, thanks for your attention to my article. I'm afraid I don't see any contradiction between what you're saying and what I wrote. Stipulating the validity of the distinction between "access" and "use," what have I written that runs against this? I tend to see what I wrote as rather consistent with the point you make in your two critical posts.

I should note, by the way, that the heading that U.S. Catholic provided with the article -- "Catholic teaching says that what's mine is yours when it comes to ownership of private property" -- is not my creation, and I don't think it's an effective expression of my point. Is this line where you problem with the article arises? Do you find the same problem in the text of the article?

I look forward to your thoughts. I'd have opened this conversation with a private email, but could not find contact information for you.

Barry Hudock

Michael D. Greaney said...

Mr. Hudock, Mr. Chris Dorf provided me with a link to your article as allegedly proving his contention that the right to be an owner, access, is not part of the natural law, that is, inherent in each and every human being, i.e., "absolute," and cannot be taken away. It is not a question of failing to distinguish access from use per se, but of confusing the fact that, while the rights of property (use) are necessarily limited and socially determined, the right to be an owner (access) is inalienable and cannot be limited except by denying that someone is a human person, that is, by offending against essential human dignity at the most fundamental level.

My reading of your article was therefore prejudiced, being colored by Mr. Dorf's insistence that your position supports the abolition of private property, i.e., socialism — and in support of which he sent yet another link to one of your articles this morning, presumably supporting his contention that the right to be an owner is not natural to humanity, but is an invention of the capitalists and other oppressors of the poor.

If Mr. Dorf misunderstood you, and you do, in fact, accept the right to be an owner as natural, that is, inalienable and unconditional, however much the exercise of that right must be limited and determined by conditions and needs, then I apologize.

You might want to look into what the Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) calls "the Just Third Way," and get in touch with Dr. Norman G. Kurland, president of CESJ if the proposal interests you — as it interested Pope St. John Paul II, who gave CESJ his personal encouragement for our work. Contact information is on the CESJ website,

Barry Hudock said...

Thanks. I'm still not clear as to what you may have seen in my article that was so problematic. If it's there, so be it; I don't mind people disagreeing with what I've written. But if it's not, you might want to revise or correct the original posts.

One thing you do suggest that I would disagree with is that Catholic teaching is perfectly consistent with Western understanding of ownership and private property. I think most Americans would reject the essence of Catholic teaching on universal destination of goods.

Michael D. Greaney said...

I don't have to think about that, I know it. The essence of capitalism is to claim unlimited exercise of ownership (the opposite of the universal destination of goods), but limited access (the opposite of the generic right of dominion), even as they assert that everyone has the right to own. In an effort to correct this, socialism denies the generic right of dominion, and asserts the universal destination of all goods (the social aspect of ownership, relating to the duty not to harm others or the common good) to the exclusion of all else — Aristotle's conflict between being a good person and being a good citizen with a vengeance.

This is why both economic and social justice are critical, and why social justice is the third principle of economic justice. As analyzed by CESJ co-founder Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., "America's greatest social philosopher," only the act of social justice, which targets flaws in our institutions, can reconcile things so that it becomes possible to be both a good person and a good member of society. It is unnecessary for individual virtues to trump social virtues, as the capitalists claim, or for the social virtues to abolish the individual virtues, as the socialists insist.

We have an article on this coming up later this month on Homiletic and Pastoral Review, in response to Mr. Thomas Storck's assertion that we (CESJ) do not understand Father Ferree's analysis of the social doctrine of Pius XI, but you might want to download the free copy of Father Ferree's pamphlet, "Introduction to Social Justice" from 1948, a condensation of his doctoral thesis, "The Act of Social Justice." The foreword was prepared with the help of students of Father Ferree, as well as many conversations Dr. Kurland had with Father Ferree before Father Ferree's death in 1985.

I'm going back within the next few minutes to edit the posting.