In yesterday’s posting, Fulton Sheen on Private Property, we noted that Fulton Sheen seemed to have contradicted himself. He noted several times that private property is a natural right — something inherent in the human person, which not even the State can take away — and then made the comment that “though man has a natural right to private property, this right is not absolute.” (P. 51, Freedom Under God.)
|Fulton "The Radio Preacher" Sheen|
But a natural right is absolute! How can an absolute right be at the same time not an absolute right? Sheen’s apparent contradiction is resolved, however, when we read further. As he explained,
Only God has an absolute right. The principle of unlimited, unqualified ownership of money, material, and economic goods is wrong and inadmissible. Man is only the steward of wealth — not its Creator. (Ibid., 51.)
Even this, however, is unclear, at least to non-theologians — which is most of us. First off, we have to realize that Sheen is using “create” in its theological meaning. When we speak of God as a Creator in theology, it is in the sense of “first cause.” Nothing could exist had not some First Cause or Absolute Source brought it into being or “created” it out of nothing.
|God is the "First Cause" Creator with a Capital C.|
Human beings obviously create wealth, as Sheen himself stated quite clearly a number of times. (Ibid., 31, 38-39, 49, 59, 71, 73, 94-120, 189.) We do not, of course, create it out of nothing; we are not Creators in the sense of First Causes, but creators in the sense of artificers. We craft artifacts using what God has provided us to create something uniquely our own. In human terms, we own what we produce, and we own it exclusively.
What about this “stewardship” issue, however? That, too, is easily answered. As Sheen pointed out, the State cannot justly make laws forcing us to “do right” with what we own, especially against our will. After all, is forced charity really charitable? Is coerced virtue truly virtuous?
|Human beings are creators with a small c.|
Of course not. As Sheen noted, “If Crucified Truth were turned into coercive truth, all Christianity would have failed.” (Ibid., 212.) The same applies to other religions. A revealed religious truth that relies on compulsion to implement and sustain it contradicts the essence of faith itself as a willingness to believe.
That is why the popes put the whole issue of “stewardship” under charity, not justice. Our lack of charity is something for which we answer to God (assuming we believe in Him), not to man. As Leo XIII explained,
[W]hen what necessity demands has been supplied, and one's standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. . . . It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law. But the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God, who in many ways urges on His followers the practice of almsgiving. . . . Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God's providence, for the benefit of others. (Rerum Novarum, § 22; cf. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 1961, §§ 119-120.)
The apparent paradox is thus resolved. It is obvious that Sheen was speaking of humanity’s moral responsibilities with regard to ownership under charity and justice enforced by God, not legal rights and duties under justice alone enforced by the State. Natural rights — the rights to be an owner, to be alive, to be free, and so on — remain always and everywhere inviolable (absolute) in our relations with other human beings and society at large.
|Pope Leo XIII|
That does not mean we may abuse or misuse our rights to harm others in any way. As Sheen explained, “The right itself must not be curtailed, but only the abuse.” (Freedom Under God, 169.) The utendi et abutendi (“use and abuse”) of Roman law (ibid., 56, note 21) refers not to what we may do to others with what we own, but what we may do to or with what we own — the right of disposal. Thus, as Leo XIII noted, “it is not man's own rights which are here in question, but the rights of God, the most sacred and inviolable of rights.” (Rerum Novarum, § 40.)
Thus, as far as human law is concerned, our right to be an owner, our right to private property, is absolute and inalienable. The right to be an owner is built into human nature as created by God. The sole exception to the right to property and rights of property is what Leo XIII called “extreme cases.” (Ibid. §§ 119-120.) To meet an emergency, duly constituted authority may redistribute a measure of wealth. Redistribution for any other purpose is an abuse of the State’s power to tax. (Dr. Harold G. Moulton, The New Philosophy of Public Debt. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1943,71-73; cf. Rerum Novarum, § 47, Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 1931, § 49.)