Recently we received a quote from a news commentary on an allocution by Pope Francis to the effect that the head of the Catholic Church had abolished the natural law. Not all of the natural law, of course, just the part that some people disagreed with and needed some credible authority to back them up regarding the alleged abolition of private property by Pope Francis (or any other pope). Specifically,
Pope Francis has reaffirmed the highly traditional and often forgotten doctrine of the Universal Destination of Goods, by preaching that food is not private property, when there are people starving worldwide. A culture of sharing is needed and urgent.
|Did Pope Francis abolish private property?|
This graphically illustrates the danger of taking things out of context and imposing a personal or preferred meaning on something. Yes, Pope Francis said, “Food is not private property.” Taken alone and out of context, the pope’s statement that food is not private property necessarily implies that nothing can be private property.
Even in the context of the talk, however, it appears evident that Pope Francis did not intend what he said to be taken literally and separated from the rest of the talk. He spoke of “sharing.” Logically, how is it possible for anyone to share that which he does not own as private property in the first place? You are not “sharing” if you give to another what belongs to him and not to you. If food is not private property, then no one has any more right to it than anyone else.
By stating that food is not private property and that we should share it as “our” food, not “my” food, Pope Francis was contradicting himself . . . if we fail to take into consideration the framework of traditional concepts of natural law and Catholic teaching within which the pope teaches. There is also the fact that Pope Francis is a Thomist, meaning someone who adheres to the philosophy of Aquinas. We must, therefore, look not to an isolated statement to understand Pope Francis, but to the context within which he made his statement.
First and foremost, we must keep in mind that in Catholic belief, the pope can no more invent a new truth or change an existing truth than he can command the sun, moon, and stars. “Papal infallibility” refers not to something being true because the pope says it, but to the “grace” granted to the pope in Catholic belief to discern truth in matters of faith and morals and teach it. (Also, nothing prevents the pope from making a mistake outside that narrow range of competence, nor is he "impeccable," i.e., incapable of committing a sin.)
That is, in Catholic belief, nothing is true because the pope says so. Rather, the pope says so because it is true. No pope, therefore, can contradict what another pope has taught in matters of faith and morals, nor change what the Catholic Church has always taught.
|Leo XIII: Private property is sacred and inviolable|
And what does the Catholic Church teach about private property? In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII declared, “Private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable.” (§ 46.)
And why is “private ownership” sacred and inviolable? Because it is of the natural law. Referring specifically to food, Leo XIII stated in the same encyclical,
Here, again, we have further proof that private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature. Truly, that which is required for the preservation of life, and for life's well-being, is produced in great abundance from the soil, but not until man has brought it into cultivation and expended upon it his solicitude and skill. Now, when man thus turns the activity of his mind and the strength of his body toward procuring the fruits of nature, by such act he makes his own that portion of nature's field which he cultivates — that portion on which he leaves, as it were, the impress of his personality; and it cannot but be just that he should possess that portion as his very own, and have a right to hold it without any one being justified in violating that right. (§ 9.)
This sounds very bad, for if we take what Francis said and compare it to what Leo XIII said, Francis changed the natural law . . . which it is not in his power to do.
And it gets worse. Does the “universal destination of goods” mean that private property is a human invention, and that all private ownership is invalid as well as that of food? True, Francis did not say that. It was the commentator putting words in his mouth, but is that what the universal destination of goods means?
That could not possibly be the case. If the universal destination of goods means that private property is not of the natural law, then it contradicts the generic right of dominion, which is that every human being has by nature (Rerum Novarum, § 6) the right to be an owner.
|Aquinas: property has personal and social aspects|
That is, every human being has the absolute and inalienable right to be an owner (the generic right of dominion). At the same time, what an owner may do with what is owned is necessarily limited, as determined by the wants and needs of the owner, other individuals and groups, and the common good as a whole. This is “the universal destination of all goods,” for no owner may legitimately use that which is owned to harm him- or herself, other individuals and groups, or the common good as a whole. He or she must "look to the common good" when using that which is privately owned.
In other words, there is both an individual and a social aspect to ownership. The individual aspect is absolute, for no one can legitimately take away the right to be an owner from any human being. There may be times when it is necessary to define what may be owned and how, but ownership itself — private property — is a natural right. Natural rights being part of human nature, which is a reflection of God's Nature, you can no more change the natural law than you can change God; God is, in that sense, the natural law.
It is when we look at how ownership is exercised, “use,” that the concept of stewardship comes in, and the fact that ownership may not be exercised in harmful ways. Exercising even natural rights can never be absolute, for that would contradict its social aspect.
That is how Aquinas explains the matter in the Summa Theologica, which we will look at when we next address this subject.