Back in 1940, Fulton J. Sheen published Freedom Under God. Why bring up a book that is eighty years out of date? Because at no time in living memory has there been less true human freedom. Even the idea of freedom has decayed to the point where it is effectively meaningless for most people.
In former days people were enslaved. There was, however a clear distinction between those who were free, and those who were unfree. This distinction has been lost. Today most people do not own any significant amount of capital, and that is tantamount to slavery.
|Fulton J. Sheen|
As Sheen noted in his book, “Power follows property, and they who own things to a great extent own persons.” (Fulton J. Sheen, Freedom Under God. Arlington, Virginia: Economic Justice Media, 2013, 38.) If you own capital, you are free. If you do not own capital, even if you are legally free, you are to all intents and purposes a slave. As Sheen explained,
Once you concentrate property in the hands of the few, you create slaves; when you decentralize it, you restore liberty. The objection of the Church to slavery is not that the slaves are poor. Slaves need not all be poor. . . . The Catholic approach is quite different. It starts with the fact that no material thing, not even the whole world, shall be allowed to interfere with the right of a person to attain his ultimate end by the exercise of his free will. (Ibid., 39.)
Not by coincidence, this was the same point made repeatedly by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc with their idea of “distributism,” which they defined as a policy of small, widely distributed property, with a preference for small, family-owned farms and businesses. When enterprises could not be small, Chesterton said, workers should own shares in the corporation.
|The English Sheen|
It becomes obvious why Sheen became known as “the American Chesterton,” and Chesterton contributed a foreword to Sheen’s first book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925).
To understand why private property is essential to freedom, however, we need to know what “property” is. “Property” is not the thing owned. Property is, rather, the natural right to be an owner that everyone has absolutely, and the limited and socially determined bundle of rights that define how an owner may use what is owned. Property means the right to control what is owned, and enjoyment of the fruits of ownership.
The universal prohibition against theft (e.g., “Thou shalt not steal”) implies that private property is a fundamental human right. That is why no one should be denied the right to own, and what is owned is, in human terms, owned individually or jointly “against” everyone else. What someone owns ordinarily cannot be taken without the free consent of the owner(s). As John Locke commented, “what property have I in that, which another may by right take, when he pleases, to himself?” (John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, § 140.)
No one, however, may have absolute or unlimited use (exercise) of what is owned. It is critical to realize that while the right to own is inalienable and inherent in each human person, no one can use what is owned to harm others or society (the common good) as a whole. Neither can anyone’s right to be an owner, or what is owned, be used in any way that inhibits or prevents others from becoming owners or using what they own.
That is the legal case for the importance of private property. The title of Sheen’s book, however, is “Freedom Under God.” Sheen’s purpose was to examine the moral case for the importance of private property and its critical role as the prop for true freedom. Even then, he acknowledges the primacy of rights such as life, liberty, and property in human affairs: “[M]an has certain inalienable rights which no one can take away — not even the State.” (Freedom Under God, 74.)
Human law based on justice guarantees our freedom under duly constituted human authority. Divine law based on justice and charity guarantees our freedom under God. Until we understand the difference, we cannot understand Sheen’s purpose or even meaning in Freedom Under God.
To take one example, in Chapter 5 Sheen declared, “though man has a natural right to private property, this right is not absolute. 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.)
|The American Chesterton|
On the surface, this statement is contradictory. It doesn’t make any sense. Natural rights are, by definition, absolute rights. Sheen stated this explicitly: “inalienable rights which no one can take away — not even the State.”
Sheen’s apparent contradiction is resolved, however, when we realize that Sheen used “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.
Human beings do not create wealth out of nothing; we are not Creators (First Causes), but creators. 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”? That, too, is easily answered. As Sheen pointed out, the State cannot justly make laws forcing us to “do right” with what we own. Coerced virtue is not virtuous. As Sheen said, “If Crucified Truth were turned into coercive truth, all Christianity would have failed.” (Ibid., 212.) 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.
Sheen was speaking of humanity’s moral responsibilities 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.
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.” (Ibid., 169)
As far as human law is concerned, the right to be an owner, the right to private property, is absolute and inalienable. It is built into human nature created by God. The sole exception is when, to meet an emergency, duly constituted authority may redistribute a measure of wealth to keep people alive and in reasonable health until the emergency passes. Redistribution for any other purpose is an abuse of the State’s power to tax.#30#