In his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, “On Fraternity and Social Friendship,” Pope Francis made some confusing statements regarding private property. Ordinarily, this would not be an issue, as the Just Third Way is concerned with the natural law and its applications in civil society. What any religion chooses to do regarding purely religious issues is the business of adherents of that faith.
When, however, the matter relates to natural law — which applies to all human beings, not just adherents of a particular faith (in this case Catholicism) — it becomes everybody’s business. That is why one passage in particular relating to private property as a natural right raises some concerns.
Admittedly, raising these concerns from an interfaith perspective might seem a little out of line. Given, however, that the natural law applies across the board to everyone, and Pope Francis himself cited non-Christian authorities in the encyclical, it seems evident that he intended it for everyone, not just Catholics.
That being the case, where ordinarily only Catholics are obliged to ask for clarification about a Church teaching that confuses them or seems unclear, in this instance it would appear to be justified that anyone and everyone has that duty. Thus, we feel we are within our rights and duties not only for us individually, but for anyone of any faith or philosophy who is confused or puzzled by certain statements in the encyclical, to speak up and request clarification.
Specifically, in Paragraph 120 Pope Francis stated,
The right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods. This has concrete consequences that ought to be reflected in the workings of society. Yet it often happens that secondary rights displace primary and overriding rights, in practice making them irrelevant.
What is confusing about this passage is the phrase “secondary natural right,” and the statement that “it often happens that secondary rights displace primary and overriding rights, in practice making them irrelevant.” There is also more than a little confusion about what is meant by “the universal destination of created goods.”
True, this passage gives a fairly accurate synopsis of how many people today understand Catholic social teaching and thus the natural law from which Catholic social teaching is derived. Popular understanding of these concepts, however, does not appear to be accurate or understood in the manner intended by those who first articulated them.
What Is a Natural Right?
In our understanding, a natural right is one that is an inherent part of human nature. Philosophically (we won’t get into religious issues here), a natural right is defined as being a part of human nature. It is therefore “inherent” and “inalienable,” or “unalienable,” if you prefer. As George Mason declared in the first section of his draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights,
Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
We specify Mason’s draft, as “conservatives” forced the insertion of the phrase “when they enter into a state of society,” to justify their violation of natural law in order to preserve slavery. As adopted, the Virginia Declaration thus contained the confusing and contradictory implication that a right by nature is not really a right by nature, or nothing could justly prevent its exercise.
Avoiding the slavery issue, Thomas Jefferson “borrowed” from the Virginia Declaration of Rights but omitted property from the list of natural rights. In this, Jefferson retained a statement concerning the true character of natural rights. He did this, however, by giving slaveowners a “cop out” that allowed them to lie to themselves, i.e., since property wasn’t specifically listed as a natural right, it sidestepped the issue of owning other human beings by not mentioning a violation of the natural right of liberty that involved the misuse of the natural right of property:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Interestingly, a couple of generations later a Catholic Confederate Major, Nathan C. Kouns, decided after the Civil War that since private property in human beings is contrary to natural law, all private property is contrary to natural law, and became an ardent Christian socialist. Kouns wrote a couple of polemical historical novels (Arius the Libyan and Dorcas, the Daughter of Faustina) to present his views. Although the books were widely read, they are rather boring by today’s standards. Science fiction and fantasy historians lament that Kouns (who died insane) wasted his time writing two bad novels instead of more of the short horror at which he excelled. Naturally, the novels have been reprinted many times (but don’t sell well), while the short stories are unobtainable.
|Slave owners and socialists both violate natural law|
Anyway, Jefferson was thereby able to retain the integrity of the Declaration of Independence by the simple expedient of avoiding the issue of whether or not private property is a natural right. He was probably helped substantially by the fact that he inserted a passage that condemned slavery, doubtless knowing full well it would be removed, but diverting attention away from the issue of private property:
he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.
The bottom line here is that a natural right is by definition an inherent part of human nature. Only by denying the humanity of individuals or groups, or some other equivocation (such as requiring that they “enter into a state of society” before they can exercise their natural rights), can you logically maintain that a natural right can be alienated in any way.
|A natural right is part of nature.|
That is not to say that the exercise of a natural right cannot be limited or socially determined . . . but not in any way that would nullify the right itself. For example,
· Life: The right to life is absolute, but that does not mean that you can do anything you like simply because you are alive. Nor may others force you to live in a way that you find repugnant or unbearable.
· Liberty: Everyone has the right to be free and to associate freely with others. Certain limitations on liberty are unavoidable, however, if people are to live together in society, and liberty may be taken away for just cause and after due process to avoid harm to individuals or society as a whole, but even then once someone is no longer a danger to himself or others, the exercise of liberty may be restored.
· Private Property: As it says in the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, every human being has the right to own property, individually or in free association with others. That means every human being has the right to control what he or she owns and enjoy the fruits of ownership. In what manner someone controls or enjoys the fruits may be limited in some fashion, but never in any way that takes away control or enjoyment of the fruits.
Thus, in the Aristotelian-Thomist philosophical framework within which Catholic social teaching was developed, a “natural right” is a right that is part of nature itself, and cannot be taken away. What this means in practice is something we will address in the next posting on this subject.