THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Can a Natural Right Be “Secondary”?

As we noted in the previous posting on this subject, there are what appear to be some confusing and contradictory statements made in Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti.  In particular, His Holiness refers to private property in § 120 as a “secondary natural right,” which is a contradiction in terms.  That is why we believe it to have been inserted out of human error, and why we have respectfully requested clarification of what on the surface appears to be a fundamental departure from what the Catholic Church and other natural religions and philosophies have always taught.

It's not confusing. YOU are confused.


Now, not everyone agrees with us that the passage is confusing.  Cardinal Mueller stated in an interview in Catholic World Report that the encyclical isn’t confusing at all . . . which is itself confusing.  If we are confused, it doesn’t clear up the confusion to have someone say (in effect) that we’re confused because what we think is confusing is not confusing.

Less confusingly (but still confusing), other commentators assure us that we are completely wrong in everything we say.  Not a few have declared that what § 120 says is authentic Catholic doctrine, infallibly proclaimed.  At the same time, others have said that it corrects what Leo XIII and other popes have said about private property!

According to these experts, then, the claim that private property is a secondary natural right has always been what the Church teaches except when it didn’t!

. . . and we’re the ones who are confused about being confused?

So, the question boils down to, Can natural rights be divided into primary and secondary?  We contend that is impossible, as we will explain.

To understand what the Catholic Church teaches about property, we have to understand what property is.  At the most basic level, we don’t want to confuse property with the thing owned, even though that is the meaning in everyday speech.  When we’re discussing a matter of science — and economics, law and philosophy as well as theology are sciences — we need to be a little more precise.

Not actually what it means.

“Property” is divided into two distinct parts.  These are, one, the right to property, and, two, the rights of property.

The right to property is part of human nature, a reflection of God’s Nature, and cannot be changed or alienated.  It is absolute.  Every human being has the right to own; this is “access”; it is called “the generic right of dominion” because it is sui generis; you aren’t human without it.

"Don't contradict."


What an owner may do with what is owned, the rights of property, are, on the other hand, necessarily limited and socially determined, even sometimes to what can be owned privately, although in theory everything can be privately owned.  The primary limitation is to do no harm to one’s self or others, or to the common good.  This is “the universal destination of all goods,” meaning that use (as opposed to access) must take into account the effect on others as well as the benefits to one’s self.

Given the first principle of reason, the “negative” statement of which is “the law of (non) contradiction” that nothing can both “be” and “not be” at the same time under the same conditions, access and use cannot contradict one another.  This makes sense, even though the right to do something is not the same as doing it.  You may, after all, have the right to go to grandma’s house, but not to trespass on other people’s land in order to get there, even if it is the shortest route.

This we find to be the case.  Consistent with the first principle of reason, this time expressed in its “positive” statement as that which is true is as true, and is true in the same way as everything else that is true, the generic right of dominion (the right to property) and the universal destination of all goods (the rights of property) are equally valid in Catholic social teaching.  Both are true, and are true in the same way, and therefore cannot contradict one another.

"I second that."


Since the Catholic Church (or any other individual or organization that accepts the natural law as stated in Aristotelian-Thomism as true) cannot admit a contradiction, it necessarily follows that there must be a way to resolve the two truths without relying on a contradiction, e.g., by claiming that a natural right can be less than a natural right or “secondary.”  At the end of the day, the generic right of dominion and universal destination of all goods cannot be in opposition or the Catholic Church has taught a contradiction, which would invalidate its claim to be the “true Church.”

That raises an interesting point which the socialists and the modernists carefully avoid.  If we are to accept on the Catholic Church’s infallible authority that private property is actually a “secondary” natural right when the Catholic Church has previously taught that it is a “primary” natural right, how do we know when the Church is teaching infallibly?  How can something be eternally true before, and the opposite be eternally true now?

This line of argument taken to its logical conclusion means that God isn’t really God.  Why?

Because in Aristotelian-Thomism — the stated framework within which Catholic social teaching is to be understood — natural law is based on God’s Nature, self-realized in His Intellect.  Given that in Catholic belief human beings are made in God’s image and likeness, God’s Nature is reflected in human nature.  God's existence and the natural law tied to God's existence are therefore — absolutely speaking — discernible by the force and light of human reason alone.  God's existence and the natural law are not based on someone’s idea of God’s Will, i.e., on “documents of faith,” such as an encyclical or a catechism, but on reason.

Solidarists don't reject natural law.


Being based on God’s Nature, the natural law cannot be changed or be contradictory.  This is because God is a perfect Being, and change or contradiction implies movement toward or away from perfection, and thus necessarily imperfection. 

To say, then, that private property is a natural right but unlike life and liberty can be alienated and is not absolute is to say that the natural law — and thus God — contains a contradiction and is thus imperfect, i.e., that God is not God.  A natural right reflects God’s Nature as surely as human nature does.  Claiming that a natural right is “secondary” and can be taken away is the same as saying that human nature can be changed from what it is, to what it is not — and thus that God’s Nature can be changed . . . meaning that God is not a perfect Being and cannot be God.

This is why, for example, the solidarist jurist and student of Fr. Heinrich Pesch, S.J., Heinrich Rommen, remarked in his book on the natural law that getting away from an absolute concept of natural law leads inevitably to pure moral relativism, and finally to nihilism.  Without God, might makes right, and everything is lawful . . . as long as you are strong enough to take what you want.