Catholic Teaching on Private Property
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
March 2014

Questions about oil development, “extraordinary places,” and conservation measures have brought renewed attention to property rights in North Dakota. As with most issues, Catholics will have to assess the merits and consequences of each proposal. Before doing so, however, a person should look at what Catholic social doctrine has to say.

The Church has long defended the right to private property. It might surprise many in our country that the Church views this right very differently than the typical American. Americans tend to view property ownership as a mostly absolute dominion over a thing; a power to do what one wishes with the property and to prevent others from interfering with that power.

Catholic doctrine, however, does not consider private property an intrinsic good, that is, something that is itself good. Rather, the Church views private property as necessary because it serves the human person. As such, the right is limited to what is good for the human person and to what extent it is consistent with the universal destination of goods.

The Catechism expresses it this way:

2402    In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits.  The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men. 

2403    The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.

2404    “In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.” The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. 

When discussing the main principles of the Church’s social doctrine, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church does not even list the right to private property.  Rather, it discusses the right in the context of the more fundamental universal destination of goods.  Private property derives from the dignity of human work and the right to posses it derives from its functional aspects of strengthening the family and preserving liberty (176)  

The Compendium also notes that “Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute and untouchable: ‘On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.’” (177)

That the right to private property derives from its functional nature is emphasized further: “Private property, in fact, regardless of the concrete forms of the regulations and juridical norms relative to it, is in its essence only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods; in the final analysis, therefore, it is not an end but a means.” (177)

As is often the case, the Catholic view of private property is somewhere in the middle, between absolute individualism and absolute collectivism. We should not be surprised. Errors, like heresies, will always fall on one or the either side of the Truth.