Christian Thoughts On Private Property: What Ayn Rand Missed

Christian Thoughts On Private Property: What Ayn Rand Missed June 28, 2011

It’s been a couple of weeks since publishing my last post on Ayn Rand.Things have settled down a bit here and now I can turn my attention to what she missed regarding a concept that is near and dear to all of her devotees: the concept of private property.

Given how much ink Rand spilled on this subject, you would think she came up with the idea of private property in the first place. Alas (for her fans), no.

But where does Christianity stand on the concept? Rand seemed to focus on telling folks that Christians are Socialists, and even worse, Communists. So I went looking for sources that would have been around when she was coming up with her ideas. I’ll let the date that she arrived in the United States, the year of Our Lord 1926, be the end point (time wise) for material that she would have been able to research when creating Objectivism. How’s that for being fair?

I don’t think she did much digging though, because without much effort, I came up with tons of stuff over on the YIMCatholic Bookshelf. Perhaps she got all of her opinions on this from Marx, who (obviously) got it wrong too. True, it’s not fair that I have the ability to search for books electronically, but last time I checked, good libraries have been available to scholars for a long, long, time.

One of the first books I discovered on this quest was written by a Jesuit Father named Wilhelm Wilmers. I don’t know how Rand could have missed it, because it went through multiple printings through the course of 30 years. First published in 1891, see this from the Introduction from that year, which was republished in the 1921 edition:

In presenting this work to the English-speaking public it is needless to say anything by way of apology or commendation. For, on the one hand, no college man—in fact, no one who is concerned for the thorough religious education of the Catholic laity—will deny the desirableness of such a text-book in the vernacular. On the other hand, the book speaks for itself. It has been before the public for more than twenty years, and is universally acknowledged to be one of the very best of the many excellent text-books of religion in which the German Catholic literature particularly abounds; while in completeness, thoroughness of treatment, and closeness of reasoning it is certainly unsurpassed. The author has been for well-nigh half a century widely known as one of the ablest, most learned and popular writers and professors of his order.

Of course, Ayn was too intelligent to believe in God in the first place so maybe that is why she ignored anything written like this. Entitled Handbook of the Christian Religion for the Use of Advanced Students and the Laity, you would think that any smart student of philosophy looking to disprove Christianity would fall all over themselves picking through this book.

Thankfully, Fr. Wilhelm’s book is laid out like a catechism, with statements such as this one found on page 240, followed by answers grounded in the Faith.

Note before you go any further: this is long and republished in it’s entirety. Ready? Dig in!

The question may fitly be moved here whether God wished that His rational creatures should possess the goods of this earth, and particularly the earth itself, or any part of it, as private property. In answer to this question we may say in general that God originally gave the earth to the human race as common property, but without any prohibition to divide it; nay, with the intention that it should be divided whenever such division should appear necessary or reasonable.

(1) The earth is shown to be common property: (a) by the words, “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth ” (Gen. i. 28). Here God addresses Himself to our first parents evidently as the representatives of the whole human race. (6) This appears also from the equality of human nature in all individuals; whence it follows that all have the same right to God’s creatures, and can exercise that right as long as it does not conflict with the right of another. Thus is to be understood the principle common among theologians: Jure naturae omnia sunt communia.

(2) The earth was not so given to the human race in common, however, that it was always to remain common property, (a) No such condition is put by the Creator, nor does such condition follow from the nature of the case. (b) A division of the earth is possible, while it is utterly impossible that the earth should always remain, in the strict sense of the word, common property; for when mankind separated into different races and migrated into various parts of the earth a division of the earth naturally followed. The inhabitants and possessors of Asia could not simultaneously be the inhabitants and possessors of Europe and America; nor could the inhabitants of Europe and America be considered unjust for occupying those parts in which they settled.

(3) In delivering the earth to mankind as common property God gave also the right of dividing it and converting it into private property, according as circumstances required. This fact follows (a) from the absence of a natural or positive law prohibiting such division. A prohibition would certainly exist if by the division of the earth, and its conversion into private property, it would cease to fulfil its purpose; that is, to afford man nourishment. That it does not cease to fulfil this end is manifest. (b) The right of dividing the earth and converting it into private property follows still more evidently from the perfect dominion given to man over it. Man would have but an imperfect dominion over the earth if he could not dispose of it as circumstances demanded. The earth is man’s dwelling-place. He can, therefore, if he thinks it proper, divide his abode into various apartments for the different members of his family; or he can use it in common with them. Since the residence is large and each member of the family has an equal right to it, why should not each one choose a portion, occupy it, and dispose of it as his own? If any one should take more than his due, it is the duty of public authority to interfere and to defend the right of the weak against the strong.

Che what?

Remember how I said that the 10% of Rand’s philosophy that was worthwile isn’t worth the 90% that is a horror show? You don’t even need her 10% either. In case you’re not sure, a little further along, on page 467, Fr. Wilmer provides the following statement followed by a very solid argument on why this is so.

259. Not only mankind in common, but also individuals have a right to possess as private property the material goods of this earth.

By property in general we understand whatever one possesses in such a way that he may dispose of it independently as his own. The right of property, therefore, is the power to possess a thing in the manner described. The right of property implies, it is true, the right of free disposal; yet the exercise of the latter may be in certain cases rendered unlawful by positive law or other conditions. He who is under guardianship, for instance, is a true possessor, but the law does not permit him the exercise of the right of free disposal. Yet the right of disposal does not necessarily imply the right of property. An administrator may dispose of the property over which he is placed; yet he does not dispose of it as his own, but as the property of another; nor does he dispose of it independently, but only in virtue of the power given him.

1. God is the Lord of all things, because He has created them. But man also, the image of God, can mould and modify things at his pleasure; and thus he becomes their true lord in a limited sense, as God is their absolute Lord in virtue of creation. Occupation of an ownerless good is in itself a certain modification of that good, and thus may become the basis of private property. Therefore, although God has delivered irrational nature, not to individuals as such, but to mankind at large (Gen. i. 28, 29), yet it was by no means contrary to His design that the goods of this earth should be divided among individuals, and, consequently, that private property should exist.

2. God, on the contrary, intended private ownership as the rule—in other words: private ownership is in accordance with the design of Providence, being suited to the nature and conditions of man. (a) The earth serves its purpose better for the necessities of man if distributed among individuals, since private property is naturally more diligently cultivated than public, (b) The distribution of property, moreover, serves for the preservation of peace and order, which are more easily maintained when the right of private ownership is secured. It is evident that those grievances which in any case would arise from common ownership would be heightened by the results of original sin, and, consequently, that fallea man is all the more constrained to have recourse to private property. The inconveniences of common ownership may, however, be more easily avoided in small communities, particularly if their members bind themselves by a vow of poverty, than in larger aggregations of men. (c) Private ownership provides better for the dignity of the individual. It forces man to direct his attention to the future, to cultivate his plot of ground in order to insure a more abundant harvest for future needs. On the other hand, huge numbers of men would sink into the degradation of slavery if they were forced, not by their own determination, but by external compulsion to labor and thus provide for the needs of the future. It must, therefore, be considered the exception, not the rule, if religious communities leave their temporal concerns in the hands of one, or of a few, in order that the entire body may with greater freedom devote themselves to relig. ious or other higher pursuits. As long as the great masses of humanity are not disposed to devote themselves to mere spiritual pursuits, the care for private property will continue to form their God-given and congenial occupation.

3. The fact that at all times and in all places, particularly after the human race had multiplied to some extent, a division of the earth was made, and thus private property established, if an evidence of the universal conviction that such a division, or private ownership, was necessary as a natural and suitable condition of human society, and was, consequently, one of the demands of human nature itself. Man, however, is not so impelled by the natural law to the division of property as he is, for instance, towards the love of his neighbor; nor is common property so forbidden by the natural law as are theft and murder. Common ownership of itself is not repugnant to human nature; else it could never be permitted, even in religious communities. It is repugnant to human nature only in consequence of certain defects inherent in man; and that only so long as the inconveniences arising from such human imperfections are not otherwise removed. The division of earthly goods, and the institution of private property, depend upon the free will of man; for the human race might absolutely exist without private property, and the earth could absolutely fulfil its purpose—serve for the nourishment and comforts of man—without a division of property. But free will is not always arbitrary; on the contrary, man was by various important reasons, which at times constituted a moral necessity, constrained to have recourse to such a division of property. The universality of the institution of private property among the various civilized nations is an evidence that it rests upon certain conditions inseparable from human nature. Hence we frequently meet in the works of doctors and divines with the assertion that private ownership rests upon that universal right or law common to all nations, called jus gentium, which, however, is not to be confounded with international right, or the positive law of nations (cf. S. Thom II. II. q. 66, a. 2).

Against the lawfulness or fitness of private ownership the objection is sometimes raised that it has been productive of enormous inequality and has brought the masses of humanity into poverty and misery. This objection, however, as far as it touches upon an existing evil, can be made only in those cases in which those entrusted with the care of the common interests have neglected their duty to protect the weak against the violence of the strong. That civil authority in matters regarding the acquisition of property possesses extensive rights is generally conceded by philosophers and divines, and follows from the purpose of earthly goods which is to facilitate the existence of man, and from the end of public authority, which is to maintain order and prevent oppression. Civil authority has, therefore, the right to enact laws for the general welfare to prevent the exorbitant accumulation of private property, or the occupation and appropriation of too extensive tracts of land. Hence those economists are in error who assert that the state can remove the evils in question only in the supposition that it is the sole possessor of the soil. The Mosaic law, as St. Thomas remarks (I. n. q. 105, art. 2, ad. 3), succeeded by means of the jubilee year to prevent the formation of too large private estates, and the excessive accumulation of wealth in the hands of individuals, without making the state the sole owner of the land.

4. The right of private ownership is acknowledged by God Himself inasmuch as He forbids theft as a violation of the right of others. If private property were theft, as communists assert, theft would not be a violation of the right of our neighbor, but of the right of the state. But God does not forbid theft as a violation of the right of the state, but of the right of our neighbor individually: as He forbids adultery, not is a violation of the right of the state, but of the right of the individual. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house; neither shalt thou desire his wife, … nor his ox, na: his ass, nor anything that is his.” (Exod. xx. 17).

In like manner, in the New Law the right of private ownership is acknowledged. Christ speaks to the young man it the Gospel: “Go, sell what thou hast, and give to the poor” (Matt. xix. 21). The young man could not lawfully sell his possessions if they were not really his own. This follows also from the praise which Christ imparted to Zacheus when the latter declared himself ready to give one half of his possessions to the poor (Luke xix. 8, 9).

5. The Church has in various ways declared the lawfulness of private property. In the early ages the followers of a certain communistic doctrine, who called themselves Apostolics, were numbered among the heretics (S. Aug. de hasres. c. 40) Besides, the Church condemned the doctrine of Wickliffe, who asserted that it was contrary to the Scriptures that the clergy should possess property. If, therefore, the possession of property is permitted to ecclesiastics, it is all the more lawful for the laity.

Communism, which defends community of earthly goods under all circumstances, would, consequently, result in the ruin of temporal happiness and of human society; for society requires for its existence inequality of social conditions, pursuits, industries, etc.— all of which suppose inequality of possessions. The evils resulting from communism would be incomparably greater than those now arising from the great inequality of earthly possessions, tempered as they may be, on the one hand, by Christian charity, and borne, on the other hand, with Christian patience and resignation in view of an everlasting reward. Only in those cases in which all earnestly endeavor to master their passions—which as a rule can be the case only in religious societies—is community of goods possible; and even in such cases only in the supposition that such unions are voluntarily formed like the first Christian communities, not forced apon individuals.

Also socialism, according to which the community or state possesses all land and capital and distributes to each individual his portion of the land and his occupation, is Utopian. For how could the state portion out work and gain according to the abilities and merits of each one without thoroughly knowing all, which is a thing impossible? Would not the most serious complaints of unjust distributton be raised if one received fertile, another barren, land; if one received an honorable, another a lowly, occupation? The consequence would be that whenever one would achieve greater results than another, for the maintenance of equality a new distribution would have to be made yearly, or even daily, and thus grounds for fresh complaints would be given. Moreover, how could the state arbitrarily dispose of the private property already existing, since the individual and the family are prior to the state, have acquired their possessions independently of it, and would therefore, be violently deprived of their lawful rights?

As man has the right to acquire private property for himself individually, so he has also the right to acquire property for his dependents—for wife, children, etc. And since during his individual »ife he can acquire and possess and dispose of his property, so he ean also bequeath it to others, through whom after his death he may still morally continue to live: in other words, he can make others his heirs, since the right of inheritance is based upon the right of private property.

The solicitude of man in regard to earthly goods is well-ordered when in the acquisition of property and in the use of his possessions he keeps i1-. view the end for which God has given them. Earthly goods have been given to man by the Creator to the end that they might serve him, in the first place, for his earthly subsistence, and, in the second place, that they might facilitate for him the attainment of his last end. Man must, therefore, have this end in view in the acquisition and use of earthly goods—he must look upon them and use them as a means to his last end. Opposed to the moral order in the possession and disposal of earthly goods is, on the one hand, avarice or covetousness—excessive desire of, 01 immoderate attachment to, worldly riches (1 Tim vi. 9; Ecclus. x. 10)—and on the other hand, prodigality, or the useless dissipation of earthly goods.


Any further questions? I didn’t even get to the Papal Encyclicals yet! Go here for Part II.

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