This article originally appeared on The New Theological Movement written by Reginaldus on July 29, 2010 Anno Domini. Re-posted with permission.
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 12:13-21
The rich man of this Sunday’s Gospel is blessed with a bountiful harvest. Rather than thanking God for this gift, he hoards the grain in his barns – his heart is possessed by his possessions. At the moment of death, the Lord calls him a fool, for he was not rich in what matters to God.
The Fathers of the Church, and St. Thomas Aquinas following them, see in this parable a strong teaching of social justice. Their teachings have in turn been integrated into the Social Doctrine of the Church. Here we will consider St. Thomas’ exposition of the doctrine as well as several important quotations from the Church Fathers.
The common destination of all goods and right to private property
We must first affirm that man has a right to own private property. All men have a natural right to make use of material goods. According to positive human law, men also have a right to private property – this is necessary for the good order of society and the proper care of the goods themselves, it also serves as a means of restraining greed and inciting toward generosity (a man can give alms only if he has some property of his own).
However, it is equally clear in the Church’s Tradition, as expressed by the Fathers of the Church and magisterial teachings, that the right to private property is subordinate to the universal destination of all goods. That is, the right to private property cannot be extended to the point of depriving others of the basic material necessities of life. Every man has the right to the material necessities of life – when he is deprived of these, while another has excess wealth, a grave injustice has occurred.
When one man has excess wealth (that is, property and wealth which are beyond his legitimate needs) while another is in poverty (lacking material necessities), the rich man is a thief. The excess he possesses belongs to the poor man and, if he refuses to distribute his wealth accordingly, he plays the part of the “rich fool” in the Gospel parable.
The same fundamental doctrine underlies both the right to private property and the teaching against possessing excess wealth while others are in need. Each and every man has the God-given natural right to make use of the earth to supply for his own necessities as well as those of his family. Thus, we have the right to personal property, by which we secure a means of satiating our needs. Likewise, however, whenever anyone is lacking in basic necessities (food, water, shelter, medical care) he has a right to whatever excess wealth is present in his community. Thus, the excess food in your fridge and in mine, belongs to the poor. The excess money in your bank account and in mine, belongs to the poor. It is no alms to give to the poor from our excess wealth, we only restore to them what had belonged to them by divine right.
All men have a right to maintain the necessities of their own existence – and this includes saving a little something for the future – to hoard any wealth beyond this, is to commit the sin of theft. It is always a sin and, when the injured party is a poor man, it is always mortal.
(See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q.66; also Catechism of the Catholic Church 2443-2449)
The Fathers of the Church
St. Ambrose (De Nabuthe, c.12, n.53, cited in Populorum Progressio of Paul VI): “You are not making a gift of your possessions to poor persons. You are handing over to them what is theirs. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.”
St. John Chrysostom (Hom. in Lazaro 2,5, cited in CCC 2446): “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”
St. Gregory the Great (Regula Pastoralis 3,21, cited in CCC 2446): “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”
The Decretals (Dist. XLVII, cited in ST II-II, q.66, a.3, obj 2): “It is no less a crime to take from him that has, than to refuse to succor the needy when you can and are well off.”
St. Ambrose (cited in ST II-II, q.66, a.6): “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”
From the Catena Aurea
St. Gregory the Great: “For if everyone receiving what is sufficient for his own necessity would leave what remains to the needy, there would be no rich or poor.”
St. Basil: “Are not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast receivest to distribute? It is the bread of the famished which thou receivest, the garment of the naked which thou hoardest in they chest, the shoe of the barefooted which rots in they possessions, the money of the pennyless which thou hast buried in the earth. Wherefore then dost thou injure so many to whom thou mightiest be a benefactor.”
St. Bede: “He then who wishes to be rich toward God, will not lay up treasures for himself, but distribute his possessions to the poor.”
From the Magisterium
First, note that St. Gregory the Great spoke with the authority of the ordinary Magisterium, so his quotations above should be reviewed. Also, consider that the first quotation from St. Ambrose was taken from an encyclical letter by Paul VI.
Leo XIII (encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, 1891): Every person has by nature the right to possess property as his or her own […] But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used?, the Church replies without hesitation in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘One should not consider one’s material possessions as one’s own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when other are in need.’ […] True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for one’s own needs and those of one’s household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly one’s condition in life. […] But when what necessity demands has been supplied and one’s standing fairly provided for, it becomes a duty to give to the needy out of what remains over.”
Pius XI (encyclical letter Quadradesimo Anno, 2931): “The right to own private property has been given to the human by nature, or rather by the Creator himself […] At the same time a person’s superfluous income is not left entirely to one’s own discretion. […] On the contrary, the grave obligations of charity, beneficence and liberality, which rest upon the wealthy are constantly insisted upon in telling words by Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. However, the investment of superfluous income in secureing favorable opportunities for employment […] is to be considered […] an act of real liberality, particularly appropriate to the needs of our time.
Gaudium et Spes (Vatican II, 1965): “God has intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of all people and all peoples. Hence justice, accompanied by charity, must so regulate the distribution of created goods that they are actually available to all in an equitable measure. […] Therefore, in using them everyone should consider legitimate possessions not only as their own but also as common property, in the sense that they should be able to profit not only themselves but other people as well. Moreover, all have the right to possess a share of earthly goods sufficient for themselves and their families. This is what the Fathers and Doctors of the Church had in mind when teaching that people are obliged to come to the aid of the poor, and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods.”
Paul VI (encyclical letter Populorum Progressio, 1967): “Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditional right. No one is justified in keeping for one’s exclusive use what one does not need, when others lack necessities.”
John Paul II (encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, 1991): “It will be necessary above all to abandon a mentality in which the poor – as individuals and as people – are considered a burden, as irksome intruders trying to consume what others have produced.”
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