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Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace
Towards a better distribution of land

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The Universal Destination of Goods and Private Property

28. The effects of the present disordered situation confirm the need for all of human society to be constantly reminded of the principles of justice, especially that of the universal destination of goods.

As regards property, the social teaching of the Church bases the ethics of the relationship between the human person and the goods of the earth on the biblical view of the earth as God's gift to all human beings: "God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice tempered by charity .... We must never lose sight of this universal destination of earthly goods."(18)

The right to the use of earthly goods is a natural and primary right with universal application, referring to every human being. It cannot be overridden by any other economic right,(19) but must be upheld and implemented through laws and institutions.

29. While the social teaching of the Church affirms the need to ensure that all persons always and in every circumstance enjoy the goods of the earth, it also upholds the natural right to individual appropriation of these goods.(20)

All persons can put the goods of the earth that have been placed at their service to good use, making them bear fruit and hence affirming themselves, if they are in a position to have free use of these goods, having acquired their ownership.(21)

Such ownership is a condition and protection of freedom and the presupposition and guarantee of human dignity. "Private property or some form of ownership of external goods assures a person a highly necessary sphere for the exercise of his personal and family autonomy and ought to be considered as an extension of human freedom. Lastly, in stimulating exercise of responsibility, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty."(22)

As history and experience show, if the right to private ownership of goods — including productive goods — is not recognized, this leads to a concentration of power, bureaucratization of the various sectors of society's life, social discontent, and the suppression or stifling of "the fundamental manifestations of freedom."(23)

30. The right to private property is not, however, unconditional, according to the magisterium of the Church, but entails some very precise obligations.

Whatever concrete forms private property may take as a result of varying institutional and juridical approaches, it is basically an instrument to implement the principle of the universal destination of material goods, and hence a means and not an end.(24)

The right to private property, which is of itself valid and necessary, must be circumscribed within the limits of the fundamental social function of property. Every owner must, therefore, always bear in mind the social mortgage on private property: "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."(25)

31. The social function directly and naturally inherent in goods and their destination means that the social teaching of the Church can state: "When a person is in extreme necessity he has the right to supply himself with what he needs out of the riches of others."(26) The right of every person to the use of the goods needed in order to live sets a limit on the right of private property.

This doctrine was expounded by St Thomas Aquinas,(27) and it helps in evaluating some complex situations of major socio-ethical importance, such as the expulsion of peasant farmers from land they have been farming, without guaranteeing their right to receive a portion necessary to sustain life; or, again, cases of occupation of uncultivated land on the part of peasant farmers who are not its owners and who live in conditions of dire poverty.

18) Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 1965, no. 69.

19) Cf. John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Mater et Magistra, 1961, no. 69. In his Radio Message for Pentecost 1941, Pius XII spoke of the right to material goods: "Every man, as a living being endowed with the power of reason, has by nature the fundamental right to use the material goods of the earth, although it is left to human will and the specific legislation of different peoples to control the details of its practical implementation. This individual right cannot be in any way suppressed, even by other certain and undisputed rights over material goods": no. 13.

20) This is a natural right because, according to the magisterium of the Church, it is based on the special nature of human work and the "ontological and finalistic priority of individual human beings as compared with society": John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, no. 96.

21) "And to be able through his work to make these resources bear fruit, man takes over ownership of small parts of the various riches of nature: those beneath the ground, those in the sea, on land, or in space. He takes all these things over by making them his workbench. He takes them over through work and for work": John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens, 1991, no. 12.

22) Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 71.

23) John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, no. 96.

24) "Christian tradition has never upheld this right 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": John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, no. 14.

25) Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Gaudium et Spes, no. 69.

26) Ibid.

27) Cf. Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 66, art. 7.

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