Universal Destination or Private Property?


Emerging from various fields of ethics and knowledge, the theme of private property resurfaces today with new panoramas and bold consequences. The Catholic Church, from the first centuries to the innovative concepts of social doctrine, has taken a position vis-à-vis the problem, providing answers for all Catholics and men of good will.

Newsdesk (June 29, 021 10:31, Gaudium Press) For many years, Brazil has been free of a problematic discussion that would carry out a project certainly harmful to society: the “Agrarian Reform” issue. However, certain trends and information show that the issue is emerging from a new horizon, reaching not only the political spheres, but also the doctrinal spheres of morality, worrisome for Catholics in our time.

After all, what can we make of the teachings of the Bible, the tradition of the Fathers, the Magisterium, and the advanced concepts of the Church’s social doctrine in this regard?

This is what we will address in the following lines.

The Universal Destination of Goods

According to the Second Vatican Council, “God destined the earth with all that it contains for the use of all men and peoples.”[1] This truth is based on the book of Genesis, according to which God gave the whole created world to man, submitting all creatures to the lordship and responsible stewardship of human beings (cf. Gen 1:38-30).

In the current language of the Magisterium, this is what is called the “principle of the universal destination of goods.”[2] It is not a matter of a right of man – for it is God who destines creatures – but of a principle from which certain rights derive, without which this principle would be violated or mutilated.

Let’s consider an example: we can say that human rights derive from the principle of the dignity of the human person,[3] created in the image and likeness of God. This means that when the principle of human dignity applies to the social field, it must be ensured by rights derived from the same principle, which in this case are human rights.

Well then, the principle of universal destination of goods brings with it the granting of rights, among them are:

Universal right to the use of goods; 
The right to property.

It is common among some revolutionary thinkers to propose an opposition between these two rights. However, according to the common teachings of the Church, they are quite wrong.

The Universal Right to the Use of Goods

The first derivative right is related to the use of goods, whereby, “every man must have the possibility of enjoying the well-being necessary for his full development.” [4] “The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race,”[5] because “God gave the earth in common to all men with the design that all should enjoy the goods it produces in abundance, not so that each one, with furious avarice, should vindicate all things for himself, nor so that anyone should be deprived of what the earth produces for all.”[6]

St. Ambrose, emphatically defending this right, adds, “the land belongs to all, not only to the rich; but there are far fewer who enjoy it than those who do not.”[7]

Precursor of “Agrarian Reform”? NO!

With these words, the Holy Bishop of Milan “tries to condemn – with all forcefulness – the exclusive use of goods, when they are not intended for a social purpose.”[8] This intention is evidenced by the following words of the Saint: “possession must belong to the possessor, not the possessor of possession. For anyone who does not use his property as a possessor, who does not know how to give generously and share with the poor, is a servant of his possessions, not the master of them, because he guards the riches of others as a servant and does not use them as a master.”[9]

Many other Fathers of the Church agree with this opinion, emphasizing the universal use of goods, without ever excluding the right to property.[10] Also sharing this opinion are renowned theologians, among them the great St. Thomas Aquinas: “man should not hold external things as his own, but as common, in this sense that each one willingly share them with the needy.”[11]

According to this teaching, all men have the right to make use of creatures, generously granted by God, for their use and benefit.

However, in order to use creatures, it is necessary to possess them. If there were no other right assuring private property, the universal right to the use of goods would be impossible, vain or nonexistent, as John Paul II’s words deduce: “Destination and universal use do not mean that everything is at the disposal of each one or of all, nor even that the same thing serves or belongs to each one or to all. If it is true that all are born with the right to the use of goods, it is equally true that, in order to ensure their equitable and orderly exercise, it is necessary that regulation be put into effect.”[12]

The Right to Property

There are abundant passages in the Holy Scriptures that reveal the divine design with regard to the ownership of property and its right. The development of Biblical history and the numerous legal prescriptions in the Holy Scriptures regulating the use of property constitute valuable evidence of the right to ownership of created goods, of which man takes possession.

In the New Testament, the preaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Apostles move in this same doctrinal moral sphere,[13] as John XXIII clearly expresses: “the authority of the Gospel undoubtedly sanctions the right of private ownership of goods.”[14]

The power of the biblical texts was also extensively cited by John Paul II when it came to grounding the doctrine on property as corresponding to the work of man.[15]

It behooves us to make an appreciation: if the right to property were unimportant to the Holy Scriptures, there would certainly be no commandment in the decalogue protecting it. “Thou shalt not steal” (Ex 20:15)!

The Tradition of the Fathers takes up the defense of this right. We find many allusions in the Patristics, such as the beautiful words of St. Basil: “if private goods were evil, they would in no way have been created by God […]. God’s command does not teach us to reject or divest ourselves of goods as if they were evil, but to administer them.”[16] This good of property is not only a right based on man’s nature, but also becomes useful for the common good of all: “and it is thus that a healthy disposition without evil passions with regard to earthly goods – a healthy administration of them according to the Lord’s command – is a great help for many necessary things.”[17]

Enlightened, then, by Sacred Scripture and the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, the Church defends the right to property, seeking the high ethical-social end, according to the designs of divine wisdom and the dispositions of nature.[18]

This teaching is found explicit in the Catechism and in the Magisterium over the centuries: “the ownership of a good makes its possessor an administrator of Providence, to make them fruitful and to share the benefits of that administration to others, to his relatives in the first place.”[19]

Leo XIII, in the Encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris, stated: “Catholic wisdom, supported by the precepts of divine and natural law, with great prudence has also provided for public and domestic tranquility by its sentiment and doctrine concerning the right to property […]. The Church, with more right and usefulness, recognizes the inequality between persons, unequal by nature in body and spirit, as well as in the possession of goods, and commands that each one should have intact and inviolate the right of property and dominion which comes from nature itself.”[20]

“Private property, as we have seen above, is of natural right for man: the exercise of this right, especially for those who live in society, is a thing not only permitted, but also absolutely necessary.”[21]

Scholastic theology also offered imposing elements to express this sentiment of the Church, in favor not only of the lawfulness of possessions, but of their social necessity: “it is lawful for man to possess goods as his own. It is even necessary to human life.”[22]

We beehoves us to ask a question, born from the depths of Catholic hearts, so often pressured by the world’s innovative and anti-Christian ideas: how to question a doctrine so clearly defined by the Church, giving reason to a political order also condemned by the Holy See?

All this seems to consist of residues of what Pius XI accused: “soft poison which many whom an unveiled socialism could not seduce have eagerly drunk.”[23]

Concordance between the two rights

With this very brief study, it seems the moment has come for us to reach a conciliatory conclusion between the two concepts, mistakenly set in opposition by some of our time. The Principle of universal distribution of goods grants two rights to man: the first related to the use of goods, by right of divine grant, and the second with respect to property. These rights never contradict each other; rather, they complement each other.[24]

As to the first, every man has the right to use creatures for his own needs and well-being, because God Himself has granted all things to the responsible dominion of human beings. The use of these goods brings with it the right to private property, in order to maintain the order of the common good with respect to the use of creatures.

Thus stated Pius XI, with his keen sense of social doctrine: “the so-called commutative justice obliges one to keep the division of goods inviolable and not to invade the right of others by exceeding the limits of one’s own domain.”[25]

This right never loses its link with the first – of universal use of goods – because it must attend not only to one’s own benefit, but also to the good of one’s neighbor: “that man must attend not only to his own interest, but also to the common good, is deduced from the very nature at the same time individual and social of the domain to which we refer.”[26]

When these two rights are united in the harmony of charity and love for God, the goods of private property are secured, according to the divine design of the universal distribution of goods, for the sake of order and the common good.

By Max Streit Wolfring

[1] PAUL VI. Gaudium et Spes, n. 69.

2] Cf. John Paul II. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, no. 172.

3] Cf. Op. cit., n. 26.



6] LACTANCIO. Institutiones Divinæ. 5 (PL 5, 564).

7] SAINT AMBROSE. Liber de Nabuthe. 2, 11 (PL 14, 134).

8] FERNÁNDEZ, Aurelio. Teología Moral: Moral Social, Económica y Política. 3. ed. Burgos: Facultad de Teología del Norte de España, 2001, v. 3, p. 686.

9] SAINT AMBROSE. Op. cit., 15, 63 (PL 14, 751).

10] We present some eloquent examples: BASILIUS. Homilia dicta temporis famis. 8 (PG 31, 320); CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA. Pædagogus. 2, 12 (PG 31, 320); CHRISOSTOM. Homily. 1, 12 (PG 48, 980); Id. Homily. 2, 1-5 (PG 48, 982-986).

11] SAINT THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologica, II, q.66, a. 2.

12] JOHN PAUL II. op. cit.

13] Cf. FERNÁNDEZ, Aurelio. Op. cit.

14] JOHN XXIII. Mater et Magistra, n. 121.

15] Cf. JOHN PAUL II. Laborem Exercens, n. 4.

SAINT BASIL. Regulæ Brevius Tratactæ. 92. (PG 31, 1146).

17] Loc. cit.

18] Cf. Pius XII. Radiomessaje en el V aniversario del comienzo de la Guerra. September 1, 1944.


20] LION XIII. Quod Apostolici Muneris. (DH 3133).

21] LION XIII. Rerum Novarum. (DH 3267).

22] SAINT THOMAS DE AQUINO. Op. cit., II, q.66, a. 2.

23] PIUS XI. Quadragesimo Ano, May 15, 1931.

24] Cf. PAUL VI. Populorum Progressio, n. 22-23 (ASS 59, 1967, 268-269).

25] PIUS XI. Op. cit.

26] Ibid. (DH 3728).


Compiled by Edsel M.

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