Thursday, August 5, 2010

Principles of Catholic Social Teaching: The Universal Destination of Goods

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. This principle is based on the fact that the original source of all that is good is the very act of God, who created both the earth and man, and who gave the earth to man so that he might have dominion over it by his work and enjoy its fruits (Gen 1:28-29). God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone. (section 171)
This is the basis for the "universal destination of goods" principle, which states that "each person must have access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development" (section 172). It is a natural and inherent right that has priority over every social or economic system. "All other rights, whatever they are, including property rights and the right of free trade must be subordinated to this norm; they must not hinder it, but must rather expedite its application" (section 172), even if it requires "regulated interventions".
The principle of the universal destination of goods is an invitation to develop an economic vision inspired by moral values that permit people not to lose sight of the origin or purpose of these goods, so as to bring about a world of fairness and solidarity, in which the creation of wealth can take on a positive function. (section 174)
This principle impinges upon the idea of property rights. "Private property and other forms of private ownership of goods 'assure 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 ... stimulating exercise of responsibility, it constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty'". In fact, the Church's social teaching "requires that ownership of goods be equally accessible to all, so that all may become, at least in some measure, owners" (section 176).

Property rights, however, are not "absolute and untouchable". Since God has given the earth to all and all have an equal right to it then property rights are subordinate to the universal destination of goods principle. This does not eliminate the idea property rights; it orders and regulates it. Private property is best understood as a means to the fulfillment of this principle. That is to say, private property has a social function related to the common good. Owners are obligated to consider how their property may be used in a way that contributes to the common good.

If the principle is true and "each person must have access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development" then those who are particularly destitute deserve special attention:
The principle of the universal destination of goods requires that the poor, the marginalized and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern. To this end, the preferential option for the poor should be reaffirmed in all its force. "This is an option, or a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning the ownership and use of goods. Today, furthermore, given the worldwide dimension which the social question has assumed, this love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without health care and, above all, those without hope of a better future".
This special attention to the poor flows not only from the teachings of Jesus, but also from the fact that he was himself one of the poor and focused his ministry on them. The Church has always worked "for their relief, defence and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere" and taught that Christians "should assist their fellow man in his various needs and fill the human community with countless works of corporal and spiritual mercy". This teaching goes beyond alms-giving alone, however, and encourages Christians to address "the social and political dimensions of the problem of poverty":
In her teaching the Church constantly returns to this relationship between charity and justice: "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 Council Fathers strongly recommended that this duty be fulfilled correctly, remembering that "what is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity".
Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church


  1. Man do I have a lot of questions on this one.

    The term "goods" is left very undefined here. Is this a raw material or a finished product? It would be one thing to suggest that one person should not hog all the earth's chickens. It is another thing to suggest that other people have a right to baked chickens, and so may take them from someone who baked them when they are hungry.

    "When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours." Hmmm.

    "34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. ....1But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3But Peter said, 'Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God'" (Acts 4:34-35, 5:1-4). Note that while money was being collected to keep people out of need, the property that was sold for this purpose was considered to be owned by those who gave it, and it was theirs to decide what to do with it. This is contrary to what was said above.

  2. I'll try to answer your questions, but keep in mind that I've only begun learning about this so the blame for stupid answers goes to me alone.

    The point, I think, is to ensure that everyone has what they need, not just as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice, because God has given the earth to all. So, I wouldn't say that everyone must be given baked chickens but everyone should have access to food, the means to grow it, and the means to prepare it. There could be numerous ways to ensure that happens.

    As for the issue of ownership, there's no problem with private ownership as such (I believe CST would say the same). But private ownership must be viewed as a means to the end of the common good. Private ownership is not an end in itself. If a better system can be devised to work for the common good then it should be adopted. If not, then stick with private ownership, as long as we remember that we have a responsibility to the common good.

  3. I think that private ownership is not an invention, but something we recognize. We see that as John Locke says, some people mix their labor with natural resources. When we fail to recognize this, we steal from the person, because we are taking their labor from them.

    Now a particular legal scheme of property recognition may well thwart people in enjoying what God intended for the good of all. If a state allows someone to file to own hundreds of square miles of property just by signing a form, we have left any natural law and created a privilege which will probably be destructive. Taxpayers will pay to police the land that the person could not in most cases possibly hold on his own.

    So a distinction has to be made between recognizing a natural right, and creating a specific system of ownership which may be as much based on privilege as true right. But in scaling back the privileges, we should not infringe upon the true rights. We currently have a state with huge land holdings that could alleviate much poverty by allowing the poor to homestead land. What God has given to provide for the poor is put out of their reach, and then the state tries to make up for this by taking the fruit of the labor of other of its people to give to them. I know that is the the result of Catholic Social Teaching, but it is something to keep in mind as you ponder this.

    The Acton Institute is one place you might go if you want to see suggestions on how free markets might be compatible with Catholic Social Teaching. (See here: for example)

  4. I'm certainly not capable to arguing with John Locke. I'd be in over my head in moments. But that is an interesting distinction and something I will keep in mind.


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.