I find much of the contemporary discussion surrounding questions about Catholic Social Teaching and the role of government – particularly the United States government – in providing for the needs of the poor in society to fall within the continuum of mildly annoying or at least curious to simply abhorrent. The curious discussions have to do with the recognition of the place governments have to care for and protect their citizens, especially the most vulnerable, from the standpoint of Catholic teaching and the various debates over the ways to translate those moral positions into practice. The abhorrent discussions tend to center on something of an apologetic ode to the value of private property and the “right” this or that person has to accumulate personal wealth.
How such claims can be made in the name of Christianity and with a straight face (or serious blog entry) is beyond me. These apologists, whether individually wealthy or aspirants to such a state, seem to me to be engaging in a post facto exercise of selfish (read: sinful) self-justification. It is an impressive intellectual – perhaps even an attempted theological – acrobatic performance to claim that Scripture or the Christian kerygmatic tradition supports such a position of individualism and private wealth.
To back me up, I wish to draw on the wisdom of my Franciscan brother, the medieval philosopher and theologian Blessed John Duns Scotus. In his masterful text Ordinatio, a revision of his lectures on Lombard’s Sentences, the Subtle Doctor considers the so-called source of “individual property rights.”
He makes clear that there are only three possibilities for the origin of this view: Divine Law, Natural Law or Human Law. He very quickly rules out both Divine and Natural Law, noting as he does that Scripture and nature do not provide even the slightest evidence to support the claim. Furthermore, he posits that the very notion of “private property” or individual ownership is the result of human sinfulness, quite the opposite of God’s will.
In the state of innocence common use with no distinct ownership would have been more conductive to this [peaceful and decent life] than individual ownership, for no one would have taken what another needed, nor would the latter have had to wrest it by force from the other; rather each would have taken what first came to hand as needed for that person’s use. In this way also a greater sufficiency for sustenance would have obtained than if one person’s use of a thing were precluded because another had monopolized it. (Ordinatio IV, dist. 15)
What follows is then a theory about the need for just and prudent laws that find their origin in human reason in order to facilitate the equitable distribution of resources for all. Laws need to be legislated, then, to protect the weak and marginalized in society because, as Scotus writes, “the evil and covetous person would take more than needed and to do so, would also use violence against others who wished to use these common good for their own needs.”
While the Divine and Natural Law that prescribed for a state of living that held all goods in common was necessarily revoked by human sinfulness, it was not, as Scotus reminds us, reversed so that people now had a “right” to private property. On the contrary, we can understand the emergence of human governance and positive law as the necessary – if perhaps unfortunate – requirement to provide and maintain a “peaceful and decent life” among humankind.
These positive laws, therefore, should strive in accordance with prudence to most closely provide for the condition for the possibility of living the Divine and Natural Law wherein all have what they need and others do not take, by force or otherwise, more from others.
In this way, I think Scotus’s writing anticipates Peter Singer’s contemporary claim in his discussion of global poverty that every dollar one accumulates beyond what one needs for survival is effectively stolen from the poor. When there are children around the world who die daily because they don’t have access to something as basic as drinking water or $1 worth of food, how can American Corporations and their CEOs justify their quarterly bank statements?
To return to my first point: I see a continuum of discussion, on one end the apologetic approach is abhorrent and on the other end there is mild annoyance. That mild annoyance needs to be pursued further, for I readily admit that translating this foundational Christian belief – that private property is not part of God’s plan – into praxis is not easy. But we cannot surrender our Christian moral responsibility for the sake of convenience nor can we pretend that governmental structures and programs designed to take care of the poorest and weakest among us are anything less than what is our duty and responsibility according to Divine Law.
 I should note that when I use “personal wealth” I also include public and private corporations and their respective financial assets. After the recent landmark ruling of the United States Supreme Court, which granted corporations the rights equivalent to that of individual personhood, I believe that whatever responsibilities fall to individual persons also apply a fortini to corporations.