February 1, 2001
volume 12, no. 32

Distribution of Property

    The government should protect the right of private owners hip. Citizens are most contented when they have some property to call their own, on which they can depend for the necessities of their families and for maintenance in their old age. Problems of peace and order increase with the increase of people who have no property of their own to think about. Something is wrong when a country's wealth is in the hands of a limited few; everyone should be owner of something, however little.

    The industrial problem of the modern world is the question of honesty in economic matters regarding social and civic aspects, and a just distribution of property-problems of religion because they concern fundamental human rights.

    Some of the major phases of the problem are dealt with in the papal encyclicals "Rerum Novarum" (1891) of Pope Leo XIII, "Quadragesimo Anno" (1931) of Pope Pius XII, and most recently in numerous encyclicals by Pope John Paul II, specifically "Laborum Exercens" (1981) and "Centesimus Annus" on the 100th anniversary of Leo's landmark encyclical in 1991. Some are expecting another this year on the 110th anniversary, possibly in May by the Holy Father.

    The seventh and tenth commandments direct the exercise of justice between man and man in the possession and use of property. The rights of all must be respected; everyone must be given his due. In the modern world this has raised a continuing issue between the employer and the employee-between Capital and Labor-on the subject of returns justly proportionate to corresponding contribution to industry.

    This modern problem arose from the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, when machinery came to be widely used, and the factory system was developed: in the meantime there was general apathy towards social control of relations between employers and employees. In consequence enormous wealth came to be concentrated in the hands of the propertied classes, while for the laboring classes there was a progressive lowering of wages below living standards.

    The problem has caused class conflicts, and in our nuclear age may lead the world to self-obliteration. However, because most people believe in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man, an equitable solution will surely be found.

    With great care people will consider not only the rights, but also the needs, of each factor in the modern conflict. Even from the point of view of strict justice alone, something does appear unbalanced in a world tolerating economic dictatorship in immense fortunes, side by side with virtual economic thralldom in excessive poverty.

    In the resolution of the problem, considerations on the rights and duties of the employer and of the employee are important.

    In general the rights of one side would naturally outline duties for the opposing side. For instance, since in justice the employer has the right to a fair return on his investment, the employee has the consequent duty of helping towards the attainment of that fair return. Since in justice the employee has the right to a fair return for his labor, the employer has the consequent duty of supplying that fair return.

    The employer has the right to a just return on his investment-on the capital, the energy, the intelligence, and other factors that he supplies in his business. From his employees he has the right to expect honest work, and a reasonable care of his property. The employer has the right to a favorable reputation, without which he would fail in his business.

    The employee has the right to a just wage, to protection from unnecessary hazards in labor conditions, and to reasonable security in work. While it would not be possible to have all dangers in labor conditions removed, for the employees' safety dangerous machinery must be muzzled, protection must be provided against dusts and poisons of mines, sanitary conditions must prevail, etc.

    Unions came into existence to protect these rights, but conversely they began to make demands that tipped the scale, just as in the past and even still, in third world countries, employers exploit the workers by either providing poor or unsafe working conditions, or employ child labor or pay the bare minimum. Private ownership is a right because everyone has a right to life, and to all means necessary for the purposes of life. But with this comes a responsibility to provide the rights to the worker.

    From earliest times the need and right of ownership have been recognized, even among the most undeveloped peoples. Every tongue certainly has words meaning "my" and "mine." "It must be within man's right to have things, not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living beings have them, but in stable and permanent possession" (Leo XIII).

    Individual ownership of the goods of the earth is a right derived, under God, from man's very nature. Man has a right to life, and must have everything necessary for the purposes of life. The seventh and tenth commandments are themselves based on this right; if nothing had owners, how could anything be stolen?

    Man has a basic need for wholesome living. There could be no adequate family life without some form of private ownership. Regarding other needs, let us consider the effect on the self-respect of a man if he should become sure that he could never dispose of any goods, but must always be economically dependent. Let us try to imagine what stimulus a clever young man ordinarily would have who knew that even with the utmost exertion of his efforts, all he gained would finally be communal property.

    However, the Church does not hold the right of ownership as absolute, with complete freedom to do whatever one wishes with one's property. Common welfare makes necessary certain limitations to the right. That right is under God and subject to His will, limited by man's duties to God and his neighbor.

    Extreme individualism stands for the right of absolute ownership; extreme collectivism denies all right of private ownership. The Catholic concept is intermediate: private ownership is a right, but limited by the Great Commandments.

    A living wage is one sufficient to support a man and his family in reasonable and frugal comfort. Man is made of body and soul, and when the most urgent material needs-such as food, shelter, clothing, and adequate conditions of work and living are absent, it becomes very difficult for him to serve God as he ought, and avoid sin.

    For the same reason that ownership is a right, a just wage is a right, because a man has an inalienable right to life and to all means necessary for the purposes of life. "There is a dictate of mature more imperious and more ancient than any bargain between man and man, that the remuneration must be enough to support the wage-earner in a reasonable and frugal comfort" (Leo XIII). "The wage paid to the workingman must be sufficient for the support of himself and of his family" (Pius XII).

    A wage that would be sufficient to support a man and his family "in reasonable and frugal comfort" would be of an amount to cover the cost of living; it is variable according to conditions of time and place.

    A just wage should cover the cost of living for a family of husband and wife with their small children. Under American standards, it should include expenses for food, clothing, housing and house furnishings, fire and light, transportation, care of health, amusements, church contributions, and some incidentals. In the computation of wages it must be kept in mind that with Sundays and legal holidays the average workman has some sixty non-working days; and each year several work days are lost for unavoidable cause, like illness.

    We shall devote the next several lessons to Social Justice and the anti-Catholic stance of communism, socialism and liberalism.

For past installments of this catechetical series on My Catholic Faith, see APPRECIATING THE PRECIOUS GIFT OF OUR FAITH Archives

February 1, 2001
volume 12, no. 32
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