The Universal Destination of Goods and Private Property
The Universal Destination of Goods
As a direct consequence of the principle of the common good, we arrive at the universal destination of goods. In the words of the Second Vatican Council: “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.”
The earth—that first and greatest gift of nature from God to man—is the perennial source of sustenance to the human race, and because no man can do without the material goods that fulfill his basic needs (food and shelter), there exists a primordial right to use of its resources.
Continuing in our logical progression, we come to private property, of which the first thing to be said is that it is a consequence of the universal destination of goods. As such it should never be imagined as something antagonistic to it or separate from it, as if the two principles operated in opposition to one another. They are mutually complementary and supportive. According to Aquinas:
“Community of goods is ascribed to the natural law, not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law…Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.”
What Aquinas illustrates here is the Church’s notion of a “hierarchy of goods.” That everyone ought to have the opportunity to share in the goods of the earth is a dictate of natural law, but since the best way of achieving the widespread and responsible use of goods does not lie in communal ownership, we choose instead to implement the institution of private property. Private property is a good which is “superimposed” on top of the universal destination of goods in order to best serve it. Thus, private property must be conceived as a means of achieving an end:
“The fact that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race can in no way be a bar to the owning of private property. For God has granted the earth to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races. Moreover, the earth, even though apportioned among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all, inasmuch as there is not one who does not sustain life from what the land produces.”
a. Justifications for private property according to Aquinas
Aquinas provides three concise reasons for the above, with which we would be wise to arm ourselves. First, every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all. Second, human affairs are conducted more orderly if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself. Third, we know that a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own.
b. The right of private property is to support the family
Because the family, rather than the individual, is the basic unit of society, then it must be acknowledged that the institution of private property is valid if and only if it benefits the family first and foremost, ensuring its stability and contributing to its development.
“It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, it is natural that he should wish that his children, who carry on, so to speak, and continue his personality, should be by him provided with all that is needful to enable them to keep themselves decently from want and misery amid the uncertainties of this mortal life. Now, in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance.”
If conditions arise such that private property is somehow appropriated by individuals while families are left either without property or dependent on a few rich individuals for their survival, then it would become clear that private property was no longer serving its end, and it would open itself to just criticism.
c. The right of private property is not absolute
St. John Paul II said that “there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them.”
Obviously this means that the right of private property is not absolute. Indeed, Pope Francis has said that “God rejects every claim to absolute ownership.” The universal destination of goods is always God’s point of departure.
Whenever circumstances arise in which private property comes into conflict with this principle, for example, if those who have an abundance of goods are unwilling to assist those in need, then it is quite legitimate for the State to intervene. In fact, because it is the role of the State to see to the just establishment and distribution of social goods, it would be irresponsible for it to remain silent. Far from being an offense against private property, such actions may become necessary in order to maintain the institution by protecting it from abuse.
Aquinas himself went even further, saying: “All things are common property in a case of extreme necessity. Hence one who is in such dire straits may take another’s goods in order to succour himself, if he can ﬁnd no one who is willing to give him something.” Although such a position sounds extreme, the Catechism is in agreement.
 Address to Indigenous and Rural People, Cuilapán, Mexico (29 January 1979), 6.