The Catholic Church's teaching has long seen the right to property as the basis of any society rooted in the common good. A person makes part of the earth – or the goods of creation – his own through work and intelligence. That effort legitimizes his special claim to that part of creation.
Property gives each person, or each family, a realm for the exercise of their own freedom. It accords them a form of dignity and a basis for a full role in society.
Moreover, there is no need for a strictly equal division of property for each person to have dignity. Perfect equality would deny the initiative, effort and intelligence that went into making those goods of creation usable.
But if the Church defends a right to property, it is quick to say that the ownership of property carries responsibility. Property is not strictly private. While property aids the individual good, it, more basically, must contribute to the common good.
That is because all goods have "a universal destination." This notion clearly emerged in Catholic teaching at the Second Vatican Council, but it was Pope John Paul II who gave it its strongest defence in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (CA).
Pope John Paul wrote, "God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone" (n. 31).
This principle does two things. First, it explicitly says that God is the creator of the goods of the earth. People do not have sovereignty over these goods. They are stewards of creation.
Second, it says God's gift was not primarily to those who have managed to get their hands on a large amount of property.
His gift is to the whole human race, "without excluding or favouring anyone."
Those who have no property – and they number in the billions – have a right to some. Those who hold large amounts of property have a duty to make that property serve the common good and even to surrender some of it to those who are dispossessed.
While Pope John Paul supported the right of each person to own property as well as "the legitimate role of profit" in a market economy, his analysis included a stinging indictment of capitalism as we know it today. The purpose of a business firm is not to make a profit, he wrote, but to nurture a community of persons. "One works in order to provide for the needs of one's family, one's community, one's nation and ultimately all humanity" (CA, 43).
Pope John Paul was particularly concerned that people get so caught up in producing and consuming, they forget that everything has a God-given purpose. Forgetting this crucial point leads people to want to have more "in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself" (CA, 36).
Humanity consumes resources in a disordered way and wreaks havoc on the environment if it does not see its work as being a form of cooperation with God. "Artificial new needs" are created and we ignore our obligations to future generations as the desire to have more for ourselves grows stronger and stronger.
A market economy deformed in this way leads to "illicit exploitation, speculation or the breaking of solidarity among working people" (CA, 43). As people's sense of entitlement grows, the "human ecology" of society – the family, bonds of community and the religious dimension – is eroded.
As some acquire more and more goods, the majority of people on our planet do not have the means to a dignified life. They may have the right to property but it is a right they are blocked from exercising.
The Church does not have an alternative economic system to propose. Different alternatives can arise in different social and historical situations. The Church does not recognize "the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but . . . at the same time points out that these need to be oriented to the common good" (CA, 43).
A good economic system will recognize the earth and its people as God's creation. It will strive to ensure that all of God's children will have access to a fair share of the fruits of that creation.