People are more important than things. So why should anyone care if I take a few things that are not mine?
Few of us break into people's homes and steal their money and possessions. But lots of people shoplift, take office supplies from their workplaces, do personal business during work time, violate copyright laws or fudge on their income tax forms. Indeed, some even use the supposed fact that "everyone is doing it" to rationalize their own petty theft.
Rationalizations for petty theft are easy to come by. "The company owes it to me"; "It's okay, I deserve it"; "Nobody will miss such a small amount."
Theft, however, is still theft. In 1996, Canadian retailers had close to $2 billion in goods stolen by thieves and lost another $1.2 billion to pilfering employees. And that's only the retail industry!
But why, you may ask, does the Judeo-Christian tradition -- which makes a big deal of the fact that God gave the earth for the good of all -- look askance at stealing? Shouldn't we own everything in common and let everybody use things as they need them? Isn't communism the ideal and all private property a form of theft?
Well, no. Pope Leo XIII faced these questions head-on in his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum. That encyclical was written in the context of great poverty and misery among working people cause by the exploitation of the masses by powerful capitalists. Socialist and communist movements were gaining favour by arguing for the abolition of private property and the collective ownership of everything.
Pope Leo's response to those questions in the context of a dire social situation laid the foundations for the development of Church social teaching in the 20th century. He argued that "oppressed workers ought to be liberated from the savagery of greedy men" (n. 59). He said workers have a right to form unions and that they "not infrequently (have) . . . cause to strike" (n. 56).
But the pope also gave a lengthy defence of the right to private property. "The fundamental principle of socialism which would make all possessions public property is to be utterly rejected because it injures the very ones whom it seeks to help, contravenes the natural rights of individual persons, and throws the functions of the state and public peace into confusion" (n. 23).
If people do not have the right, not only to consume goods, but also to own and hold them "by stable and perpetual right," then they will not be able to plan a stable and secure life for themselves and their families. The family, not the wider society, is the basic human community and its rights must always be paramount. Erosion of the property rights of the family will lead quickly to the erosion of the peace and good order of society. Families will see the wider society as their enemy, not as the arena where people organize projects beyond the capacity of single families to carry out.
Further, while God has given the earth for the good of all people, the earth does not yield its fruits without work. Thus, through labour, a person "appropriates that part of physical nature to himself which he has cultivated" (n. 15). A person has a right to enjoy the fruits of his labour.
If that right is taken away, people lose the incentive to work. "The very fountains of wealth would dry up; and the equality conjured up by the socialist imagination would, in reality, be nothing but uniform wretchedness and meanness for one and all, without distinction" (n. 22).
Pope Leo's objections were in fact proven to be on target by 20th century communism. In its rush to produce equality, communism brought its meagre economic advances only by coercion. Because people could keep nothing for themselves, they were reluctant to give much effort to the good of the whole. And because there was no tradition of voluntarily working for the common good, it has been doubly difficult after the fall of communism to build a form of free enterprise which is non-exploitive and which meets those needs of people which are not met by the marketplace.
None of this is meant to suggest that the problems of the world are limited to those caused by socialism. Next week, we will look at what happens when private property is turned into an idol.
But it is important to recognize that people have a right to enjoy the fruits of their labour. A free and just society will protect the right to private property. God has made work a good thing and private property a good thing. The violation of that goodness is called theft. Stealing things goes directly contrary to God's will. It disturbs the stability of family life and the good order of society. When people take other people's stuff we are all diminished.
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