One of the greatest injustices in the contemporary world consists precisely in this: that the ones who possess much are relatively few and those who possess almost nothing are many. It is an injustice of the poor distribution of the goods and services originally intended for all. This then is the picture: there are some people—the few who possess much—who do not really succeed in “being” more because through a reversal of the hierarchy of values, they are hindered by the cult of “having”; and there are others—the many who have little or nothing—who do not succeed in their basic human vocation because they are deprived of essential goods.(Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Blsd. John Paul II, 1987, §28).
Based upon and justified by the Church’s principle that “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples” (Gaudium et Spes, §69), John Paul II in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (hereafter SRS) argues that private property is not exclusively private in nature, that it has a social function. Adapting language that applies to residential property sales in which the buyer borrows some of the funds necessary to purchase the property and [End Page 118] acquires the title conditionally, John Paul asserts in SRS that “private property . . . is under a social mortgage” (John Paul 1987,§42).
Property has a social function in the sense that the property holder is a social being, joined together with others in a network of communities such as family, neighborhood, place of worship, workplace. For Catholics that community is called the Body of Christ. At the same time, private property has an individual function in the sense that the person holding that property is an individual human being, unique and apart from all other human beings. Thus the owner of private property is accountable for the manner in which the goods produced by means of that property are held for his or her own use or released for the use of others.
The social function of private property means that ownership confers stewardship. Just as a conventional mortgage binds the homeowner to repay the institution that made ownership of that home possible, a social mortgage obligates the owner of private property to give back to the community so that those with no private property holdings have access to the same basic services such as health care, education, transportation, and police and fire protection that helped make possible the personal development of that property owner. Homo economicus of the libertarian persuasion recognizes the duty in accepting a conventional mortgage, but not the duty in a social mortgage. The acting person of the personalist persuasion acknowledges both.
Writing more than fifty years ago, Thomas Divine supplies three arguments in defense of the individual function of private property and three others for its social function. Following Aquinas and fellow Jesuit Duff, Divine asserts that the institution of private property provides for the needs of society—the social function—through the greater productivity of private property holders, the enhanced order characteristic of a society in which property is managed privately, and the greater peace and harmony that derives from the contentedness of property holders. Private property serves the needs of the individual—the individual function—by endowing the property holder [End Page 119] with economic independence, making the holder more secure, and promoting creativity and personal development (Divine, Chap. 27).
Drawing on Aquinas, Divine argues that there are two aspects to the common use of private property.
In the first place it means that the owner of private property must be willing to share his wealth with others in time of need. For the right to the necessities of life would take precedence over the right to conveniences or luxuries. To quote again from Aquinas: “If the need be so urgent and manifest that it must be remedied by whatever means are at hand . . . then it is lawful for a man to satisfy his need by taking either openly or secretly another’s property; and in so doing he is not guilty...