1. THE RIGHT OF POSSESSION
1. Earthly goods are necessary to man’s subsistence, such as food, clothes, a dwelling-place, money, etc.
1. Consequently every man is justified in striving to gain earthly goods after a just manner, and in possessing them as his personal property.
Since it is the natural right of every man to preserve his own life, he is justified in gaining for himself and keeping as his own, those external goods which are indispensable to his existence. If every moment were occupied in providing for his own maintenance, he would be in the direst destitution, if sickness or misfortune befell him. The natural law prompts him to provide for such contingencies. Besides, were every moment engrossed with the business of self-maintenance, there would be no time to attend to his eternal interests. Furthermore, a man is bound to provide for those who are dependent upon him, and this he could not do if he himself lived from hand to mouth. God commanded our first parents in paradise to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. i. 28). Cain and Abel had separate possessions; each brought of his own to offer sacrifice. All trustworthy information respecting the earliest ages of humanity bears evidence to the possession of personal property. It was necessary that each should have his own, otherwise mankind could not have been at peace. There would have been continual strife and contention. Without the right of possession, the incentive to labor would be wanting. The holding of property is therefore an ordinance of God, just as much as marriage and legal authority. But it cannot be said that the distribution of wealth, as it is under existing circumstances, is in accordance with the will of God. It could not be His will that a small minority should enjoy a superfluity, while an over whelming majority of His children should live in poverty and destitution. This great inequality is the result of sin.
2. Personal property is justly obtained when it is either acquired by labor or by gift.
Nature does not give man the right to certain goods; the right to possess them must be acquired. It is acquired in the first place by labor. God has ordained that the earth should not yield what is requisite- for the maintenance of human life without cultivation. It is a violation of all justice to deprive the cultivator of the soil of what he has won by the sweat of his brow (Lev. xiii.). If the earth is the Lord’s and all they that dwell therein, because He is the Maker of it, that which man has made must rightly belong to him. Property as a rule, is gained by work, but sometimes it is a free gift. God Himself bestows property. He promised the land of Chanaan to Abraham and his posterity as a possession (Gen. xii. 7). The patriarchs bequeathed their possessions to their eldest sons by a solemn benediction. In the present day lands and property of all kinds pass into the hands of others by inheritance or bequest. Every man should make a will, in order to prevent disputes should he be suddenly called out of this life. In primitive times property was acquired by taking possession of unowned land; and now valuables, if unclaimed, may be appropriated by their finder.
1. On the other hand, this commandment forbids the acquisition of property by unjust means, i.e., by taking away what belongs to our neighbor.
Property is unjustly acquired by theft, robbery, cheating, etc.
2. The State has not the right to take from any man his personal property, but it is empowered to impose restrictions on the acquisition and disposal of personal property.
The State has not a paramount command over all property. It has a certain right of supervision, but not of disposal. The people do not exist for the Government, but the Government exists for the people; consequently far from wronging any man, it ought to aim at the welfare of each and all of its subjects. Therefore if the State compels an individual to give up his property in the public interest, it is bound to give him compensation. Nor has the State the right to seize ecclesiastical property. To rob a man is theft, to rob God is sacrilege, and for this the penalty is excommunication. Restitution must be made before the Holy See can give absolution. Since it is the business of the secular authorities, under God, to provide for the well-being of their subjects, the Government is empowered by wise legislation, to introduce gradual changes in regard to the hold ing of property. It can impose such taxes as are necessary for the common weal upon its subjects, in proportion to their means. Thus by heavy taxation of wealthy capitalists it can alleviate the poverty of the working classes. Moreover, St. Thomas Aquinas says this world’s riches are only intended for the preservation of human life. This end is not attained if they are already in the possession of individuals; therefore every one is bound of his abundance to assist those who are in want. The superfluity of the rich is the property of the poor. Thus the Government, in exercising its right of guardianship, can do something towards the just distribution of superfluous wealth.
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