A Look at the Legitimacy of Private Property

 "If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the consequence will be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over, and the respective classes will be brought nearer to one another." -Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum


Man cannot live his life on earth without using the material goods w/ which the earth abounds. Air, Light, heat, water, food, clothing, housing, and the numerous instruments and contrivances needed for procuring and distributing these are indispensable requirements for human life. By a natural instinct man seizes these things, uses them, and consumes them for his purposes. In doing so he makes them his own, his property.


And so, we can legitimately ask:


  1. What is ownership?
  2. Why may we use material good for sustenance?
  3. What is theft and why is it wrong?
  4. What are the chief economic systems?
  5. How is the system of private property justified?




A thing is said to be ones own when it is reserved to a certain person and all others are excluded from it. The one who holds a thing as his own is said to have the right of ownership over it.


1.    man and goods : ST teaches that there are various acts by which man deals with external goods, the 2 first ones are ordained to the 3rd :


·      Procuration, i.e. administration or production of goods.


·      Dispensation, i.e. distribution of the goods.


·      Use i.e. the consummation of the goods applied to their end, man.



Ownership or Private Property may be defined as: The right of exclusive control and disposal over a thing at will, within just limits.




1. A right: - Vs mere possession.


2. Exclusive: - Excludes others from exercising dominion over this very same thing.


3. Control and disposal: - Dominion is exercise by individuals in such a manner that he is free to do w/ it what he chooses (w/ in reason).


4. Over a thing: - Not only material objects, but also actions, services, good will, or credit.


5. At will – The owner acts for himself, in his own name, and need consult no one else as far as mere ownership is concerned.




·      Private property is either individual, domestic or patriarchal.[2]


·      Goods are consumable[3]  (consumed with the use, like food drink, money) or productive (ordained to produce new goods, i.e. a field, machinery).


Limits to private property


1.Extreme Need – Anyone can appropriate that which is necessary for his subsistence; anything else is theft.[4]


2. Service of the common good – State may take property to serve the common good, e.g. for a highway[5].




1. Extreme need:


Three kinds of temporal needs:


A) Extreme – Lack of what is strictly necessary for life or imminent danger of forever losing goods necessary for life, as health or bodily integrity.

B) Grave – External goods of which there is either the notable loss or imminent danger of such a loss.

C) Common – lack of goods that are necessary for an easy, comfortable life.


All property that can ever be immediately serviceable for saving human life, is held under this burden, that a perishing fellow-creature, who cannot otherwise help himself in a case of extreme need, may make such use of the property of another as shall suffice to rescue him from perishing off-hand[6]. In extreme need, a person can and must take from another what is necessary to get out of extreme need, even if the other is opposed, unless they too are in extreme need. If the owner opposes it, he does so unreasonably and becomes an unjust aggressor. If other means of obtaining what is needed may be used, they must be employed first.


However it must be affirmed that he who draws largely on another for this purpose, ought to make compensation afterwards, if he has the means. In this instants, when the needy man seizes the article that he requires to save him from death, that article still belongs to the owner from whom he takes it, who is bound in charity to give it to the needy party, but not in justice. Extreme need does not confer ownership, nor dispossess any previous owner: but it confers the right of taking what is another's as though it belonged to no one; and in the taking, the thing passes into the ownership of the new occupant, so that for the previous owner forcibly to resume it would be a violation of justice. English law does not recognise this right; properly enough, for with us it would be made a plea for much stealing.


What is more is that while we affirm that this applies to extreme need it may be added that it is also valid, with due proportion, for serious but less drastic emergencies i.e. If I am attacked and have no weapon of my own, I may use another’s weapon even against his will in order to defend myself, unless he has equal need of it[7]. Yet as a rule, in the case of merely grave or common need, the taking of the property of another is unjust and illicit.




1.    primitive modes (prior to any possession):


·      Occupation of rei nullius.


·      Labour since acts are the possession of man, and so are the fruits.


2.    derived modes (posterior to some possession):


·      Increase or fructification of the possession (calf off the cow).


·      Transition of the possession to another owner done among the living (traditio by positive act of will) or by the dead i.e., by testamentum/will for preservation of family goods.


 Property as Sustenance


            The right of ownership or the right to property in its simplest and most primitive form enables man to take and use for his sustenance, comfort, and development the goods that nature’s bounty provides. That man has a right to act in this way is evident from his natural right to life. The material goods of this world are naturally fitted to become mans property. In nature the lower beings are for the sake of the higher, for nature has so constructed them. Living things cannot maintain their lives except by the use and consumption of lower beings, both living and inanimate. Since man is the highest being on earth, all other things are for him. Nature does not portion out her goods to definite individuals. If no other man has already taken them, they are there for anyone to take. One who does so appropriates them, or makes them into his property.


Man has a natural capacity for ownership. He has intellect and will, by which he can indicate his intention of keeping material goods for his own use and of excluding others form them. His intellect and will naturally equip him to become a self-provider, w/ ingenuity to control nature and make it supply his wants. Animals cannot do this, but can only take what they find, as their instinct prompts them. Man, however, because of the control he can exert over nature is naturally fitted for ownership.


The Natural Law Basis for Private Property


Proof of the legitimacy of private property[8]:


·      By natural law, the private property of goods of consummation or of production is legitimate :


·      1stly because by nature, man is endowed to provide for his needs both for the present and the future, and the vicissitudes of life make it necessary to have private property.

·      2ndly because the father of the family naturally provides for his family and tends to acquire private goods.[9]

·      3rdly man tends to acquire whatever he needs to protect his legitimate liberty.


·      By the natural law, both private goods of consummation and production are necessary because they favour:


·      The production/conservation since common property is always the object of common neglect.

·      The ordinary human business is better ordered if one sells one thing (vs confusion of com. goods).

·      Peace between men[10] (one is content with his own, common property leads to contention and divisions).




All though it has been affirmed that the possession of private property has its foundation in the natural law, it must nevertheless be affirmed that use (the consumption fruits) of private property remains somewhat common. This is because:


·      Private property, like the individual and family, is per se ordained to the good of society.  Therefore it must have a social use.


·      The end of private property is the utility not of this man as such, but of humanity.


·      Man retains the use of the necessary goods, according to the divine distributive justice.  The needy people would have no right to the necessary goods of life if the use of private property was not in some way common.


In all this nevertheless it must be maintained that:


·      Private property (power of production and distribution) is not lost by abuse or no-use[11].


·      The owner cannot be forced to give his goods for the common use except in case of extreme necessity.


·      The common use of private property is cause of the obligation of almsgiving.  Yet the possession of superfluous goods as such is not illegitimate.


·       The civil authority can legislate on private property since the common use is a social thing.[12]




Many revolutionist, have erroneously affirmed that "Property is theft," and yet we ask them from whom is it a theft? They will answer of course, "From the community." But that answer supposes the community to have flourished, a wealthy corporation, before private property began. Needless to say that history knows nothing of such a corporation. The saying, that in the beginning all things were in common, is not true in the sense that they were positively in common, like the goods of a corporation, which are collective property: but simply that they were negatively in common, that is, not property at all, neither of corporation nor of individual, but left in the middle open to all comers, for each to convert into property by his occupation, and by his labour to enhance and multiply. This must be modified by the observation, that the first occupants were frequently heads of families, or of small clans, and occupied and held for themselves and their people.

The saying, that all things are in common by the law of nature, must be received with still greater reserve. Really with as much truth it might be said that all men are unmarried, or unclad, or uneducated, by the law of nature. Nature unaided by human volition provides neither property, nor clothing, nor marriage, nor education, for man. But nature bids, urges and requires man to work for the securing of all these things. The law of nature does not prescribe this or that particular distribution of goods, as neither does it join this man with that woman in marriage, nor insist on plaids rather than coats, nor set all boys to learn algebra, nor fix a ritual for divine worship; but it insists in the vague upon some worship, some education, some clothing, some marriage, and some distribution of goods, leaving the determination in each case to choice, custom, and positive law, human and divine.

Definition of Theft:

The unjust taking of a thing or keeping a thing belonging to another with the intention of receiving or retaining a benefit for oneself or a third party with the owner reasonably opposed.



Unjust taking – Unjust taking/retention of something that belongs to another; - This includes non-payment of debts.


Retaining a benefit – Intention of receiving & retaining a gain for oneself or a third party.


Owner reasonably opposed – No theft if the owner is not opposed or unreasonably opposed to the taking.


Kinds of theft


1. Furtum (Theft)  Occult taking of thing; owner absent or unaware.


2. Rapina (Robbery) – Open and violent taking of a thing, in the presence and w/awareness of the owner, in face of his opposition.



Theft a violation of the natural law and divine positive law. It is a violation of the virtue of Charity and Justice and the common good i.e. legal justice, because it implies a perturbation of the public peace.


Different Economic Systems in General


We now come to a more intricate question, that of the economic system that ought to prevail in society. He we no longer deal w/ the basic form of property stemming out of primitive human needs but w/ that more advanced form of property called wealth. Should nature’s resources be left unowned for each to take what he needs, or be divided up among private owners, or be publicly owned and operated by the state?


We distinguish three primary economic systems:


1.      Primitive collectivism.

2.      Private property.

3.      Socialism and Communism.


Brief explanation:


1. Each one takes from natures supply the goods that he needs for his immediate use at present or in near future, w/o hoarding up goods for the far future.


2. The resources of nature and goods of the community are divided up among particular owners.


3. The community or the state owns nearly everything, especially all the means of production, the farms and factories. The produce is distributed to the people in return for their work. Private property is allowed for use and consumption only.


 There are 3 Different positions in this regard:


·      Absolute communism holds the property of all goods, even consumable good, to be the exclusive property of the community (following Plato).


·      Moderate communism reserves the productive goods to the community (Marx, Engels).


·      Others pretend that the private property is legitimated only by the civil law[13].


Private Property as an Economic System


What ethical justification has been offered for the institution of private property? There are two opinions, not opposed to each other, but differing in the extent to which they are willing to go:


            (1) The system of private property rests on the jus gentium. It is at least in agreement with the natural law but not necessarily demanded by it. It is a morally acceptable system.


            (2) The system of private property rests on the natural law. It is not only in agreement with the natural law but demanded by it. It is the only morally acceptable system.


Jus Gentium Basis for Private property


St. Thomas proves the system of private property from the law of nations or jus gentium. It may be well first to see his very cautions and enlightened treatment of this subject:


"Private property is necessary to human life for three reasons: first, because every one is more careful to look after what belongs to himself alone than after what is common to all or to many, since all men shun labour and leave to others what is matter of joint concern, as happens where there are too many servants: on another ground, because human affairs are more orderly handled, if on each individual there rests his own care of managing something, whereas there would be nothing but confusion, if every one without distinction were to have the disposal of any thing he chose to take in hand: thirdly, because by this means society is the rather kept at peace, every member being content with his own possession, whence we see that among those who hold any thing in common and undivided ownership strifes not unfrequently arise.

The second thing that is competent to man with regard to external things is their use. In this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need. .  . .

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.”[14]



By these words St. Thomas seems to be making private property something allowed but not required by the natural law, something coming from human agreement sanctioned by positive law and permitted by the natural, with an option for another arrangement equally in accord with the natural law. But this interpretation conflicts with St. Thomas’s use of the terms natural law and jus gentium. The jus gentium is positive law in the sense that it has actually been derived from the positive laws of various peoples, but it is natural law in the sense that it embodies the necessary conclusions derived by human reason from the general principles of the natural law; thus it is positive law in origin but natural law in content.  In deriving such conclusions human reason can fail to transcend the limitations of the age, and thus may include in jus gentium something no longer approved, as slavery, or omit something that now seems required, as allowing people of different nationalities the right to marry; but it represent the earnest effort of the human race to apply the natural law to social life, and on the whole is a clear enough mirror of the natural law itself.

            Thus St. Thomas is by no means asserting that the institution of private property rests only on the jus gentium and does not pertain to the natural law. But he is so reserved in his treatment as to leave room for future speculation. He maintains that the institution of private property is a morally justified system, but he neither affirms nor denies that it is the only morally justified system. 


[1] Cf. Pgs. 446 Right and Reason, by Fr. Austin Fagothey.

[2] Pius XI, Qdrgsmo Anno “Leo XIII taught that ‘God... has wanted to leave the delimitation of properties to the human industry and the institutions of people’...”

[3] In this we distinguish, Fungibilia – goods that can be replaced by others or Non fungibilia – goods that cannot be replaced.

[4] There is an obligation to share what is superfluous to those in need the goods of the earth where meant for the benefit of all mankind and this means that with ownership comes also a social responsibility. This is however in many ways, merely an extension of the notion of the common good.

[5] To this can be added the point of Charity due to neighbor – by giving away in alms what is superfluous in what I have appropriated to myself.

[6] In such an instance it would seem that the “right to life” and the acquired right to property come into conflict, in which case the stronger right prevails, namely that of life, for life is identified w/ man himself; while property is but a means to support life and minister to its needs.

[7] For more examples Cf. Pgs. 449 Right and Reason, by Fr. Austin Fagothey.

[8] For a greater exposition of the question, Cf. Pius IX (Qui Pluribus), Leo XIII (Rerum Novarum), Piux XI (Quadragesimo Anno). And the Church documents of condemnation regarding those  groups who have opposed private property, such as the Waldensians, the Hussites, etc.

[9] In fact PROPERTY was called by the Romans res familiaris, the stuff and substance of the family. Property may be held by the individual for himself alone: but any large accumulation of it is commonly held by the head of a family, actual or potential, for the family; and he cherishes it for the sake of his family as much as, or even more than, for his own sake. On this account St. Paul says (2 Cor. xii. 14), "parents ought to lay up for their children," that they in whom their own existence is continued, may not be left unprovided for at their decease. On this same Pope Pius XII affirmed that, “Nature has intimately linked private property to the existence of human society and of its true civilization, and in an eminent degree to the existence and development of the family” (Pius XII, radio-message June 1st 1941).

[10] The possession of private property by individuals tends to give society a sort of stability.

[11]Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno.

[12]In Polit. II, l.4.

[13]I.e. John Locke.

[14] II-II, q. 66, a. 2.