When some speak of a “crisis of morality” and a disobedience to the Church’s moral teachings, they point to sexual ethics. But a perusal of the Catechism’s treatment of property and economics suggests that we are afflicted with a “crisis of morality” in relation to our possessions. Indeed, it’s possible that we are further from understanding the basic teachings of this section than we are from understanding those gathered under the Sixth Commandment. However, there remain some questions as to the meaning of the imperatives on possessions.
The Catechism treats material possessions under the heading of theft, which it defines broadly as “unjustly taking or keeping” the goods of others (2401). But like the other commandments, the section begins not with negative norms, but with a positive vision of God’s will for the created universe. The command against killing begins by describing life as “sacred” (2258), and the command against adultery begins with “the vocation of love and communion” inscribed in us (2331). Here, the vision is of the “universal destination of goods,” by which “the goods of creation are destined for the whole human race” (2402). This notion “remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise” (2403).
It is within this vision that “unjust taking and keeping” must be understood. The commandment against theft is not a defense of an absolute right to private property, but instead is a protection of the ability to dispose of goods in accord with the virtues of temperance, justice, and solidarity (2407). Most importantly, the Catechism suggests that the use of one’s possessions should be for the basic needs of ourselves and our immediate dependents, and beyond that should be used in ways so as to “allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.”
When the Catechism goes on to name the sins which involve “unjust taking and keeping,” the list turns out to be as long as that of sexual sins: paying unjust wages, business fraud, forcing up prices, doing poor-quality work, tax evasion, excessive expenses and waste, and willful damage to public property (2409). In all these cases, one is taking what belongs to another (or to all, as a common good) and appropriating it for oneself. For example, in cases where it is economically possible for an enterprise to remain profitable (or to pay high officers sufficiently but less), a just wage must be paid; “to refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice” and “agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages” (2434). Correspondingly, to do poor work – and by extension to waste an employer’s time and resources – is a kind of theft.
The Catechism goes on to treat the environment (2415), animals (2416-18), economic systems in general (2419ff.), international solidarity (2437ff.), and finally, “love of the poor” which it states “is incompatible with the immoderate love of riches or their selfish use” (2445), in effect underscoring that our goods are not our own, but must be used for the flourishing of all. It quotes St. John Chrysostom stating, “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs” (2446). In the starkest possible terms, we are reminded that this vision of possessions – as not strictly speaking “our own private property,” but rather subject to moral obligation – is one that challenges typical conceptions pervasive in our society. Indeed, my experience of teaching this section is that students are shocked by this teaching. Most of them may break certain “sexual rules,” but when the Church holds up the vision of lifelong communion and family, they mostly nod and say, “well, yes, that’s right.” But they are horrified at this ultimate vision of property as oriented to everyone.
Beyond the ultimate vision at the heart of this section, a few other questions deserve attention. First, what socio-economic system fits this general teaching? While famously the Church has no concrete blueprint to present, the Catechism does affirm that the social encyclicals are “a body of doctrine” (2422), and does rule out both theories that “[make] profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity” as well as an economy that collectivizes production and runs “solely by central planning” (2424-25). Instead, it concludes, “Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended” (2425). Rather far from “get government out of the way”! Yet it should be noted that what is commended here is primarily regulation, rather than government enterprise itself. As elaborated in Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate, the government can and should function to regulate the economy in ways that promote “economies of gratuitousness” – that is, economic enterprises whose ends are not simply profit, but whose missions also (a) seek some genuine common good, and (b) seek to be a genuine communion of persons within the business enterprise.
Second, what the does the Catechism mean by “reasonable regulation” or by accepting experiments on animals “within reasonable limits”? Earlier, the section suggests that the ownership of goods obliges a person “with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits” and “employ[ing] goods in ways that will benefit the greatest number” (2404-05). At times, this kind of language can sound like the introduction of an alien moral calculus, a utilitarian logic suddenly appearing. The language of “reasonable” also invites this interpretation – “reasonable” experimentation on animals is experimentation that produces benefits, for example. While calculations of proportionality are not foreign to the Catholic moral tradition, one must be cautious in making them, for they are always subordinate to absolute norms. To use just war doctrine as an example, it is of no use to argue for the proportionate benefits of a war if the cause is not just. So too it is of no use to argue for certain economic activity on utilitarian grounds if such activity involves unjust wages, subhuman working conditions, environmental destruction of what is intended for future generations, love of the poor, etc. Nevetheless, the Catechism invites further reflection on how these judgments of reason might be made in a complex society such as our own.
Finally, what does the Catechism’s teaching on animals say about some of our typical moral practices? In light of previous blog discussion of “cruelty meat,” it is striking to note that, while the Catechism accepts meat eating, it condemns needless cruelty. Importantly, it adds that “one should not direct to [animals] the affection due only to persons” (2418), including the inordinate spending of money on them. One could imagine that in a truly just economy, the time and money that many of us spend on pets would instead be directed to a humane food economy. Objections to eating justly often involve cost and inconvenience, and at the very least, one should be willing to sacrifice inordinate pet care for the sake of just food production!
All of these provocative questions should lead us back to considering the Catechism’s overall vision, which assumes that “economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons, of the whole man, and of the entire human community” (2426). It ought to provide everyone with dignified work, motivate true love of the poor, and enable us to keep in mind the basic needs of future generations. It is difficult to read the Catechism and not see that we have in fact sacrificed good work, the poor, and the environment for the sake of “multiplying goods” and “increasing profit.” Insofar as we have, we are thieves.