Property Rights in Orthodox Social Teaching

The Catholic apologist Phil Lawler asks “So why does the Pope sound like a socialist?” But immediately after asking, he rephrases the question: ‘Or rather, how have socialists managed to make themselves sound like Christians?” How indeed? “The political Left has been willing to take what it likes from the Bible, while the Right has been unwilling to do so.”  He goes on to say, that socialists

…make their arguments in moral terms, because if the argument is stated purely in practical terms, the socialists will lose. By the same logic, capitalists prefer to state their arguments in practical economic terms. Unfortunately, in doing so, they cede the moral high ground to their opponents. With rare exceptions—one thinks immediately of Michael Novak and of the Acton Institute–defenders of capitalism have not taken the trouble to state their case primarily in moral terms. And that’s unfortunate, because a powerful argument can be made that capitalism, tempered by a Christian moral framework, is the best available solution to the problem of poverty.

There is in fact a Christian moral case to make for the capitalism—or rather the free market. Such a defense however can’t come at the cost of ignoring “the excesses of capitalism, and of capitalism raised to an all-encompassing ideology.” Lawler quotes a recent comments by Pope Francis in which the Pontiff said that Christians must be forthright in our condemnation of “ideologies which uphold the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation, and thus deny the right of control to States, which are themselves charged with providing for the common good.” As Lawler observes, “Hard-core libertarians will be uncomfortable with that language, certainly. But then hard-core libertarians are often uncomfortable with the Ten Commandments.”

This summer I’ll be a Lone Mountain Fellow with the Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, MT where I will research (among other things) the moral and practical foundations of the free market.  It is part of the teaching of the Orthodox Church that property, or more broadly wealth, is “God’s gift given to be used for [our] own and [our] neighbor’s benefit” (The Basis of the Social Concept, section VII.2). To be sure the right to property is not “absolute” nerveless, property is “a socially recognized form of people’s relationship to the fruits of their labour and to natural resources.” Under normal circumstances this includes

  •  “the right to own and use property”
  • “the right to control and collect income” from one’s property and
  • “the right to dispose of, lease, modify or liquidate property” (section VII.1).

Finally, the Church teaches that “the alienation and re-distribution of property” in any way that violates “the rights of its legitimate owners” (section VII.3).

While it makes some on the right anxious to hear that the right to property is not absolute, the reason for this is rooted in Christian anthropology.  We can use our material, real or cultural wealth to “produce … sinful phenomena.” But we can also use it in ways that are “proper and morally justified” (section VII.3). Though they are good, property and wealth are not the greatest good even in this, earthly life.

Lawler’s observation about American conservatives and the Vatican are I think equally applicable to Orthodox Christian. Yes, “ liberal activists and social engineers as enemies of the faith…., [B]ut the argument works both ways. Conservatives should recognize the Catholic Church as a defender of the moral order that makes productive capitalism possible. There’s a natural alliance to be made, if only both sides recognize it.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

h/t: Elise Hilton, “What capitalists can learn from Pope Francis


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