Respecting & Exercising Property Rights

The canons of the Church affirm the fundamental moral goodness of property; this doesn’t mean that all uses of property are of equal moral weight. Just as not all acquisitions and uses of property are all necessarily virtuous, neither are all necessarily sinful. Again the principle here is, in the words of St Maximus the Confessor, “it is only the misuse of things that is evil, and such misuse occurs when the intellect fails to cultivate its natural powers” (#4, Third Century on Charity). So while property is good, its misuse is evil and the result of a misunderstanding of property’s nature. Finally, the canons don’t offer us a fully formed theory of property rights. They do give us insight into the nature of property and how God intends us to make use it.

Apostolic Canons (XL), draw a distinction between the private and corporate ownership of property. Specifically between what belongs to the bishop (his “private goods” which would include not only clothes and money but also real estate) and what belongs to the diocese. The bishop is free to dispose of his own property as he sees fit; property in other words is alienable.  The bishop really owns his own property; he isn’t just a moral steward of this or that part of Creation. This means that, while the context of moral ad civil law he can transfer his property to a new owner.

The specific case in the canon is the bishop’s right to bequeath his property to his “wife, or children, or relations, or servants.” Doing so, again in the words of the canon, “is just before God and man” and necessary so that neither the bishop nor “his relations be injured under pretext” that his personal property belongs to the diocese. The bishop’s failure to provide for his family after his means to risk a state of affairs such that others will “cast reproaches upon.”

For this canon then the legal right to property and the morally right use of property are joined. The latter is the goal or the purpose of the former; what we own, we own so that we can care for those God has entrusted to us.

This, in turn, is why it is important to distinguish as a matter of law (ecclesial AND civil) what belongs to the bishop—and so his family—and what belongs to the diocese. Failure to do so not only means risking a lawsuit but also the greater moral and social harm of property being misused. Misuse here doesn’t necessarily mean using property for immoral purposes. Rather the concern is avoid any failure to use them for the purpose, and persons, for which and for whom it is intended. This is both a familial and ecclesial concern.

Clarity of ownership protects the right of the bishop’s family to his property; it also protects the right of the faithful to diocesan property. Just as with the episcopal family, it is unjust for “the Church [to] suffer any loss through ignorance of the bishop’s own property.” In other words, both sides needs to know who owns what.

This is why later councils stress the need for the bishop not only to be a good steward of the wealth of the diocese but that ownership be clearly, and legally, defined. In other words, the contemporary concern for procedural and substantive justice in matters of diocesan property is not unknown in the early Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory