Tag Archives: property rights

Violence against property and persons 

While the destruction of property is not as morally serious as homicide, neither are morally acceptable. The inability–or what is worse, unwillingness–to acknowledge that both are wrong is a sin against both justice and charity.

The open assault on property taking place in cities across the country is clearly a campaign of violence. After all, a standard dictionary definition of violence is “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” That’s right, not just “someone,” but “something” too. That’s not just some technicality: it’s what people generally mean when they use the word “violence.” The term has long encompassed things like burning someone’s house down. Leftist commentators are basically trying to redefine “violence” as a synonym of “assault.”

Source: The Problem With The Argument That Riots Are ‘Just Property Damage’ – Foundation for Economic Education

Why Property Rights Matter

Guns for sale are seen inside of Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, February 28, 2018. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

(National ReviewThe stores stopped selling firearms to people under 21 after the Parkland shooting.A 20-year-old is hitting Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart with lawsuits accusing them of discriminating against him based on age.

The stores stated they would no longer sell guns to customers under 21 after a 19-year-old gunman killed 17 people on Valentine’s Day at a Parkland, Fla. school.

Tyler Watson has filed two lawsuits after he was not allowed to buy a rifle from either store. Dick’s refused to sell the Oregon man a .22-caliber Ruger rifle on February 24, and Walmart would not sell him a firearm on March 3. Oregon law allows people 18 and older to buy guns.

I wondered how long it would be before someone sued WalMart or Dick’s Sporting Goods. Now I know.
Orthodox moral teaching supports a right to private property. As an extension of that right, some retailers have decided to respond to recent school shootings by restricting sales of firearms. Whether this plan will have any effect on gun violence remains to be seen.
But like an individual, a corporation has a moral right–and indeed obligation–to control their property as their conscience dictates.
For good and understandable reasons, US state and federal law don’t allow businesses to deny services to customers who are legally allowed to use their services. So under most circumstances, a restaurant must serve any customer who wants a meal and a hotel rent a room to any who ask.
The intention behind these laws is to prevent discrimination. A good and noble goal to be sure.
But over time, laws tend to take on a life of their own. Now not only are merchants being obligated to violate their conscience as part of the cost of participating in the market. Rather than allowing the racist business owner to go out of business, the law has the perverse effect of keeping the business open and so limiting the market for more morally upright businesses.
In the current lawsuit, businesses are at risk of losing the right to solve a problem that, arguably, they have at least a small role in creating by selling guns to all purchasers.
If, however, businesses had more freedom to serve or not serve customers as they saw fit, then there is at least a chance that gun violence could be curtailed by responsible business owners not selling to those who seem to be a threat to self or others. Yes, this might mean as well that the racist business owner wouldn’t sell to ethnic minorities or secular progressive business owners refuse service to Christians (and before you ask, yes, it happens. I know because I have been denied service because I’m a priest).
The question though is this: On a day-to-day level, who is the best guardian of the peace? Orthodox social thought would suggest it is the person or companies closest to the problem.
In Christ,
+Fr Gregory

Property Rights & Religious Freedom

The Hon. B. Theodore Bozonelis, a retired State Chief Judge, and Secretary of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has an essay on Public Orthodoxy that illustrates the connection between religious freedom and property rights. He writes that

Despite the world-wide recognition of the status of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians, the government of Turkey will give no legal standing and status to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the historical Holy Center of Orthodox Christianity at the Phanar, in Istanbul. The lack of legal standing and status in essence nullifies property and other fundamental civil rights in Turkey for the Ecumenical Patriarchate which precludes its full exercise of religious freedom. The Ecumenical Patriarchate cannot own in its name the churches to serve the faithful or the cemeteries to provide for their repose. Since it lacks a legal standing, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is powerless to pursue legal remedies to assert property rights or even seek to repair deteriorating property without government approval. (Read the rest here).

As events in Turkey illustrate, the absence of legally enforceable property rights is detrimental to religious freedom.  Important as they are, property rights alone are not sufficient.

Economic rights more broadly,  such as, the ability to engage in free economic exchange and to make a profit,  are also in the service of religious freedom as well as the individual’s freedom of conscience as well as a community’s freedom to assemble and act as a community.

Sometimes in our zeal to defend the poor and oppressed and to include those on the margins of society, we overlook the importance of property right and economic liberty. We don’t help the poor by curtailing the rights of the middle class or wealthy.

Instead, and let’s return to the situation of the Ecumenical Throne in Turkey, the first step in helping the poor and marginalized is to defend their economic liberty. What we should be aiming at is, as Hernando de Soto argues in The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else is to make the legal–and as importantly, cultural, changes need to secure the economic liberty and property rights of all but especially the poor.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

For Consideration: Property Rights

Another benefit of private property, not so clearly economic, is that it diffuses power. When one entity, such as the government, owns all property, individuals have little protection from the will of the government. The institution of private property gives many individuals a place to call their own, a place where they are safe from depredation by others and by the state. This aspect of private property is captured by the axiom “A man’s home is his castle.” Private property is essential for privacy and for freedom of the press. Try to imagine “freedom of the press” in a country where the government owned all the presses and all the paper.

David Boaz (2015), The Libertarian Mind, 202.

Diocesan Ownership of Parish Property: Aspirational or Actual?

My response to a recent post on property rights and the Church over at the Acton Institute’s PowerBlog (Protecting private property: The road to sainthood?).



Fr Ben,

Thanks for posting this. I especially appreciate your pointing out the shared appreciation of the right to property in both Catholic and Orthodox moral teaching.

One of the challenges with the right to property is that this right is typically a bundle of rights. For example, in The Basis of the Social Concept of the Orthodox Church (2000), the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate affirm the human vocation to labor and right to “the fruits of labour.” The latter includes “the right to own and use property, the right to control and collect income, the right to dispose of, lease, modify or liquidate property” (VII.1).

So immediately, we see that the right to property includes not only (1) actual ownership but (2) use the property, (3) control how the property is (and so isn’t) used, (4) obtain income from the property, (5) sell for profit or donate the property, (6) rent or lease the property, (7) alter the property in some way (e.g., build a house on land I own) or (8) surrender the property in partial payment of debts.

I leave the law to others, but the interesting thing about this bundle of rights is that exercise of any and all of them must be done in conformity to at least to the moral demands of the moral law. What happens though when the exercise of one or more of these rights come into conflict with other rights in the bundle.

Ownership of church property in Ukraine, to return to your post, is anything but straightforward. In addition to competing claims and counterclaims among the various Orthodox jurisdictions, there is the conflict between Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities. I agree with the representative of the Kyiv Patriarchate, Archbishop Yevstratii, that banning the Moscow Patriarchate is counterproductive politically and, more importantly, immoral (here). Adjudication of these claims is anything but easy.

Without prejudice to the Holy Spirit, a just solution to the property conflicts in Ukraine requires a clarity about the canonical control of parish property that we don’t as Orthodox Christians have.

Historically at least diocesan control over parochial property is typically aspirational rather than actual. For example, in traditionally Orthodox countries, the Orthodox Church is an established Church and, as such, the ultimate control of Church property belongs to the State.

Interestingly, from the early centuries, Orthodox monasteries and church buildings were often established as private foundations with the deed for the property held by an individual. This happened throughout the Byzantine era (Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents). It was done in part to keep monastic and parish communities independent of diocesan, and so Imperial, control.

Diocesan ownership of parish property in the US is more or less established under American law. Typically, the parish holds the deed to the property in trust for the diocese with the latter having ultimate control over the property. In other words, diocesan control is possible in the US because the courts will (usually) support the diocese.

Even in the US, however, bishop rarely exercise control over parish property. When they do it is typically because of either a schism or an unwillingness of the local bishop to allow a parish to leave one Orthodox jurisdiction for another.

This means that in practice, diocesan control over parochial property reflects not just the canonical tradition but (as you allude to) the peculiarities of American law on property and religious non-profits.

(An interesting and profitable discussion could, I think. be had on whether or not the Orthodox Church is a “hierarchical church” as defined by US law. The definition embraces not only the Roman Catholic Church but also mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopal Church USA, the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Methodist Church. As an aside, the Catholic Church in the US didn’t actually obtain diocesan control over parochial property until late in the 19th century.)

At least in some states, the Orthodox Church has a hybrid status. We are both hierarchical and congregational. For example, in 1993, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts agreed with the trial judge in Primate and Bishops’ Synod of Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia v. Russian Orthodox Church of Holy Resurrection, Inc., that the parish “was hierarchical in terms of internal administration, discipline, and matters of faith,” but “congregational as far as the control and use of its property.” The appellate court went on to say that “While the only person who could appoint a priest was the bishop, property and indeed churches belonged to various groups, including tradesmen, nobles, and the Tsars.”

A footnote in the case is interesting and offers a caution to assuming that the American Orthodox Church is necessarily a hierarchical church under US law:

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, there was evidence that in the Russian Orthodox Church authority was vested in the whole body of the laity as well as with the hierarchy; it was described as “an organic, as opposed to a juridical notion of authority.” There was also testimony that there were congregational aspects in the orthodox faith; in theory the bishop is elected by the people as well as the clergy, and that even in appointing the priest, the bishops would not impose someone upon the parish that the parish did not want (for more on this go here).

Evidently, our eucharistic ecclesiology and emphasis on active lay participation in the governance of the Church look very different to US courts than it does to us. Moreover, the observation that the Orthodox Church has a mixed polity, isn’t unique to the Massachusetts Appellate Court. Though he is critical of this mixed structure, Fr Nicholas Frencez makes an argument similar to that of the Court in American Orthodoxy and Parish Congregationalism.

Returning to the situation in Ukraine, while I think the proposed laws are imprudent, and even arguably immoral, they are not wholly without basis in either the canonical tradition or historical practice of the Orthodox Church. Indeed, they are not without precedent in the practice of the Moscow Patriarchate. In the 1990’s, the Moscow Patriarchate advocated for a position similar that in bill № 4128.

In 1990, a quadripartite commission was formed that included representatives of the UGCC, the Vatican, the Moscow Patriarchate, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). One of the key points of contention was how to distribute church property. The UGCC insisted on returning churches that were forcibly taken from her in 1946 and transferred to the ROC. Representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate refused to negotiate with the UGCC as an institution that could claim lost property and insisted that the fate of the church buildings should be decided by the communities themselves locally. In other words, individual Greco-Catholics—but not the Church as an institution—could claim the property of their own communities. Following this logic, where most of the community identified as Greco-Catholic, the church building was transferred to the Greco- Catholics, and where the majority was Orthodox, the church building was theirs (more here).

Again, I’m not advocating for the proposed laws. More importantly, I agree with your point that secure, legally defensible property rights serve to secure other rights among them freedom of religion and conscience.

In defense of the right to property in general and of the Orthodox Church’s right to property, we need to be careful, however, that we do not confuse the ideal to which we aspire and the reality that we live. Diocesan, and indeed episcopal, control of parish property is in our canonical tradition. However, this tradition is more complicated than we think. Diocesan control has depended to a greater or lesser degree on the authority of the state and the co-operation of the lower clergy and laity. When the latter is absent, bishops have appealed willing to the former. St Paul’s warning against Christians appealing to civil courts comes to mind here (1 Corinthians 6:1-8).

Without minimizing the all too human elements of the conflict in Ukraine, part of the conflict arises out of the Orthodox Church’s lack of clarity regarding her own practice.

This is why, and I’ll conclude here, both this essay and Orthodox involvement in think tanks like the Acton Institute is of critical importance for the Church. For the first time since the 4th century, the majority of the Church has (in principle at least) the political and social freedom to structure our own, internal life and how we relate to the larger society. The challenge now is to figure out what to do with the mixed blessing of such freedoms.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

In the World, Not of It: Property in the Life of the Church

The late Fr Alexander Schmemann said that we praise men for doing for the Church what we would condemn if they did for themselves. This is certainly the case when it comes the Church’s financial life. “Father,” I’ve heard more than once, “the Church needs money.” Yes, it does. But too frequently this is simply a justification for whatever scheme being floated.

We, like ever generation, will make our own mistakes in matters pertaining to the Church’s property. But without a critical, holistic, analysis of property in the moral tradition of the Church, we risk subverting Jesus’ words to us; we must be in the world but not of the world (see John 17:16-26). Church history counsels caution AND hope as we reflect on how the Church can manage the material blessings God has poured out.

Toward the end of Through the Eye of A Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD, Peter Brown writes that “Long after the empire vanished, fiscal privileges inherited from imperial times and renewed by local kings remained crucial to the social position of the churches.” The conclusion Brown draws from this is important. “Landed wealth, in and of itself, was not enough” (p. 496). Though the dioceses and monastic communities had by the end 6th century in the aggregate amassed a great deal of wealth, what mattered most was the ability of Church leaders—clerical and lay—to use that wealth in a manner consonant (or sadly not) with the Gospel. Brown’s work suggests that it is because of what today we call “property rights” that the Church was able to succeed in its evangelical and pastoral mission.

No matter how carefully it is expressed, some think that this assertion borders on the heretical. And yet because the Church is both a human and divine institution, we can’t remain indifferent to the moral questions surrounding the ecclesiastical ownership of property. Moreover, our concern with property rights and responsibilities has implications for how we understand Creation and the acquisition and use of wealth that emerges from human development of the material world. Finally, though the Church is not of the world it is still in the world. This means that there are all legal and practical questions that need to be examined, If I may venture a psychological hypothesis, I think the discomfort with the legal and practical dimension of wealth that causes some to minimize—and even dismiss—the importance of property rights in the Church’s moral tradition and pastoral life.

History, however, tells a different story.

Church of the Holy Wisdom” (“Hagia Sophia”), built by the Emperor Justinian I, 6th century.

Brown argues, the ability of bishops (or their agents, clerical and lay) to navigate the legal and economic complexities pertaining to the property contributed greatly to the growth of the Church. The material wealth and property of the Church weren’t “taken for granted” by the bishops. Instead, they “fought for” their rights under secular law. “From the mid-fifth century onward, ecclesiastical defensores—lawyers skilled in defending the interests of the church—make their appearance in ever greater numbers.” Far from being mere adjuncts to the life of the diocese, they “emerged as the right-hand men of the bishops” defending the Church’s property against legal claims brought “by angry family members” in the case of bequests, “against fiscal agents” of the local nobility in search of increased revenues, “and against rapacious neighbors” who simply want to take the Church’s property for themselves (p. 496).

All of these factors lead to “the emergence of a new figure in the landscape of wealth…’the managerial bishop'” (p. 497), Like in the secular realm, this was not a ministry for which all bishops were equally qualified. Some bishops were simply too good-natured for the task. Brown quotes a letter from Pope Pelagius I (556-61) in which the Roman pontiff calls for the resignation of the bishop of Narni.

For the gentleness which goes with such inborn simplicity as his cannot govern the patrimony of the church. He cannot stand up to the city councilors in matters of taxation, nor can he get himself involved in the troublesome business of hounding those who retain ecclesiastical properties (quoted in Brown, p. 497).

With the growth of the Church’s wealth, there came a need for a different style of “apologetics” in the form of the defensores. The Church needed to make then, as it does today, a legal case for how it would proclaim the Gospel in and through its use of the material world. Together with new apologetics, new challenges to the Gospel also called for a new form of sanctity. In the late 5th century there arose to new prominence Christians who were able to oversee the prudential and just stewardship of the Church’s growing wealth.

For all the spiritual and temporal benefits that came with the change in the Church’s economic status, there were still real moral problems. “To emphasize the relative novelty of the … managerial bishop is not to claim that ecclesiastical landownership was [necessarily] in any way qualitatively different from that of the lay world” in terms of “the gentleness and honesty of its day-to-day management or its economic success.” Princes as well as churchmen both “attempted in their high-handed manner to make the best they could of difficult times” (p. 498).

We can’t avoid the moral and practical complexities that come the Church’s economic status by simply rejecting property or wealth. As I suggested a moment ago, such a rejection fails to take seriously the human nature of the Church and our call to be in the world but not of it.

Just as we can’t do away with property neither can we artificially or ideologically limit our reflections on its acquisition and use.  It isn’t sufficient to speak about the moral limits of property, its acquisition and its use without also looking at what, as a matter of law, is required for the Church. We must also reflect on what it means for the Church to own property in a free market economy. This why it is important that we not simply accept property as a blessing but as a call from God to reflect critically on the moral, legal and economic nature of property.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Property, Liturgy & Asceticism

One of the oldest Eucharistic prayers is from the Didache. It is in this, first century text, that we read

Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. To you is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever (9:4).

Though not sharing our concern here with property rights in the tradition of the Orthodox Church, the prayer nevertheless has I think implications for that bundle of rights. This should come as a surprise because, as Fr Alexander Schmeman writes, liturgy reveals “the true ‘nature’ and ‘destiny’ of . . . the world. By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, . . . matter becomes again [a] means of communion with and knowledge of God” (For the Life of the World, p. 132).

Creation mixed with human labor—in the case of the Eucharist, bread and wine—through prayer and the invocation of the Holy Spirit become the Body and Blood of Christ. Or in the words of the Roman rite‘s prayer at the preparation of the Altar and the Gifts (here):

Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation,
for through your goodness we have received
the bread we offer you:
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
it will become for us the bread of life.

Likewise, with the wine in the chalice it is “fruit of the vine and work of human hands.”

In the celebration of the Eucharist we see the process by which creation is returned incrementally to God through human labor. The latter is not only priestly but technical; land must be cleared, seeds planted, weeds pulled, vines trimmed and the harvest collected. And all this before wheat becomes flour and grapes wine.

While we can and should distinguish between the priestly and technical modes of engaging creation, in the Eucharist they converge. Not only is creation is returned to the Creator, it is given back to humanity transformed. No longer is creation simply the source of physical life. Now, in the Eucharist, it becomes the source of divine life.

In all this entire process property rights play a secondary but key role. Wheat and grapes aren’t simply collected but cultivated. This cultivation must be protected. The land and its fruits must be safeguarded from general use so that they can be used in turn for the common good.

Without a right to property, that is to set aside some of creation for a specific purpose, the universal destination of creation is frustrated. Unless farmers, and the mill owner and the vintner are all allowed to practice their crafts as they see fit, there will be neither bread nor wine and no “spiritual sacrifice without the shedding of blood” no “sacrifice of praise and true worship” offered in behalf of “all and for all” (Liturgy of St Basil the Great).

Property rights in the social realm fulfill a similar function as does asceticism in the personal realm. In both, human desire and ingenuity are progressively conformed to the divine will and so transfigured without loss of what is truly unique to the person. And it is only in this way—what we might call the ascetical and liturgical use of property—that the particular can become an epiphany of the universal; the created the sacrament of the Uncreated.

None of this is automatic. The mere fact that I have a right to property no more guarantees that I will exercise that right wisely than ascetical struggles guarantees that I will become a saint. In both cases, more is required. Like asceticism, property rights protect human freedom. But neither is the source of that freedom. For this we must look elsewhere.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Property Law in Orthodox Social Thought

A right that can’t be enforced isn’t particularly valuable. As we’ve seen, the canons of the Church assume a basic right to property. The question now is whether Orthodox Social Thought (OST) offer more than merely theoretical support to property.

Reminiscent of John Locke’s argument that property rights emerge when the person mixes his labor with natural resources, the Basis of the Social Concept of the Orthodox Church affirms property “as a socially recognised form of people’s relation to the fruits of labour and to natural resources.” And like contemporary economic theory, property rights in Orthodox Social Teaching are actually a bundle of rights. Specifically this means the power “of an owner … to own and use property, … to control and collect income, … to dispose of, lease, modify or liquidate property (VII.1).

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Oil on canvas. 76×64 cm. Britain, 1697. Source of Entry: Collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Houghton Hall, 1779. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To be sure, and again as in Locke, there are moral limits to property rights. For Locke individual property rights are legitimate so long as “there is enough, and as good, left in common for others” to own (Second Treatise on Government, 5:27). OST has its own version of the Lockean proviso. After affirming the moral and soteriological importance, and limitations, of the material dimension of human life the Basis remind the reader that

The attitude of Orthodox Christians to property should be based on the gospel’s principle of love of one’s neighbour, expressed in the words of the Saviour: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another” (Jn. 13:34). This commandment is the basis of Christian moral behavior (Basis, VII.1).

Charity however also includes a respect for law—civil to be sure but also canonical. And so for both Christians and all men of good will, the regulation of “interpersonal relationships, including property,” (Basis, VII.1) is a moral imperative. It is something that must be done and done not simply out of concern for a just society but also love. Both just and love are (or should be) the fruit of humanity’s gratitude to God.

According to the teaching of the Church, people receive all the earthly blessings from God who is the One who holds the absolute right to possess them. The Saviour repeatedly points to the relative nature of the right to property in His parables on a vineyard let out to be used (Mk. 12:1-9), on talents distributed among many (Mt. 25:14-30) and on an estate handed over for temporary management (Lk. 16:1-13). Expressing the idea inherent to the Church that God is the absolute owner of everything, St. Basil the Great asks: “Tell me, what do you have that is yours? Where from did you take it and bring to life?” The sinful attitude to property manifested in the conscious rejection of this spiritual principle generates division and alienation among people (Basis, VII.1, emphasis in original).

This means that far from being a matter of mere utilitarian social organization, the “various forms of ownership” are in the service of both justice and charity. This is possible however only if ownership, and the laws governing property, are rooted in gratitude to the Creator and respect for human freedom and creativity. While they are all the result of contingent socio-historical factors, “Public, corporate private and mixed forms” of ownership as well as intellectual property rights are all morally legitimate ways of creating and using wealth (Basis, VII.3).

Finally, law not only protects an individual or a community’s right to property. As with law in generally, the legal protection of private property right can advance the Gospel. This happens not by “turn[ing] the world lying in evil into the Kingdom of God, but to prevent[ing] it from turning into hell” (Basis, IV.2).

However, in the cases where the human law completely rejects the absolute divine norm, replacing it by an opposite one, it ceases to be law and becomes lawlessness, in whatever legal garments it may dress itself. For instance, the Decalogue clearly states: “Honour thy father and thy mother” (Ex. 20:12). Any secular norm that contradicts this commandment indicts not its offender but the legislator himself. In other words, the human law has never contained the divine law in its fullness, but in order to remain law it is obliged to conform to the God-established principles, rather then to erode them (Basis, IV.3, emphasis in original).

In the case of property, respect for God’s law means rejecting “the alienation and re-distribution of property” in ways that violate “the rights of its legitimate owners.” While an exception can
be made “for the alienation of property based on the law [i.e., eminent domain], conditioned by the interest of the majority of people and accompanied by fair compensation” this must be done carefully and with respect for the demands of justice and charity rooted n thankfulness to God. Otherwise, and as “Russian [and American] history has shown” the State’s “violation of these principles” can (and has) result “in social upheavals and people’s suffering” (Basis, VII.3).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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

The Council of Ancyra & the Moral Goodness of Property

There are Christians who seem to think that private property is at best morally suspect. While not necessarily arguing that, property is theft there is the suggestion that ownership is greed and the fruit of the poisoned tree. To be fair, there is patristic authority that can be marshalled for this position. But on close examination, the fathers’ criticisms of property pertain more to how it is acquired and especially how it is used and not to the moral goodness of property as such.

For St Maximus the Confessor, what is corrupted is not the thing itself but our understanding and so use of the thing.

It is not food that is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but unchastity, not material things but avarice, not esteem but self-esteem. This being so, 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).

We see a similar line of thought some 300 years earlier at Council of Gangra when the fathers condemn those who “take the matter of ascetic exercises as something to be proud of” and so “[dis]honor modest cohabitation of matrimony, and … despise wealth with justice and with the doing of good (Canon 21). While not beyond criticism, there is no suggestion here that property as such is theft. This shouldn’t surprise us if we recall the importance of property in ancient world. This is so even in the Old Testament. God doesn’t just call Abraham and make him the “father of many nations” (Genesis 17:5) be confirms His covenant by giving to Abraham and his descendants land. “Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:8).

With this in mind, let’s turn now to the canons on property (here) in the local Council at Ancyra (314). Here we get a glimpse of the how seriously the early Church took the moral goodness of property. The third and sixth canons give the loss of property and even the threat of such loss as a mitigating factor in reconciling apostates. Along with those who were tortured or jailed those who “had their property taken away from them … are not to be excluded from communion.” This extends not only to the laity but also “to the clergy.” The only requirement here is that the person demonstrate at the time “mournfulness over the occurrence in their whole make-up and their habit, and humbleness of life.” In other words, there must be some contemporary evidence of coercion.

Though generous the standard is not without limits.

The council makes a distinction between actual violence and civil fortitude and the threat of these. Apostasy committed to avoid the “threat of being imprisoned and punished, and of having their property taken away, or of being forced to change their abode” can be forgiven. Here reconciliation requires a six year long period of public penance before the individuals are re-admitted to Holy Communion. From the close of the council until Pascha (Easter) they may stay in the Liturgy only through the sermon (“as listeners”). After Pascha “they be obliged to serve three years as kneelers” at the entrance of the church asking for the prayers of the faithful. This is followed by “two more years (as co-standers)” when they may stay for the whole celebration of the Eucharist but not receive Holy Communion. Finally after this “they are to commune without an offering [i.e., additional penance], and thus to arrive at perfection.” To modern ears, this penance sounds harsh; however it is relatively mild for the time. As we read in third canon, it is meant as a correction for those who “were excluded by someone as a matter of excessive strictness, or … through ignorance.”

Given its status as local and not ecumenical, we ought not to make too much of the council’s comments on property which are, at best, tangential to the primary concern of reconciling apostates. Nevertheless, the off-handed way in which property is mentioned suggests the moral importance of property. One might argue that attachment to property made the faithful vulnerable to coercion. But the State’s willingness to exploit human weakness has never been the standard for determining Christian morality much less the willingness of the Church to forgive. Weakness, moral, physical or social, should rather inspire in us compassion and a renewed appreciation for the blessings that Caesar seeks to corrupt for his own ends and anything less than this is simply cruel.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory