Man cannot possibly be good unless he stands in the right relation to the common good,

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

By , on September 7, 2011

Aquinas


Are Individuals Permitted to Possess Property as Their Own?

We thus proceed to the second inquiry. It seems that individuals are not permitted to possess property as their own, for the following reasons:

Obj. 1. Everything contrary to the natural law is illicit. But all things are by the natural law common possessions, and individual ownership of possessions is indeed contrary to possession by the community. Therefore, it is illicit for human beings to appropriate external goods as their own.

Obj. 2. Basil, explaining the words of the rich man in Lk. 12:18, says: “As those who come to public events ahead of time would prevent those coming later from attending, by appropriating to themselves what is ordered to common use, so the rich think that common goods they seize before others belong to them.” But it is illicit to prevent others from possessing common goods. Therefore, it is illicit to appropriate common goods to oneself.

Obj. 3. Ambrose says, and the Decretum holds: “Let no one call one’s own what is common property.” But he calls external goods common property, as his prior remarks make clear. Therefore, it seems that no one is permitted to appropriate external goods to oneself.

On the contrary, Augustine says in his work On Heresies: “The ‘Apostolics’ have most arrogantly so designated themselves because they do not receive into their fellowship the married or those possessing their own property. (The Catholic Church likewise has very many monks and celibate clerics.)” But these heretics hold this view because, cut off from the church, they think that the married and possessors of property, which they themselves are not, have no hope of salvation. Therefore, it is false to say that human beings are not permitted to possess their own property.

I answer that two things belong to human beings regarding external goods. One is the power to manage and dispense external goods. And human beings are permitted to possess them as their own in that regard. And this is necessary for human life for three reasons. First, indeed, the power to manage and dispense external goods is necessary for human life because individuals are more careful in managing goods that belong to them alone than goods that are common to all or many. This is so because individuals, shunning work, leave common property to the care of others, as happens when there are many servants.

Second, the power of individuals to manage and dispense external goods is necessary for human life because human affairs are conducted in a more orderly fashion if the requisite care in managing external goods be entrusted to individuals. On the other hand, there would be confusion if unspecified individuals were to manage everything.

Third, the power of individuals to manage and dispense external goods is necessary for human life because human beings content with their own property live in a condition of peace. And so we observe that quarrels arise rather frequently among those who possess goods in common and not individually.

But the use of external goods is the second thing that belongs to human beings regarding the goods. And human beings in that regard should not possess external goods as their own but as common possessions, namely, in such a way that they readily share the goods when others are in need. And so the Apostle says in 1 Tim. 6:17-8: “Teach the rich of this world to distribute and share readily.”

Reply Obj. 1. The common possession of external goods is ascribed to the natural law, not because the natural law dictates that all such goods should be possessed in common, and nothing possessed as one’s own, but because there is division of possessions by human agreement, which belongs to positive law, as I have said before, rather than by the natural law. And so the individual ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, although the inventiveness of human reason adds this to the natural law

Reply Obj. 2. Those who come early to public events and prepare the way for others to attend would not act illicitly, but they act illicitly if they prevent others from attending. And likewise, the rich do not act improperly if they before others take possession of property that was in the beginning common and share the property with others. But the rich sin if they indiscriminately prevent others from using the property. And so Basil says in the same place: “Why are you rich and others beggars except in order that you gain the merit of dispensing your wealth well, and that others are rewarded for their patience?”

Reply Obj. 3. When Ambrose says: “Let no one call one’s own what is common property,” he is speaking about individual ownership in regard to the use of external goods. And so he adds: “Those who spend too much are guilty of robbery.”

From Article Seven

On the contrary, all things are common property in cases of necessity. And so it does not seem to be a sin if one takes the property of another, since necessity has made the property common.

I answer that prescriptions of human law cannot derogate from natural or divine law. But the natural order established by divine providence has ordered inferior things to alleviate the necessity of human beings. And so the division and appropriation of material things, which proceeds from human law, does not preclude that such things should alleviate the necessity of human beings. And so the natural law requires that superfluous things in one’s possession be used for the sustenance of the poor. And so Ambrose says, and the Decretum maintains: “It is the bread of the hungry that you withhold; it is the garments of the naked that you hide away; the money you bury in the ground is the ransom and freedom of the unfortunate.” But because many persons are in need, and the same things cannot assist everybody, the dispensing of one’s own goods is committed to each individual, so that each may out of them assist those in need.

Still, if the necessity is so pressing and clear that one has an immediate need of things at hand (e.g., when personal danger threatens, and there is no other way to avoid it), then one may lawfully alleviate one’s necessity with the goods of another, whether one takes the goods openly or secretly. Nor does this, properly speaking, have the character of theft or robbery.

Reply Obj. 1. The decretal is talking about cases in which there is no pressing necessity.

Reply Obj. 2. Using the property of another taken in a case of extreme necessity does not have the character of theft, properly speaking. This is because such necessity makes one’s own what one takes to support one’s life.

  Reply Obj. 3. One can also in cases of like necessity secretly take the property of another in order to assist a neighbor in such need.

(ST II-II, Q 66 article 2 (Property)



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