One of the many principles of Catholic social doctrine is the idea of the universal destination of goods, meaning that God has designed the world such that all of its goods can satisfy everyone. Man then determines the best way for these goods to be distributed; social doctrine deems that private property is the most just way. We may think this idea of the universal destination of goods is part of the most recent developments within social doctrine, such as in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, and, even more recently, in Pope St. John Paul II’s Centesimus annus:
The original source of all that is good is the very act of God, who created both the earth and man, and who gave the earth to man so that he might have dominion over it by his work and enjoy its fruits (Genesis 1:28). God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favoring anyone. This is the foundation of the universal destination of the earth’s goods (31).
However, the idea of the universal destination of goods has been present within social teaching since the early Church Fathers. Indeed, we can find the same principles present in the most recent social encyclicals within St. Basil the Great’s teaching, particularly in his homily, I Will Tear Down My Barns (On Social Justice, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).
In this homily, Basil focuses on the parable from the Gospel of Luke about the man who, finding that his fields have produced abundantly, decides to tear down his old barns in order to build larger, better barns to store his grain. This action, however, is foolish, for his life will be demanded of him that very night, and rather than storing up goods in Heaven, he is storing up perishable material goods (Luke 12:16-21). Basil uses this parable to explain the universal destination of goods. Beginning with a rhetorical question, he says, “‘But whom do I treat unjustly,’ you say, ‘by keeping what is my own?’ Tell me, what is your own? What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it?” Basil condemns the idea that anything we own belongs to us, for when we came into this world, we brought nothing with us. Everything we have—all our material possessions, and even the entire created world—is a gift given by God through His creative act of love. Basil wants us to see that the only reason we have our goods is that God has given them to us, and not because of our own merit. As such, we have no right or reason to believe that we deserve the things that we have.
Basil continues by showing that the goods of the earth are all common goods: “They [the rich] seize common goods before others have the opportunity, then claim them as their own by right of preemption.” He explains this idea with a metaphor: “It is as if someone were to take the first seat in the theater, then bar everyone else from attending, so that one person alone enjoys what is offered for the benefit of all in common—this is what the rich do.” In other words, the rich take those goods that are meant for all and selfishly declare them to be their own. Rather than understanding that all goods are common (in a certain respect) and meant to be shared with all, the rich miserly hold on to these goods, mistakenly understanding them as private goods. As Leo XIII writes in Rerum novarum, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, “But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? –the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need” (22).
Lest Basil, Aquinas, and Leo XII be accused of socialism, the following quote from Basil is key to understanding the universal destination of goods. “For if we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.” Clearly, the Church is not against private property, but rather advocates for it as one of man’s natural rights (cf. Rerum novarum 8, 15). Nevertheless, as Basil shows, the way for all to be satisfied is that men should only take as their own what is necessary for them to live. If men did not hold onto excess—if they did not make the common goods their private goods—then there would be no poor or those in need. This is why even private property is considered to be “common” to all, for it is meant to be used to satisfy the needs of others. This spirit of poverty must guide us as we discern what is necessary for us to live. We see a lack of this spirit of poverty in our materialist culture, for we can easily acquire an abundance of material goods that are more than what we actually need. We build our barns (or our houses) larger than what is necessary to fill them with our extra collected possessions, possessions that we “might” use at some point. It is Basil’s challenge, already present in the early Church, to rid ourselves of our extra possessions for the sake of the common good.
Basil continues, “But if you acknowledge that they [possessions] were given to you by God, then tell me, for what purpose did you receive them? Is God unjust, when He distributes to us unequally the things that are necessary for life? Why then are you wealthy and another poor?” Here Basil wants us to see that God does not directly cause some men to be rich and others poor, for He has made the world in such a way that there are enough goods to satisfy all. Rather, it is because of our greed that we take more than what is necessary, and for this reason, there is poverty. Certainly, Basil is not arguing for a family with nine children to sell all their possessions and live in the streets in order to donate to the poor. He is instead showing that holding on to more goods than necessary for a particular state in life is greedy and an unjust distribution of common goods.
To conclude, Basil writes, “Who are the greedy? Those who are not satisfied with what suffices for their own needs. Who are the robbers? Those who take for themselves what rightfully belongs to everyone…You are thus guilty of injustice toward as many as you might have aided.” Far from condemning private property, Basil strongly reprimands us for holding on to material goods in such a way that denies the universal destination of goods. This way of life is extremely prevalent in our modern, materialist culture. Basil thus demands that we consider our private goods in light of the common good and not hold onto more goods than what are necessary for life.