Ownership: Early Christian Teaching
By Charles Avila
Publisher: Orbis (Sheed and Ward in England)
Review Author: Dale Vree
Aside from a few questionable obiter dicta from the author, this book has much to teach 20th-century Christians about property and wealth. On the book’s back cover, Joe Holland correctly notes that this book will remind us that the “option for the poor,” about which we hear much these days, “is not a new theological fad, but an ancient Christian legacy.”
This book is eminently scholarly: it grew out of the author’s master’s dissertation taken at a Philippine seminary. The author, Charles Avila, went back and examined the Greek and Latin texts of five principal Fathers of the early Church (Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Augustine), and indeed a 36-page appendix reprints the pertinent texts in the original Greek and Latin.
Simultaneously, the book speaks to the concerns of the Third World of today. The author has spent over a decade in the Filipino peasant movement, organizing peasant unions and co-ops, and he has a first-hand familiarity with the numerous and vexing problems of the poor. The book offers a solution to many of those problems.
But the heart of the book is an elucidation of how five early church Fathers treated the question of property ownership. And what the book reveals impinges directly on the spiritual lives of all Christians today, whatever their station in life and wherever in the world they may live. What the Fathers say may be ancient, but it isn’t arcane or antiquated.
Avila sets the patristic view of property ownership against the backdrop of the view of property codified by the Roman Empire, according to which property is owned and used privately, there are no significant limits to the amount of property acquirable and no stipulation on how that property is to be used, and such property is held in perpetuity by the owner and his designated heirs, ad infinitum. This “absolutist” view of property is more or less the one we take for granted today, and it was the view five Church Fathers confronted in their day — and which, significantly, they attacked and sought to replace.
Avila finds it strange that these Church Fathers are remembered for everything except their view of property, and he thinks it high time for us to reappropriate their perspective on this question. Consider the following representative examples of their thought:
Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-211/216) stated that “those concerned for their salvation should take this as their first principle, that all property is ours to use and every possession is for the sake of self-sufficiency.” Clement held that the purpose of property is not the sheer holding or keeping of it; rather the purpose is self-sufficiency for all, so that everyone might live life in accord with human dignity. This purpose is defeated, however, when certain people go beyond meeting their own personal necessities, and instead lavish luxuries upon themselves.
We are to do with our property, not whatever we will, but what God wills — namely, help provide for the needs of the less fortunate.
Clement, along with the other Fathers, avoided the dualistic view that wealth is evil per se: after all, noted Clement, “Goods are called goods because they do good, and they have been provided by God for the good of humanity.” Possessions are gifts of God, but that does not mean that the possessor of large amounts of property may automatically consider himself “blessed” by God; everything depends on the use he makes of his possessions: “He who holds possessions…and knows that he possesses them for his brothers’ sake rather than his own…is the man who is blessed by the Lord.”
Basil the Great (ca. 330-379), bishop of Caesarea, stressed that “if each one would take that which is sufficient for one’s needs, leaving what is in excess for those in distress, no one would be rich, no one poor.” To Basil, whoever is not satisfied with meeting his own needs is, by definition, an avaricious man. And more: he is actually a robber, for a robber is one who will not clothe the naked when he is able to do so: “That bread which you keep, belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless.”
Hence, said Basil, “whoever loves the neighbor as oneself will possess no more than one’s neighbor.” The very fact that a man owns an excess of goods is to be taken as evidence that he is lacking in charity and committing injustice by robbing his fellow man.
According to Ambrose (ca. 333-397), bishop of Milan, “It is a law of nature that we must seek only so much as is required for living.” To hoard possessions, which are given by God to everyone for the common use of all, is to go against the very purpose of property and therefore against the natural law. Ambrose added:
the philosophers…deem it a duty of justice to consider the things that are common…as public property indeed, and those that are private as private. But the latter term is not according to nature, for nature has brought forth all things for all in common. Thus God has created everything in such a way that all things be possessed in common. Nature therefore is the mother of common right, usurpation of private right.
Both the intention of God and the disposition of nature demand that we share our goods with others. For Ambrose this is not simply a matter of mercy; it is a matter of justice.
To regard property rights as absolute or to seek an unlimited accumulation of goods for oneself is actually idolatrous, according to Ambrose. Such idolatry has predictable results, namely, enslavement to property:
A possession ought to belong to the possessor, not the possessor to the possession. Whosoever, therefore, does not…know how to give and distribute to the poor, he is the servant of his wealth, not its master.
John Chrysostom (ca. 344-407), bishop of Constantinople, was equally clear about the danger of idolizing possessions: “possessions are so called that we may possess them, not they possess us.”
Chrysostom was, like the other Fathers, clear on the purpose of property: “God has given you many things to possess, not in order that you may use them up for fornication, drunkenness, gluttony, costly clothes, and other forms of soft living, but in order that you may distribute to the needy.” Not to do so is to make oneself a robber.
And, harkening back to the spirit of the primitive Church depicted in Acts, Chrysostom declared that
“mine” and “thine” — those chilly words which introduce innumerable wars into the world — should be eliminated from…holy Church…. The poor would not envy the rich, because there would be no rich. Neither would the poor be despised by the rich, for there would be no poor. All things would be in common.
Chrysostom warned that on Judgment Day, Christians will have to give an accounting to God for all the possessions they held on to beyond what was required to meet their necessities: “For he [God] has not given us these things that we alone may use them, but that we may alleviate the need of our fellow human beings.”
Did Chrysostom — and the other Church Fathers covered in this book — have a qualified, indeed a low, regard for the “right to private property”? In a fundamental sense: yes. The Fathers had a moral, rather than a legal, view of ownership, such that for Chrysostom, if one’s possessions exceed one’s needs, one cannot even claim to “own” those excess possessions.
Moreover, for Chrysostom, absolute property ownership by individuals is meaningless because God alone is the true owner: “all this about ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ is mere verbiage…. For if you say the house is yours, it is a word without reality: since the very air, earth, matter, are the Creator’s; and so are you too yourself…and all other things also.”
Augustine (ca. 354-430), bishop of Hippo, contended that the earth and its fullness belong to the Lord, and that “the one who uses his wealth badly possesses it badly, and wrongful possession means that it is another’s property.” Augustine did not shrink from the logical conclusion: those who misuse their property by indulging in luxury while others are in need are obliged “to make restitution” to the needy.
For Augustine, we are to “seek sufficiency, seek what is enough, and more do not seek.” When we possess superfluous things, we deprive the less fortunate of necessities, and therefore our excess property actually belongs to the needy.
Again, these precepts have a bearing on our salvation, for Augustine said that our excess possessions are “preserved more safely in heaven” when we hide them in the stomachs of the poor than when we hide them in our storerooms. Moreover, it is not God’s will that the goods of this earth be inequitably distributed, and it is God who feeds the hungry, through us, when we distribute our excess to the poor — and thereby we may appreciate why it is, according to Augustine, that God “commands” us to share.
Said Augustine: “the Lord said, ‘Mine is the silver and mine the gold’ (Haggai 2:8), so…those who offer something to the poor should not think that they are doing so from what is their own.” When we give to the less fortunate, we are merely giving them what belongs to them.
Augustine went so far as to say that Christians should “abstain from the possession of private property,” and if we cannot so abstain, we should at least abstain “from the love of it,” which for Augustine meant redoubling our charity and delighting, not in private property, but in “common property.”
Rather paradoxically, these Church Fathers argue that the only justification for holding private property, beyond meeting one’s personal necessities, is to give it away! When we refuse to do so, we make ourselves idolaters and robbers, even de facto atheists, and actually forfeit our “right” to that excess property. This is a “radical” view of property, indeed.
This patristic view was actually a reflection of the teachings and practices of the Christians of New Testament times. And while this view was submerged in much of subsequent Church history, it was preserved, says Avila, in the monastic movement — and, I would add, its contours can at least partially be seen in the social encyclicals of the Holy See over the last 100 years. For example, in commenting on Ambrose, Pope Paul VI said (in Populorum Progressio, no. 23), “No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities.”
This book makes for particularly interesting reading now, as we prepare for the issuance of a pastoral letter on the U.S. economy by the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops. Many in the business and conservative press have been fretfully, and sometimes angrily, forecasting that the pastoral will be disrespectful of private property, even “socialistic.” But come what may, it is unlikely that the fundamental vision of the pastoral will be any more “radical” than the vision of Clement of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, four of whom were saints, and the same four of whom were among the greatest bishops the Catholic Church has ever produced.
“It is true that we might do a vast amount of good if we were wealthy, but it is also highly improbable; not many do; and the art of growing rich is not only quite distinct from that of doing good, but the practice of the one does not at all train a man for practicing the other.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
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