Social solidarity vs the right to private property

I have often struggled with the disturbing New Testament passage where two early followers of Jesus were supernaturally struck dead after it was discovered they had not handed over all their wealth to the community.

Oct 25, 2020

By Anil Netto
I have often struggled with the disturbing New Testament passage where two early followers of Jesus were supernaturally struck dead after it was discovered they had not handed over all their wealth to the community.

Ananias and Sapphira had sold their land but then Ananias withheld part of the proceeds before presenting the remainder to Peter as their donation to the community (Acts 5: 1-11). Both were struck dead by the supernatural after Peter accused them of lying not just to human beings but to God.

How to explain this harsh punishment without any room for repentance? Peter himself suggested that, as the couple had disposed of their property, they could have done as they pleased with the proceeds.

But the early Christians did not consider their possessions to be their own; rather they handed it over for the benefit of the community. Does God really expect the followers of Jesus to surrender all their property and wealth to the community? How do we square this with the Church’s recognition of the right to private property?

Ananias and Sapphira had made a commitment to the fledgling community. Back then, the apostles were probably struggling to cope with an influx of new followers living in desperate conditions. Many in the community were probably poor. But because the early Christian shared what they had in common, no one was in need – a miracle of sorts.

Remember the little boy with the loaves and fish who surrendered them to Jesus? That was a generous gesture of profound solidarity, which sparked another miracle – the feeding of the multitude.

Both miracles took place when personal possessions were surrendered for the greater good of the community – so that others might not go hungry. They show us that social solidarity is crucial  in ensuring the wellbeing of the community.

Anyone entering the early Christian community would surely know that many were going through hard times. So the needs of the community took precedence over the “secondary right” to private property.

In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, which Francis does not mention, they failed to look beyond their own needs to the larger interests of the community. If they had heeded the call to solidarity, fraternity and love, they would have realised how jarring it would have been for them to hoard such wealth at a time when so many around them were in dire need.

In Chapter Three of his encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti (Brothers and Sisters All), the Bishop of Rome develops the theme of fraternity, love and solidarity which he had explored earlier in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Francis writes of the importance of bonding, communion and fraternity in life. The beauty in life lies in relating to others. We are not called to live as islands in our own circles of friends or family, where we only share common personal or group interests. Rather, we are challenged to move beyond to find a fuller existence in others outside our circle.

The greatest danger is failing to love. But love is more than just benevolent action. Our love and affection for others should make us seek their good and recognise their value, Francis says.

Then they become dear and pleasing to us, and that makes us want to seek what is best for their  lives. We should not exclude anyone, whether the elderly, persons with disabilities, or the foreigners in our land.

Unfortunately, a society governed by “market freedom” and “efficiency” often has no place for marginalised groups. It is not enough to provide “opportunities” for everyone. We have to ensure there is solidarity with the slow, the weak and the less talented.

It is “only when our economic and social system no longer produces even a single victim, a single person cast aside, will we be able to celebrate the feast of universal fraternity”.

That obviously includes the foreigners, migrants and refugees in our midst. “If every human being possesses an inalienable dignity, if all people are my brothers and sisters, and if the world truly belongs to everyone, then it matters little whether my neighbour was born in my country or elsewhere,” Francis writes. “My own country also shares responsibility for his or her development.”

Francis’ teaching on the role of private property develops the teachings of earlier bishops of Rome, and takes it to a new level. Every person, every family has a right to live in dignity, and they need some private possessions for this.

But the concept of the common or universal destination of created goods implies that if someone lacks what is necessary to live in dignity, it is because someone else has it.

Francis observes that “the Christian tradition has never recognised the right to private property as absolute”.

Instead, “the principle of the common use of created goods is the ‘first principle of the whole ethical and social order’; it is a natural and inherent right that takes priority over others.”

This means “the right to private property can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods.”

So, yes, people should have the right to own property to live a life of dignity. But all created goods ultimately belong to God who created them for the common good. We hold them as stewards.

If we hoard or degrade property in a way that affects society’s wellbeing — or that of the ecosystem — then we are allowing the right to property — a secondary right – to override the main principle — that created goods to secure society’s overall wellbeing.

Moving further, Francis points out that “the right of some to free enterprise or market freedom cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor, or, for that matter, respect for the natural environment.” Indeed, “if we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all.”

The same principle applies at the national, regional and international levels.

For example, if the wealth of a nation is accumulated in urban areas to the neglect of rural, outlying or interior communities or states, it means our social solidarity is weak.

Ultimately, it is all about love translated to social solidarity to uphold human dignity. This should prompt us to envision “a new humanity” built on interdependence and shared responsibility.

“We can aspire to a world that provides land, housing and work for all. This is the true path of peace, not the senseless and myopic strategy of sowing fear and mistrust in the face of outside threats,” Francis writes.

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