Book Review: Property
By Alejandro Crosthwaite
The 2012 monograph entitled “Property” by Prof. Wolfgang Grassl, Full Professor of Business Administration and holder of the Dale and Ruth Michels Endowed Chair in Business at Saint Norbert’s College (De Pere, Wisconsin, USA), and published by the Acton Institute in its Christian Social Thought Series, argues that the Roman Catholic view on property as an institution with a divinely ordained purpose deemphasizes the rights of ownership and emphasizes the duties associated with it. Furthermore, he claims that the rights associated with property may be very different from one another as they touch upon different types of relations with reality. Different categories of property will involve specific duties. Property rights are thus in the Catholic Tradition neither absolute nor uniform nor are their ethical implications. The right to private property, he contends, is closely linked to the duty to contribute to one’s personal flourishing, the well-being of one’s family, and that of the community as a whole. Having control over more property, also involves greater duties toward one’s neighbors: with greater power, more responsibility!
Prof. Grassl maintains that private property imposes not only limitations but, maybe even more so, affords opportunities to do good and in so doing to follow Christ. Property not only facilitates greed but also liberality. This reflects a positive view of property —as an instrument to carry out the command of love for God and neighbor. But this positive charge of property also requires social encouragement and protection under law. Grassl also sustains that the exercise of legitimate functions of the State (one of which is the protecting of private and public property) also requires taxation.
Prof. Wolfgang Grassl concludes that the two extreme approaches to economic policy —laissez-faire capitalism and the liberal tradition and State ownership and the socialist tradition— miss the point that what matters is how we treat God and our fellow humans, not merely property relations. Catholic social teaching (CST) offers a middle ground between these two extreme basing itself on human dignity and the common good. Most of all, it reminds us that our relationship to property is not only a matter of political economy but one ruled by personal virtue and responsibility. Christian thinking about property must thus be guided by the principle that underlies the whole of CST: “the proclamation of the truth of Christ’s love in society,” or “caritas in veritate in re sociali ”(Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, §5).
The monograph is divided into seven chapters. Chapter One begins by presenting the essential questions on property. The following six chapters examine Sacred Scripture (Ch. 2), the Church’s social tradition and philosophy (Ch. 3), and economics (Ch. 4) to arrive at a balanced and informed presentation of CST’s view of property (Ch. 5-6) –in Ch. 6 he presents 10 very useful interrelated propositions rooted in CST on the Christian view of property–; one that shatters conventional categories of thinking on property. In the last chapter, Grassl applies the Church’s social tradition to such policy questions as eminent domain and copyright and patent law, as well as practical matters such as business management (Ch. 7).
Professor Wolfgang Grassl sees the issue of property as central to CST, and indeed to Western civilization, hence the need to publish a monograph on the topic: “What is mine and what is thine, when we can legitimately regard it as such, and how we can protect our claims are issues that are as old as humankind” (p. 1). Prof. Grassl seeks to outline a Christian position on property rooted in a viewpoint in harmony with CST —rooted in biblical evidence, the teachings of the Church, and the main views advocated by philosophers, theologians, and social thinkers— as to the nature and justification of property that can be used by readers as a standard by which to judge currently disputed questions. More importantly Grassl shows, from his background in philosophy and economics and after a career in business and public policy in Austria as well as teaching and research at universities in the U.S., West Indies, and Europe; how a Christian position resolves conflicts over property that include some of the most debated issues in the spheres of society, politics, and law today.
Professor Wolfgang Grassl sustains his thesis by presenting case studies that show how a Christian perspective rooted in CST can break the deadlock between two or more opposing viewpoints claiming equal validity by clearly coming down on one side of the issue and, even more importantly, by showing that a correct framing of the question already implies the only morally defensible answer. For example, in the case of eminent domain:
A Christian view of eminent domain and equivalent institutions in other jurisdictions realizes that public goods in the sense of economic theory are not equivalent to the common good as understood by Catholic social ethics. In most cases of public seizing, governments do not even claim to create public goods (such as clean air, street lighting, or national defense). In a society where consumption opportunities abound, an additional supermarket is merely another private good, and employment or tax revenue created by it hardly justifies the loss of private residences, dislocation of families, and uprooting of social structures. They cannot be understood as contributing to the common good or “integral human development.” Social justice will only very rarely require the exercise of the power of eminent domain, although CST has recognized the legitimacy of expropriation in extreme conditions (Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, § 114; Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes, § 71; Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, § 24). Catholic social teaching has, however, always given special protection to businesses, including farms on which the livelihood of families depends. Justification of confiscation by the State would therefore have to meet particularly high standards of proof of necessity (See Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Towards a Better Distribution of Land: The Challenge of Agrarian Reform (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997), § 38).
For CST, eminent domain shares only a superficial resemblance with the principle of universal destination of goods, for governments may well intend public use but in most cases simply redistribute goods to other private owners without contributing to the common good. Consequently, resistance against expropriation can, within the limits of the law, be justified even though compensation may be paid (p. 75-76).
I found Prof. Grassl’s arguments convincing and in line with official CST as well as mainstream Catholic social ethics such as Constance J. Nielsen’s book on the subject The Harmony Between the Right to Private Property and the Call to Solidarity in Modern Catholic Social Teaching (Marquette, WI: Marquette University, 2007). Having published the monograph in 2012, Property does not include the thought of Pope Francis who would agree with Prof. Grassl that Pope Paul VI’s claims about private property not being an absolute right are still valid: “Not only are they still valid, but the more time goes on, the more I find they have been proved by experience” (Andrew Abela, “Pope Francis’ Catechism for Economics” Daily News 2/6/15).
Wolfgang Grassl’s Property serves as an excellent undergraduate text by providing an extremely useful guide on how to do Catholic social ethics based on the four pillars of CST: Tradition, Sacred Scripture, Reason, and Experience, as well as an excellent summary of the development of the Church’s thought and principles on property.