A merry dance of Catholic social doctrine, permaculture, distributism, and other odd answers to pressing questions

Vol. I, No. 9

Pius XII: Avoiding the Twin Rocks of Shipwreck

2008 Jun 06, 12:00 Fri tags:


Alas, another missed issue. Again I beg your pardon, but as you can see, I've changed the look a bit. I've revised the BACKMATTER as well. And I'm also redesigning the web site, so I haven't posted the most recent issues yet, but I will soon.

And again this ezine gets shorter! Of the ezines I receive, the ones I like best are those which offer one item; this is my email inbox, after all. So I'm going to try that here. Whether it's a SELECTION or an ACTION/RESOURCE, I'd like to give you something pithy that's brief enough to slip in among your emails and be read in full, right away, without guilt.

This will be easier for me, of course, but I think you'll like it too. If you find yourself missing that magazine feeling, just wait--I have another project brewing that you might like. More on that in the future.

Today, Pius XII discusses the "twin rocks of shipwreck" you face when you start thinking about private property. Individualism on one side, collectivism (communism) on the other. Either is fatal. Where's the balance?

Thanks for reading!

Bill Powell, Editor


Pius XII: Avoiding the Twin Rocks of Shipwreck

45. First, then, let it be considered as certain and established ... the twofold character of ownership, called usually individual or social according as it regards either separate persons or the common good....

46. Accordingly, twin rocks of shipwreck must be carefully avoided. For, as one is wrecked upon, or comes close to, what is known as "individualism", by denying or minimizing the social and public character of the right of property, so by rejecting or minimizing the private and individual character of this same right, one inevitably runs into "collectivism" or at least closely approaches its tenets. Unless this is kept in mind, one is swept from his course upon the shoals of that moral, juridical, and social modernism which We denounced in the Encyclical issued at the beginning of Our Pontificate.[29]...

[47.] The right of property is distinct from its use.[30] That justice called commutative commands sacred respect for the division of possessions, and forbids invasion of others' rights through the exceeding of the limits of one's own property; but the duty of owners to use their property only in a right way does not come under this type of justice, but under other virtues, obligations of which "cannot be enforced by legal action."[31] Therefore, they are in error who assert that ownership and its right use are limited by the same boundaries; and it is much farther still from the truth to hold that a right to property is destroyed or lost by reason of abuse or non-use....

49. It follows from what We have termed the individual and at the same time social character of ownership, that men must consider in this matter not only their own advantage but also the common good. To define these duties in detail when necessity requires and the natural law has not done so, is the function of those in charge of the State....

Moreover, Leo XIII wisely taught "that God has left the limits of private possessions to be fixed by the industry of men and institutions of peoples."[32] ... That the State is not permitted to discharge its duty arbitrarily is, however, clear. The natural right itself both of owning goods privately and of passing them on by inheritance ought always to remain intact and inviolate, since this indeed is a right that the State cannot take away: "For man is older than the State,"[34] and also "domestic living together is prior both in thought and in fact to uniting into a polity."[35]

Wherefore the wise Pontiff declared that it is grossly unjust for a State to exhaust private wealth through the weight of imposts and taxes....

Yet when the State brings private ownership into harmony with the needs of the common good, it does not commit a hostile act against private owners but rather does them a friendly service; for it thereby effectively prevents the private possession of goods, which the Author of nature in His most wise providence ordained for the support of human life, from causing intolerable evils and thus rushing to its own destruction; it does not destroy private possessions, but safeguards them; and it does not weaken private property rights, but strengthens them.

50. Furthermore, a person's superfluous income, that is, income which he does not need to sustain life fittingly and with dignity, is not left wholly to his own free determination. Rather the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church constantly declare in the most explicit language that the rich are bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence, and munificence.

52. That ownership is originally acquired both by occupancy of a thing not owned by any one and by labor, or, as is said, by specification, the tradition of all ages as well as the teaching of Our Predecessor Leo clearly testifies. For, whatever some idly say to the contrary, no injury is done to any person when a thing is occupied that is available to all but belongs to no one; however, only that labor which a man performs in his own name and by virtue of which a new form or increase has been given to a thing grants him title to these fruits.

-- Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 45, 46, 49, 50, 52 (1931)

[I have added a comma or two, inserted paragraph breaks, and italicized a few terms for a sane read.]

Footnotes, numbered as in original document:

29. Encyclical, Ubi Arcano, Dec. 23, 1922. 30. Encyclical, On the Condition of Workers, 35. 31. Encyclical, On the Condition of Workers, 36. 32. Encyclical, On the Condition of Workers, 14. 34. Encyclical, On the Condition of Workers, 12. 35. Encyclical, On the Condition of Workers, 20.

Copyright - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Full document:
[This short link will redirect you to the full encyclical.]

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