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Now and Tomorrow: The Universal Destination of Goods

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 21, 2008

Most Americans are fairly affluent. Most Catholics—at least those who take their Faith seriously—worry about this from time to time. If properly directed, such worry is very healthy. We weren’t created to feather our own nests, and if we expend too much of our time and resources on feathering, it interferes mightily with our response to the One who loved us into being. For this reason, it is a good thing to reflect on the comforts we enjoy, the plans we have for our future, and the will of God. And if that doesn’t typically make us uncomfortable, then either something is spiritually wrong or we must be very atypical American Catholics indeed.

Selfish Tendencies

Most deeply committed American Catholics also tend to be politically and economically conservative. There are several reasons for this. One is the American tradition of “rugged individualism”; another is the long ideological war between the Catholic Church and that philosophical “liberalism” which informs so much of modern politics, giving us such treasures as abortion and same-sex marriage. For all these reasons and more, it has been very easy for even passionate American Catholics to unwittingly adopt an essentially selfish attitude toward the claims of the larger social order. At the same time, good Catholics who have more liberal economic views can fall into the trap of thinking that if only the right federal policies were instituted, our responsibility would be fulfilled. Between our affluent lifestyles and our politics, then, we continually run the risk of being lulled into spiritual sleep when it comes to what the Church calls the universal destination of goods.

Clearly this dilemma arises both privately and publicly. What does it mean to be a faithful steward of the gifts we have received? How much of our personal time and resources should be spent helping those less fortunate? What adjustments need to be made in the way we order our common life together to overcome gross inequities or assist those in serious need? What governmental policies should be enacted to foster such adjustments? There is no single, concrete right answer to these questions which must be adopted by each and every Christian. But we are all called both to reflect deeply on these questions and to root out any selfishness we find inhibiting the clarity and consistency of those reflections. As we claim to believe, so should we live.

Now before I purport to show everyone the Right Way, let me admit that I have impeccable credentials for being on the receiving end of the Church’s advice. I grew up in an affluent, professional household; there was nothing blue collar about it; I had a strong sense of leadership with little sense of solidarity. I was instinctively conservative, and in my early college years I was active in Young Americans for Freedom. Unfortunately, the girl I loved kept raising uncomfortable questions, and nothing is more calculated to throw a young man off stride. Of course, I could have come at this from the other side, chanting the slogans of Students for a Democratic Society and demanding radical institutional change without personal responsibility. In any case, I saw something new when Triumph magazine was founded by L. Brent Bozell, the result of a break with his brother-in-law William F. Buckley’s conservative National Review. Triumph devoted itself to restating a uniquely Catholic way of thinking about the world. I was hooked immediately.

I’m still hooked, but I’m also still influenced by early formation and early prejudices. Oh, and I’m still selfish.

The Church’s Social Teaching

The Church’s social teaching is derived from the understanding of God’s purposes and the nature of man provided by Revelation and the natural law. The three pillars of that teaching are: The common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. You can read more about these things in Principles of the Church’s Social Doctrine, which is the fourth chapter of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church issued in 2004 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll concentrate on the principle of the common good, which includes my main topic, the universal destination of goods.

The idea of the common good arises from the fact that God created the world and everything in it so that He might give man dominion over it. Wary of the modern overtones of the word dominion, some prefer stewardship. In this context, the meaning is the same, for the steward exercises dominion until the Lord comes. In any case, that man should have such dominion is consistent with his creation in the image and likeness of God. God’s plan is that man should exercise dominion as a sort of cooperation with and extension of God’s own role of sustaining all things in being and bringing them to perfection. Through this cooperation with God, man gives glory to his Creator and, ultimately, achieves union with Him. Now clearly God intended for all men and women to share in this dominion, not just a few. He also intended that we should share in it morally, that is, according to his Divine will, which is always a manifestation of love.

Just as moral responsibility must govern our participation at the individual or personal level, so too must there be moral responsibility at the social or community level. The individual’s good does not consist in the sum of his wealth, but rather in his moral good, his proper participation in God’s plan. Similarly, the common good is not some quantitative summation of individual wealth or even individual moral goods, but rather the social and community dimension of the moral good. Thus the common good is always subordinate to both the ultimate ends of the human person and the universal common good of all creation—that is, it is subordinate to the purpose of creation and the correspondence of all created things to that purpose. In other words, the common good consists of the right ordering of a community whose every member is called to participate with God in a dominion which will bring all creation to fulfillment.

Only at the end of a discussion of the common good do we finally arrive at government. For the common good is the reason—indeed, the sole legitimate reason—for the establishment of political authority. The purpose of government is to order our common life to more fully secure the common good.

The Universal Destination of Goods

One of the critical principles of the common good derives directly from the fact that all persons, not just a few, are intended to participate in man’s dominion over nature. This principle is called “the universal destination of goods”. All of creation is given not just to man, but to all men, so that each might exercise a creative and conserving dominion, completing and perfecting creation for God’s glory. This universal destination of goods implies a universal right to use the goods of the earth, a right of which no person may be completely or even largely deprived without grave injustice (except as necessary to prevent attacks on the common good itself).

Note that the universal destination of goods does not militate against personal ownership or private property. To the contrary, ownership is essential to free and full participation in the universal destination of goods. It is the ordinary means by which we exercise dominion, provide for ourselves and others, act as good stewards, creatively develop resources, and so participate more effectively in God’s plan. But at the same time, we can see that because the destination of goods is universal, ownership and private property are not absolute values in themselves. They have a larger social function, and the proper exercise of that larger function is essential to the common good.

In this way, the universal destination of goods speaks to the matter at hand on two levels. First, at the private level, we are called to exercise our own personal dominion over creation in such a way that provides for our own needs and benefits others. To do this we must recognize that the benefits of work are not ordered to private gain but to the good of all concerned: the customer, the worker, his employees and dependents, and the good of society as a whole. Second, at the public level, the universal destination of goods reminds us to promote political or governmental policies which attempt to secure the right and ability of all persons to similarly participate in the dominion over created things that God has entrusted not to a few, but to all.

It should be immediately obvious how Catholicism “transcends the dialectic” of left and right in these matters, as in so many others. For the theory of capitalism makes a god of ownership by holding that the purpose of business (or economic activity) is to make a profit, when in fact the purpose of all work is service. To put it more fully, work receives its special dignity because it is an imitation of and cooperation with the Creator, an exercise of dominion ordered to a service of love. Hence work must always proceed with a full appreciation of the common good, including the universal destination of goods. Unfortunately, we find no relief from error on the other side of the “dialectic”. The theory of socialism makes a god of state manipulation by holdiing that the common good depends on the absence of ownership. To the contrary, however, it is precisely through ownership that people can most fully participate in the universal destination of goods, cooperating with God by exercising their dominion for the good of all. Catholics who reflexively fall into the economic battles of conservative versus liberal need to school themselves in the Church’s social teachings. Too often we fail to realize how different we are, how wise are our theories, how high is our calling.

The Universal Destination Begins at Home

But we also too often fail to realize that the effort to live the Church’s social teaching starts at home. For it is at home that we face the big questions concerning the talents we have to offer, the legitimacy of our material needs, and the subordination of both to the ends for which we were created. It is at home that we also face the innumerable small choices which seem always to expand our lifestyles to consume all available resources (repeatedly forcing us to postpone our good intentions for charitable giving). And it is at home that we face the decisions about friends or acquaintances who need our generosity even though it may not be tax-deductible. Truth to tell, it is also at home that we come to grips with our instinct to vote for our own pocketbooks instead of valuing the real common good—that social dimension of the moral order which contributes to the ability of each and every person to reach the end for which he was created.

It is very easy in our culture to fall into one of two over-simplifications of personal economic responsibility toward the wider community. The conservative may think about what he can give to charity out of his surplus, but he may seldom examine either the larger social situation or his attitudes toward his own work, business operations and wealth. The liberal may think about how government can solve this or that economic inequity, but he may seldom examine either how he is using his own surplus or, again, his attitudes toward his own work, business operations and wealth. We will never build a Catholic culture until we get beyond classing economic responsibility as either a charitable or a federal afterthought. We need to see how the universal destination of goods adds meaning to our lives, how it ought to inform everything we do, and how it can help change what we will ultimately become.

This is true for everyone of course, not just Americans or other residents of the so-called First World. But Americans, including American Catholics, are generally wealthy and generally very comfortable. That carries a grave risk of complacency, and as Christians we are always challenged to recognize complacency as a living death. For most of us, this challenge will bear fruit only through a long slow war of attrition against our very selves, foot by foot, inch by bloody inch. There is an overpowering tendency to delay: Perhaps when we're more settled, or when we've achieved our career goals, or when the kids are out of school, or after we've done two or three things we've always wanted to do, or when we retire—and anyway, couldn't we remember a few charities in our will?

Endless rationalizations! Truly our failure to struggle makes us inhabit a world of tomorrows. In contrast, the key to winning can be summarized with painful brevity: Start now.

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