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The Doctrine of the Fathers of the Church on the Right of Private Property

by Charles F. Aiken, S.T.D.

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  • Descriptive Title:
    What Do the Fathers of the Church Say About Private Property?
    In this article, Fr. Aiken discusses the Church Fathers' teachings on the right of private property. He begins with an exposition of the Gospel's teaching on wealth, and then summarizes the teaching of such Fathers as St. Clement, St. Cyprian, St. Basil, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome. He concludes that the possession of private property is legitimate provided that the rich man gives abundantly to the poor. The Fathers teach that the rich man does not truly own his wealth, but it was given to him by God so that he could clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Thus St. Basil explains that the rich man who ignores the poor man is a thief, for all men are entitled to the goods of creation. The Fathers agree, however, that the highest perfection of Christian charity entails a life of voluntary poverty.
  • Larger Work:
    The Catholic World
  • Pages: 198-211
  • Publisher & Date:
    The Catholic World, May 1912

What view did the Fathers of the Church take in regard to the right of private property? What was their attitude towards riches? Did they, as we sometimes read in works dealing with economic questions, denounce every rich man as a robber, and condemn all individual ownership of property as, an injustice? Or, on the other hand, was it the abuse rather than the possession of wealth that they made the object of their denunciation?

None of the Fathers attempt an economic discussion of the right of private property. They were, first and last, expounders of Holy Scripture and preachers of the moral law. They were Christian moralists, and it is from the point of view of practical morals that they speak of property ownership and its obligations as directly affecting the conduct of their fellow-Christians. They had in mind two distinct ends: first, the end incumbent on all of so conforming one's conduct to the will of God as to secure salvation, and secondly, that held out to nobler souls of imitating the spirit of self-renunciation exemplified in the life of Jesus, thus attaining to a higher grade of Christian perfection. For the former end, the Fathers call to mind what is of strict moral duty; for the latter, they gently urge, but do not enjoin, the counsels of perfection, one of which is voluntary poverty.

Again, in order to understand the severe tone in which the Fathers sometimes speak of riches and of its obligations, we must bear in mind that the social world in which they lived was greatly different from our own. The wonderful industrial developments that have taken place in modern times have led to an enormous production of wealth, the possession of which by private individuals rests on honorable titles. In the days of the Roman Empire, the acquisition of wealth was but too frequently secured by the spoliation of conquered lands, by extortionate tax collecting, by excessive usury, by the exploiting of defenseless widows and orphans, and by other dubious means. The result was that, in the popular mind, a certain stigma attached to the possession of great wealth. It was a popular saying, "the rich man is either an unjust man or the heir of one (dives iniquus aut iniqui heres)."

There was then a proportionately larger number of unfortunate individuals, reduced to dire straits through illness and lack of industrial employment, who were dependent for the bare necessities of life on the charity of more favored persons, and on the ministrations of the clergy of the local churches, each of which maintained by voluntary contributions a treasury for the poor. There did not then flourish the great variety of asylums, hospitals, bureaus of assistance, which are the glorious flowering in medieval and modern times of the spirit of Christian charity. And so, in earlier times, the duty of aiding the poor bore more directly and more urgently on the wealthy individual. And it was the obligations of the property owner, rather than his rights and privileges, which engaged the attention of the Fathers.

The Church Fathers were careful students of the New Testament and faithful exponents of its teachings; what they have to say on the moral aspect of the possession of wealth will always be in harmony with the teachings of Christ and His apostles.

Now, what is the New Testament teaching on this important matter? For here, too, advocates of communism have fancied they have found a justification of their system of economic reform. The New Testament teaches that the possession of great wealth is generally an obstacle to salvation, being very apt to lead to sensuality, pride, neglect of God, and indifference to the needs of those in distress. Hence the saying of Christ: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven." (Matt. xix. 24.)1 Our blessed Lord uses this figure to imply great difficulty, not absolute impossibility, for He supplements the statement with the words, " With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible." Our blessed Lord warns the rich to make friends of the mammon of iniquity (Luke xvi. 9), that is, to use wealth as stewards rather than absolute owners. In this way the rich man can become a worthy member of Christ's kingdom, though there is a still more perfect way, by imitating Christ's poverty and detachment from worldly pleasures. Thus to the rich young man, He said, "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor… and come, follow me." (Matt. xix. 21.) But Christ did not demand renunciation of wealth as a requisite for salvation, provided that it was subordinated to the proper service of God and made to minister to good deeds. Salvation came to Zacheus, who, being touched by the love of Christ, restored four-fold what he had wrongly gained, and gave but half of his legitimate possessions to works of charity. Among the followers of Christ were numbered men of wealth like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. To the wealthy class, too belonged Mary and Martha and Lazarus, all of whom Jesus loved so dearly.

In like manner, in the Apostolic Church, we find that riches, when rightly used, were not viewed as an impediment to church membership. The church in Jerusalem, being largely made up of poor persons, who on account of their Christian faith had been cast out of the synagogue and thus deprived of their former source of help, had to provide a common fund for their relief. We read of the generosity of certain well-to-do Jewish converts who sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the Apostles to form a treasury for the relief of the needy.2 It would be a great mistake to infer from this that a communistic mode of life was laid on primitive Christians. In maintaining the common treasury for the poor at Jerusalem, each Christian who had means gave freely and in such measure as his generosity prompted. This is plainly shown by the story of Ananias and Saphira, who incurred divine punishment, not because they wished to retain possession of their goods, but because while keeping back a part, they made pretense of giving all, and thus lied to St. Peter and to the Holy Ghost. The story of St. Peter's release from prison indirectly shows that Mary the mother of John, surnamed Mark, lived in a house of considerable comfort. Cornelius, the converted centurion, distinguished for his liberality, was, and apparently remained, a man of means. In the Gentile churches, established by St. Paul and others, there is absolutely no trace of a communistic mode of life. Private ownership is implied both in the Agape or love-feast of the primitive Church of Corinth, and in the voluntary contributions collected in the churches of Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece for the poor of Jerusalem. Among the devout converts of St. Paul were people of wealth, such as Crispus and Chloe of Corinth, Lydia, the seller of purple at Philippi, and Philemon of Colossae, whose runaway slave was the occasion of St. Paul's beautiful letter to his Christian master.

It was not the rich, but the covetous rich, that St. Paul excludes from the kingdom of heaven (1 Cor. v.11). The right of private property, even in slaves, he does not call in question. But the holders of property in every form are reminded of their strict obligations so to possess wealth that it may redound to the spiritual and temporal welfare of others as well as of themselves. He encourages all to be content with little, and not to give their heart to the pursuit of wealth; in like manner he writes to Timothy (1 17-18).

Let us now turn to the writings of the Church Fathers, and see if what they have to say on the private ownership of property is in harmony or at variance with the teachings of Christ and His Apostles.

One of the great exponents of Christian ethics in the early Church is St. Clement of Alexandria. In his interesting treatise entitled, What Rich Man may be Saved? he shows that the possession of riches is not of itself wrong, and need not be an obstacle to salvation. Some rich men, he observes, not understanding the saying of Christ, that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, despair of salvation and give themselves wholly to the pleasures of the world. This is a great mistake. When Christ, in the Gospel, tells the rich young man, "if thou wilt be perfect, go sell thy possessions," He does not, as some lightly think, bid him throw away all that he owned. He rather bids him banish from his soul the absorbing fondness and anxiety for wealth, through which true spiritual life is stifled. Poverty of itself does not save, for a man may be poor and still be a slave to passions; he may be greedy of wealth, though not having it in hand.

Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbors, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument.

While thus justifying the possession of wealth by the Christian so long as he makes good use of it, St. Clement does not hesitate to enjoin its renunciation on those who find it an inevitable occasion of sin. "Do you see yourself overcome and overthrown by it? Leave it, throw it away, hate, renounce, flee." But for the right-minded owner of riches, he has the following words of praise:

He who holds possessions and gold, and silver and houses as the gifts of God and ministers from them to God, who gives them for the salvation of men… is blessed by the Lord and called poor in spirit, a meet heir of the kingdom of heaven.3

In the writings of St. Cyprian, the illustrious Bishop of Carthage in the middle of the third century, the rights as well as the duties of private property find fitting recognition. When he renounced the errors of paganism to become a Christian, he sold the greater part of his landed estates, which he had inherited from his wealthy parents, and devoted the proceeds to the relief of the poor. The remainder of his property he kept in his own name, employing the income chiefly in works of charity, while he himself lived a life of great simplicity. In a letter written from his secret place of refuge to his church in Carthage, urging the priests and deacons to take good care of the needy, he tells them he has left with the priest rogation money of his own to be used to help indigent strangers, and that lest it might not be enough, he has sent them another sum by Naricus the acolyte.4

He was put under arrest on the eve of his martyrdom in his private gardens. So it is plain he saw nothing wrong in the private ownership of property, provided it was so used as to redound to the benefit of the needy. In the beautiful exhortation to almsgiving, which is among his extant writings, he teaches the rich that the wealth they possess is not for themselves alone, but must be made through liberal works of charity to minister to the common welfare. He reprehends not the ownership of wealth, but its miserly possession. The ideal use of property he finds in the manner of acting of the primitive Christians, who willingly sold their houses and lands to provide a common fund for the needy.5

This praise of a general communication of goods, prompted by charity, is not to be confounded with compulsory communism wrongly thought to be demanded by justice. St. Cyprian has in mind a generous use of the right of private property. To abolish it as an evil is far from his thought.6

In his treatise On the Dress of Virgins, he says:

… Lend your estate to God; give food to Christ... Otherwise a large estate is a temptation unless the wealth minister to good uses, so that every man, in proportion to his wealth, ought by his patrimony rather to redeem his transgressions than to increase them.7

That St. Gregory Nazianzen recognized private ownership of material goods to be in harmony with the law of Christ is shown by His example as well as by His teaching. His parents, who are numbered among the Saints of the Church, had considerable property, and were distinguished for their liberality to the poor. They bestowed on their two sons, Gregory and Caesarius, respectable fortunes. Though St. Gregory, like his bosom friend St. Basil, cultivated a life of strict asceticism, he retained through life possession of property sufficient to maintain him and enable him to perform works of charity. Before his death he drew up a will, bequeathing the greater part of his property to the Church of Nazianzus for the benefit of the poor, setting free a few faithful slaves, and providing them and his kinsman, Gregory, with small legacies.

While St. Gregory condemned in severe language the class of rich Christians who lived for themselves alone, and took no thought of their needy brethren, he had only words of praise for those who in their abundance gave generous help to the poor and destitute.

In his thirty-sixth sermon, he warns the rich that their use of wealth must be made honorable by almsgiving and liberality. "You, who are aiming at wealth," he says, "give ear to what the prophet says: 'If riches abound, set not your heart on them.' Bear in mind that you are leaning on a frail support. Lighten the boat somewhat that it may sail the more easily."8

While St. Gregory thus plainly taught both by word and example that the possessor of wealth can at the same time be a good Christian, it is but fair to note that he viewed private property as little better than a concession to human weakness. His ideal, which he felt to be no longer feasible for fallen humanity, was the equality of condition that existed in the beginning, before men set their heart on calling things their own. In his sermon on the Love of the Poor, after urging his rich hearers to imitate the way of God in nature, who sends rain and sunshine on all alike, and allows beasts, birds, and fishes common access to the fruits of land and sea, he reminds them that the custom of hoarding riches, often with cruel disregard of those in need, did not exist in the beginning. He would have them bear in mind that " the distinctions of want and riches, of freedom and slavery, like common diseases, were later experiences' of the human race, being the accompaniments and the inventions of wickedness."9 What St. Gregory has particularly in mind in this strong passage is the abuse of the right of property, resulting in the unjust accumulation of wealth and in slave ownership. Did he consider the right of property itself to be attained in its origin? It is possible, for, as we shall see, this was the opinion of St. Basil and St. Ambrose. But if he did, he certainly recognized that it had come in process of time to rest on a legitimate foundation, for not to speak again of his personal example and of his teaching elsewhere, he leads his hearers in this very sermon to the conclusion, not that property ownership must be abandoned as something wicked, but that it must be associated with works of charity.10

St. Basil, the life-long friend of St. Gregory, came also of a wealthy family. His parents owned property both in Pontus and in Cappadocia. A fair share of this property fell to St. Basil, who was one of ten children. He was still a young man when he adopted the ascetic life of a hermit. He sold the greater part of his patrimony and gave the proceeds to the poor. But that he might be assured a meagre income sufficient to meet his few daily wants, the family house, with the farm and a small number of slaves, was committed to the care of Dorotheus, his foster-brother, the son of his slave-nurse, on condition that he should pay St. Basil every year a fixed sum of money. Among the extant letters of the Saint are two that were written to an official of the province, asking him to see that this property of his foster-brother should not be exposed to excessive taxation.11 In other letters, we find him interceding for friends that their property may be saved from impending loss.12

Thus St. Basil, who has more than once been set up as a patristic advocate of socialism, while seeking perfection in a life of voluntary poverty and asceticism, both respected and helped to defend the right of property honorably exercised by others. It would, then, be an extraordinary inconsistency if we were to find him denouncing in public what he approved in private. In his sermons, it is true, he deals severely with the question of riches, but it is the abuse of riches, not the right of property, that he holds up to condemnation.

While associating Christian perfection in its highest grade with voluntary poverty, he admits the lawfulness of private wealth when not excessive, and when used for the benefit of the needy as well as for personal enjoyment.13

While laying great stress on the duty of helping the poor, he advised against indiscriminate almsgiving. He speaks with contempt of professional beggars, who displayed their sores and maimed limbs for the purpose of gain.14

Wealth, then, when united with a generous exercise of charity towards the deserving poor, was pronounced by St. Basil to be in harmony with the law of Christ. But to have his full approval, the wealth of any individual should not be excessive. The Saint was no admirer of great fortunes.15

In the sermons of St. Basil, there are a few passages which, taken by themselves, have a decided communistic ring, but which, when read in their context and in their historic setting, are seen to call for a different interpretation. They belong to sermons that were preached during one of the worst famines that ever afflicted the country about Caesarea. It was a time for the rich to give quick and generous help to their suffering brethren. Yet many held back. In his sermon on the death of St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen relates that some of the wealthy dealers in corn and other food products even took advantage of the great scarcity to raise the prices, and thereby increase their infamous gain. Touched to the core by this spectacle of human misery on the one hand and of hardheartedness on the other, St. Basil delivered several powerful sermons in which he pleaded with vehement eloquence the cause of his starving people. In this common necessity, the superfluous goods of the wealthy belonged not so much to themselves as to the starving.

In his Homily to the Rich, he says: "The right-minded man ought to hold the view that wealth has been given, not to squander in pleasure, but to use in works of charity, and that even if their riches should give out, they should be glad of being rid of what belongs to others rather than grieve at losing what is their own.16

More striking still is the language he employs in his powerful homily of the text of Luke xii. 18, "I will pull down my barns and build greater." After reminding the rich that they are the stewards of the wealth that God has committed to their care, he exhorts them not to put off their benefactions to another year. Meeting the common objection that the rich man may do what he likes with his own, St. Basil says:

The rich man argues, Whom am I wronging so long as I keep what is my own? Tell me, just what things are your own? Where did you get them to make them an inseparable feature of your life?… If every one were to take for himself simply what sufficed for his use, and left what was over and above to the man in want, there would be no distinction of rich and poor. Were you not born naked? Shall you not return naked to the earth? Whence, then, the goods you now possess? If you ascribe them to fate, you are godless, neither recognizing the Creator nor being grateful to the giver. But you acknowledge they are from God. Tell us then the reason why you received them. Is God unfair in the unequal distribution of the good things of life? Why is it that you are rich and that another is in need? Isn't it wholly that you may win the reward of kindness and of faithful stewardship, and that he may be honored with the great prize of patience? Now after seizing all things in your insatiable greed, and thus shutting out others, do you really think you are wronging no man? Who is the man of greed? He that is not content with a sufficiency. Who is the thief? He who seized everybody's goods. What are you but a greedy miser? What are you but a thief? The things you received to dispense to others, these you make your own. The man who steals a coat from another is called a thief. Is he who can clothe a naked man and will not, worthy of any other name? The bread, which you keep in the store, is the hungry man's bread. The cloak, which you guard in the chest, belongs to the naked man. The sandals rotting in your house belong to him who goes barefoot. The silver you hide away belongs to the needy. Thus it is that you are wronging as many men as you might help if you chose.17

This is strong language, but it is the language of an impassioned orator pleading the cause of a starving people committed to his care. It is not the language of an economist calmly discussing the nature of the right of private property. While St. Basil seems to have held the view that private property was in the beginning a selfish appropriation of what was meant to be used in common, and that the destitute, for this reason, had a certain claim of equity on the rich, he recognized the legitimacy of private property so long as it was combined with the charitable help of others. In the passage cited above, St. Basil's object was to move his rich hearers to a sense of compassion, and to persuade them not to renounce wealth ownership, which he felt and taught to be lawful, but to give freely of their abundance when the extreme necessity of others made that help a matter of justice as well as of charity.18 That his purpose was attained, we know from the sermon preached on his death by his friend St. Gregory.

We now turn to a distinguished contemporary of St. Basil, st. ambrose. St. Ambrose was an ardent admirer of St. Basil, and a diligent reader of his works. St. Ambrose has given proof both by word and example that he saw in the possession of property, even of great wealth, no obstacle to Christian piety. After his elevation to the episcopacy, he was moved by the spirit of Christian charity to donate what silver and gold he possessed to the Church to swell the treasury of the poor. But the extensive estates, which belonged to the family he continued to own conjointly with his sister, Marcellina, a consecrated virgin, and his brother, Satyrus. After the death of his brother, he kept much of this property in his own name for his own support and for that of his sister. In the touching treatise he wrote in memory of his deceased brother, he mentions with approbation the care with which Satyrus maintained his property rights, and the spirit of poverty which he observed in the midst of riches.19

Nor do we find a different view of private property expressed in other parts of his writings, where he assumes the office of bishop teaching in the name of Christ. In Letter 63 to the Church of Vercellae, then without a bishop, after insisting that greater deference is not to be shown to any person on the mere ground of riches, he commends poverty of spirit to the rich, and declares that wealth and virtue can go hand in hand.20

In his treatise On the Duties of the Clergy (book 1, ch. 149 ff), he gives advice as to the proper use of riches and the proper exercise of liberality. Among other things he says:

Blessed indeed is he who forsakes all and follows Him, but blessed also is he who does what he can to the best of his powers with what he has.21

In his Treatise Concerning Widows (ch. 12), he plainly teaches that the renunciation of wealth is not demanded as a means of salvation, but, like voluntary chastity, is recommended as a step to higher perfection.22

In his Exposition of the Gospel of St. Luke, xix. 2, he assures the rich that by a proper use of wealth they can become worthy members of the Church. Let them learn, he says, to associate blame, not with riches, but with the wrong use of riches.

For, while wealth is a stumbling block to the evil-minded, in the good it is an aid to virtue. Zacheus, who was called by Christ, was surely a rich man. But by giving half of his wealth to the poor, and restoring four-fold what he had acquired unjustly, he received a reward that surpassed the benefits he conferred.23

While the teaching of St. Ambrose on the lawfulness of private property is thus plain beyond doubt, there are a very few passages in his writings where, like St. Basil, he seems to view the right of private property as the outcome, in the first instance, of selfishness and greed, as an encroachment on the original right of humanity to the common use of the goods of the earth. This original flaw in the title of private ownership was not, however, of a kind to make it invalid. He did not, as we have seen, judge private property to be immoral. He rather saw in it an aid to virtue and an instrument of good, so long as it was rightly used. But he seems to have held that a certain equity urges the wealthy to give alms, on the ground that what is thus given is not altogether their own. Thus while private property need not be renounced, liberal almsgiving, is deemed by him, necessary to make the private ownership of wealth equitable.

Thus in his treatise On the Duties of the Clergy, book 1, ch. 28, he says of the distinction of ownership into public or common, and private:

This is not indeed according to nature, for nature has poured out all things for the common use of all. For God caused all things to be produced in such a way that there might be food common to all, and that the earth might serve as a kind of common possession for all. Nature, then, ushered in the right to things in common, usurpation created the right of private property.

Usurpatio jus fecit privatum. Thus, in the opinion of St. Ambrose, the right of private property originated in acts of usurpation, in disregard of the plan of nature which favored common use and common ownership. To avoid this interpretation, it has been suggested by some that the word usurpatio is to be taken here rather in the sense of use, of legitimate appropriation. But a similar statement found elsewhere in his writings excludes this meaning. In his Exposition of Psalm 118, he declares almsgiving to the poor to be a form of justice, and in proof cites the verse of the eleventh Psalm, "He hath distributed, he hath given to the poor, his justice remaineth for ever and ever."24

This notion that almsgiving is to some extent a debt of justice which the rich owe to the poor by way of compensation for their loss of the original right to the common use of nature's bounties, is strongly emphasized in his treatise on Naboth the Jezrahelite, ch. 12. Referring to Proverbs iii. 28, he addresses the uncharitable rich man in these words:

God says, "Do not say, ‘Tomorrow, I will give.’" If He forbids you to say, "Tomorrow I will give," do you think He permits you to say, "I will not give?" You are not bestowing on the poor anything of your own; you are giving back something that belongs to him. For what has been granted for the common use of all, you usurp for yourself alone. The earth belongs to all, not simply to the rich. You are, then, not conferring a gratuitous alms, you are restoring what is due.25

If it be said that St. Ambrose in these passages argues like a communist, it is to be observed that he makes the argument lead to a wholly different conclusion. Like St. Basil and other Fathers, he teaches that the right of private property is legitimate, but only when wealth is so used as to give help to the poor man and thus universalize the benefits of nature, which were originally destined for common use.

St. Jerome is the great exponent of Christian asceticism in the Western Church, as St. Basil is in the Eastern. Like St. Basil he inherited landed estates from his parents, and, while devoting himself as a monk to a life of extreme simplicity, he retained for many years possession of some of this inherited property. In his letter (66) to Pammachius, he tells him that he is building a monastery and hospice, and finding the expense greater than he had anticipated, "he has sent his brother Paulinian to Italy to sell some neglected villas which have escaped the hands of the barbarians, and other property inherited from their parents."26

This example would of itself suffice to show that St. Jerome, whose ethical views inclined to the side of rigor and severity, saw nothing unworthy of a Christian in the possession of property, so long as it was made subservient to charity and religion. The same conclusion forces itself upon us from his attitude towards some of his friends and acquaintances who belonged to wealthy families, and who knew how to combine the use of riches with a life of Christian virtue. For these he had great esteem and words of praise. Such, for example, was the distinguished Roman matron, Fabiola, the founder of a hospital at Portus, of whom he has left a touching eulogy in his letter (77) to Oceanus. Such was Laeta, the high-born daughter-in-law of Paula (letter 107). Such was Lucinius, the wealthy Spaniard, whom he praises for his liberality and right use of riches (letter 71). Such was the Prince Nebridius, whose generous use of wealth in charitable deeds St. Jerome eulogizes in his letter (79) to the widow Salvina.27

Again in his letter (123) to a noble widow of wealth, Ageruchia, in which he advises strongly against a second marriage, St. Jerome, far from insisting that she renounce her wealth, shows how it can be managed without the aid of a husband.28

That the renunciation of wealth is a condition, not of salvation but of perfection, and hence, like a life of chastity, is something to be commended, not imposed as a duty, is clearly stated in St. Jerome's letter (66) to Pammachius, a noble Roman who had given up the badge of the proconsul for the garb of the monk.

"If thou wilt be perfect [the Lord says] "go and sell what thou hast and give to the poor."…Great enterprises are always left to the free choice of those who hear of them. Thus the apostle refrains from making virginity a positive duty, because the Lord, in speaking of eunuchs who had made themselves such for the kingdom of heaven's sake, finally says: "He that is able to receive it, let him receive it." …If thou wilt be perfect. There is no compulsion laid upon you… If therefore you will to be perfect and desire to be as the prophets, as the Apostles, as Christ Himself, sell, not a part of your substance, but all that you have. And when you have sold all, give the proceeds, not to the wealthy or to the high-minded, but to the poor. Give each man enough for his immediate need, but do not give money to swell what a man has already… It is, moreover, a kind of sacrilege to give what belongs to the poor to those who are not poor.29

Such being the view of St. Jerome regarding the lawfulness of private property, we can readily see how unwarranted it is to detach from his writings one or two sentences, which removed from their context seem condemnatory of wealth ownership, and to set them up as proof that he denounced the possession of wealth as iniquitous.

Thus in his Commentary on Isaias, xxxiii. 13 ff., he says: "It is only through the loss and injury of someone that wealth is heaped up for another."30

Again, in his letter (120) to Hediba, he says: "All riches come from iniquity, and unless the one loses, the other cannot gain. And so the common saying seems to me to be well put: The rich man is either an unjust man or the heir of one."

Now these statements, as used by St. Jerome, cannot in fairness be interpreted as condemnations of the right of private property. For in that case they would be in flat contradiction to his iterated teaching that the ownership of wealth is lawful. The Saint here has in mind not the right of private property, but the abuse of that right in the unjust accumulation of wealth through unscrupulous means, a thing but too common in his day. How far he is from the intention of reprobating the ownership of wealth, in the text just cited from the letter to Hedibia, is plainly shown from what he says immediately afterwards. In answer to her question what a wealthy widow like herself, with children should do to acquire Christian perfection, he says:

If a widow has children, and more still, is of noble family, she should not expose them to want. Let her give, not all her wealth, but a part to her children, and making Christ a fellow-heir with them, reserve a portion for charity. You may say, "This is hard, it is against nature." But Christ says, "He who can take let him take it." It is a condition of perfection. He does not lay it on you as a yoke of necessity, but He makes it a matter of your own free choice… Suppose you do not wish to be perfect, but to hold the second rank of virtue. Give what you possess to your children and relatives. No One finds fault with you if you follow the lower order, provided you recognize your inferiority to the one who may choose the higher… If you have more than suffices for food and clothing, give it away in charity. Ananias and Saphira merited the judgment of the apostle because they held back their own in fear. Is he to be punished, then, who will not give away what he possesses? By no means. They were punished for lying to the Holy Ghost, and for seeking the name of having completely renounced the world, while they kept back things needful for their mode of life. Otherwise one is free to give or not give.31

We might prolong the study of this interesting topic by an examination of the writings of St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and other Fathers. But the result would add nothing to what we have already seen to be the common teaching on the right of private property. We may sum up that teaching as follows: While voluntary poverty was encouraged as a counsel of perfection, the individual possession of wealth was deemed lawful provided that it was associated with deeds of charity. A selfish use of riches with disregard of the sufferings of the poor was absolutely condemned as un-Christian. A few Fathers based the obligation of almsgiving attached to wealth ownership not only on charity and the precept of Christ, but also on equity, for they held that private property originated in a selfish appropriation of what was intended for common use, and hence carried with it the duty of helping the poor and destitute by way of compensation. But so long as the benefits of nature were communicated to all through the charitable use of riches, they recognized private property to rest on a legitimate basis, and to be quite in harmony with the law of Christ.


1 Plato, in his Laws, V., 743, says: "I can never agree with them that the rich man will be really happy unless he is also good; but for one who is eminently good to be extremely rich is impossible."

2 Cf. Acts ii., 44-45; also iv., 34-37.

3 Ante-Nicene Fathers, New York: Scribner's, 1893, vol. ii., p. 595 and 598.

4 Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. v., Epist. 35.

5 Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol., p. 483.

6 Ibid., p. 478.

7 Ibid., p. 433.

8 Orat. 36, no. 12. Migne, vol. xxxvi., col. 279.

9 Migne, vol. xxv., col. 890-891.

10 Ibid., col. 891 ff.

11 Letters 36 and 37.

12 Letters 32, 35, 73, 83, 107.

13 Migne, Pat. Graec., vol. xxix., col. 479-482,

14 Letter 150, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, viii., p. 208.

15 Migne, Pat. Graec., vol. xxxi., col. 282.

16 Migne, Pat. Graec., vol. xxxi., col. 237.

17 Migne, Pat. Graec., vol. xxxi., col. 275.

18 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. vii., p. 407.

19 Cf. On the Decease of Satyrus, B.L., ch, 55-56; also ch. 59.

20 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. x„ p. 470.

21 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. x., p. 25-26.

22 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. x., p. 403.

23 Migne, Pat. Lat., vol. xv., col. 1791.

24 Cf. Migne, Pat. Lat., vol. xv„ col. 1303.

25 Migne, vol. xiv., col. 747.

26 Cf. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. vi., p. 140.

27 Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. vi., p. 164-165.

28 Ibid., p. 235.

29 Ibid., p. 137.

30 Migne, Pat. Lat., vol. xxiv., col. 367.

31 Migne, Pat. Lat., vol. xxii., col. 985.

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