As an American it is difficult at times to think beyond the Right/Left, Capitalist/Socialist dichotomy that permeates our economic and political landscape. This often makes it difficult for Catholics on either side of the aisle to understand what the Church teaches about the ownership and use of property. It also makes it difficult at times for us to understand, let alone support, some of Pope Francis’ harsh criticisms of Capitalism.
Back in 2015, in an interview with the Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli, Pope Francis summarizes centuries of Catholic Social Teaching into one paragraph:
“A month before he opened the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII said ‘The Church shows itself as it wishes to be, everyone’s Church, and particularly the Church of the poor.’ In the following years, this preferential treatment of the poor entered the official teachings. Some may think it a novelty, whilst instead it is a concern that stems from the Gospel and is documented even from the first centuries of Christianity. If I repeated some passages from the homilies of the Church Fathers, in the second or third century, about how we must treat the poor, some would accuse me of giving a Marxist homily. ‘You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.’ These were St. Ambrose’s words, which Pope Paul VI used to state, in Populorum Progressio, that private property does not constitute an absolute and unconditional right for anyone, and that no one is allowed to keep for their exclusive use things superfluous to their needs, when others lack basic necessities.”
While I certainly don’t pretend to think I can explain this teaching better than the Holy Father, I think it’s valuable to dive into the ideas and sources he presents and put them into the broader context of how the Church understands private property and the redistribution of wealth.