The economic roots of conflicts


(from the Alphonsian Academy blog)

1492, the year of the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus, is the year that marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Modern Age, giving way in Europe to a series of important changes in all fields, from culture, to religion, to the economy, the latter area characterized by the revolution in productive and commercial activities, which led to the gradual transformation of wealth and,  with the affirmation of the new merchant and bourgeois class, the imposition of a new vision of the individual ownership of material goods.

The Englishman John Locke (1632-1704) formalized the re-understanding of the right to private property considering it, together with the right to life and freedom, a natural, inalienable right, pre-existing to the State that has the task of protecting it in an absolute way. Locke explains that although the earth and all lower creatures belong in common to all men, everyone has the property of his own person, over which no one has rights except himself. Consequently, it can be said that the fruit of the person’s work is his exclusive property. On this basis the right to private property will be recognized and guaranteed to this day, albeit with different nuances, in all liberal and “market economy” countries such as ius utendi et abutendi (right to use and abuse), giving the owner the right to exercise his right in an exclusive and absolute way without any obligation to anyone also because,  according to F.A. von Hayek (1899-1992), private property is “the only solution so far discovered by men to solve the problem of reconciling individual freedom with the absence of conflict”.

The Christian vision, however, has always been different and what the current Pontiff has also recently affirmed inLaudato Si’, is what the Church has always taught. We find an organic arrangement of this vision in the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas which, taking up the rich biblical teaching and the equally rich reflection of the Fathers of the Church, offers a synthesis that still constitutes today the indispensable point of reference, among other things faithfully re-proposed starting from Rerum novarum, the first document of the Social Doctrine of the Church,  until the recent papal pronouncements.

St. Thomas recalls that God is the only absolute “owner” of all things, but he himself foreordained that all things should serve the sustenance of man, who is an “administrator” of them, with the power to use them “for his own benefit through the intellect and the will, considering them as made for himself; the less perfect beings, in fact, are for the more perfect ones.” Moreover, “private property or some power over external goods assures each one a completely necessary area of personal and family autonomy, and must be considered as an extension of human freedom” (Gaudium et Spes, n.  71). At the same time, however, it must never be forgotten that “every private property by its very nature also has a social character, which is based on the common destination of goods” (ibid. Centesimus annus, no. 30).

For this reason St. Thomas recalls that “man must not consider things as exclusively his own, but must be willing to participate largely in the needs of others”, just as the Social Doctrine of the Church (Rerum Novarum,  19) also recalls from the beginning in compliance with the principle of the universal destination of goods (Gaudium et Spes,  n. 71) which prevails over the right to property, since the owner does not enjoy a ius utenti et abutendi, but rather a “potestas procurandi et dispensandi” (power to procure and administer).

Neglecting this dimension, “property can in many ways become an occasion for greed and serious unrest” (Gaudium et Spes, n.  71), as quadragesimo anno had explicitly warned with great lucidity  in the aftermath of the first great economic crisis of 1929. The social encyclical of 1931 noted the consolidation of a “concentration of wealth” and an “accumulation of enormous power, of a despotic mastery of the economy in the hands of a few” (n. 105). He also denounced that: “Such a concentration of forces and power [… ], it is the natural fruit of that unbridled freedom of competition that allows it to survive [… ] the most violent in the struggle and the least caring for conscience” (n. 107), in such a way that “the very concentration of wealth and power generates three kinds of struggle for dominance: [… ] for economic prevalence;  [… ] for political power, [… ] finally [… ] between the same States” (n. 108). 

Quadragesimo anno was not limited only to denunciation but also indicated, with great topicality, the ways to overcome such a state of affairs, inviting “above all to have regard [… ] to the dual nature, individual and social [… ] of property and work” and emphasizing that “the institutions of peoples must come by adapting society as a whole to the demands of the common good, that is, to the laws of social justice; it will necessarily follow that such an important section of social life, such as economic activity, will in turn be brought back to a healthy and well-balanced order” (n. 110).

It is a teaching that takes into account the complexity of human existence, excessively simplified in economic reflection which, in the light of today’s events, reveals with great force all its timeliness.

Leonardo Salutati

(original text is in Italian, source:

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