On what basis can a Christian affirm private property? John Calvin, in one of his sermons, cited Deuteronomy 19:14 in its defense: “Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess.” While it is true that the earth and everything in it belong to God, Calvin reasoned, he has made us stewards of his creation. And to facilitate the execution of our duties of stewardship, God instituted private property.
For Calvin, the propriety of property is witnessed to not only by Scripture but also by the natural order. In his words, “We see how nature has always taught us this principle, that if bounds and limits were not kept and maintained, there would be a horrible confusion among men, and no laws would be any longer kept.” According to Calvin, without well-defined property, “there will be neither equity nor upright dealing” between people, and “all will be full of thievery and quarreling.” What is more, without property rights, the very fabric of society is torn. Not only can there be “neither buying nor selling,” but also, what is worse, “men shall become as wild beasts among themselves.”
In this, Calvin follows the broad tradition of Christian reflection on economic and societal life. The well-ordered society conforms to the dictates of nature, which, along with Scripture, reveals God’s will for human life. In this case, a well-ordered society must have laws that recognize and protect private property. What is more, the absence of such laws hinders the exercise of virtue. The Acton Institute continues to encourage theological thinking about the nature of a free and virtuous society, and I thank you for the support that makes such thinking possible.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico