How important is private property to the idea of freedom? Since the dawn of time, intellectuals have imagined a world in which all things are commonly owned and people achieve perfect freedom. In fact, this is a dangerous fantasy. There is no such thing as freedom in a world in which property is not privately owned.
As a case in point, consider the protests taking place outside St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi, Vietnam. People have set up vigils to make one simple request: that the cathedral be restored to its rightful owner. Today, much of the right of property ownership is being restored in this country. You can trade stocks and own homes and businesses.
What about the cathedral? The government says that it is the property of the communist party. To give it back to the Catholic Church would amount to a full repudiation of communist doctrine, which says that land-use rights can only be granted by the state. Giving the cathedral back to its rightful owner does indeed amount to a repudiation of communist doctrine, and that doctrine is in desperate need of a wholesale global repudiation. Under collective ownership, there is no freedom, only a totalitarian state.
The protesters themselves are dealing with just such a state now, as its agents collect their names, smear them as terrorists, and claim that they are enemies of society. This is the inevitable result of the idea that private institutions cannot legitimately own and control property. So as defined by the state, the protestors are indeed criminals. They are not criminals as defined by the natural rights tradition. The idea of natural rights was embraced by the Church long before it was picked up by John Locke and the liberal tradition.
The whole subject of property restoration is something that Eastern Europe dealt with for years after the fall of communism. In some of these regimes—Vietnam and China, for example—communism remains. The same regimes are in place, but they have gingerly stepped back from strict enforcement—if only to save their countries from sliding into calamity. Justice requires property restoration, and ownership itself is a first condition of freedom. The whole world should join in solidarity with the Hanoi Cathedral vigil.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico, President