Charity, the Universal Destination of Material Goods, and the Preferential Option for the Poor
Charity is the greatest social commandment. It respects others and their rights. It requires the practice of justice, and it alone makes us capable of it. Charity inspires a life of self-giving: “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33).
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, n. 1889.
The Church today lives a fundamental aspect of her mission in lovingly and generously accepting every human being, especially those who are weak and sick. This is made all the more necessary as a ‘culture of death’ threatens to take control. In fact, “the Church family believes that human life, even if weak and suffering, is always a wonderful gift of God’s goodness. Against the pessimism and selfishness which casts a shadow over the world, the Church stands for life: in each human life she sees the splendour of that ‘Yes,’ that ‘Amen,’ which is Christ himself (cf. 2 Cor 1:19; Rv 3:14). To the ‘No’ which assails and afflicts the world, she replies with this living ‘Yes,’ this defending of the human person and the world from all who plot against life“ ( Familiaris Consortio, n. 30). It is the responsibility of the lay faithful, who more directly through their vocation or their profession are involved in accepting life, to make the Church’s ‘Yes’ to human life concrete and efficacious.
- Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, December 30, 1988, n. 38.
The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons. Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others.
- John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern), December 30, 1987, n.39.
It is a strict duty of justice and truth not to allow fundamental human needs to remain unsatisfied, and not allow those burdened by such needs to perish. It is also necessary to help these needy people to acquire expertise, to enter the circle of exchange, and to develop their skills in order to make the best use of their capacities and resources.
- John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, May 1, 1991, n. 34.
“Fill the earth and subdue it” (Gn 1:28). The Bible, from the first page on, teaches us that the whole of creation is for man, that it is his responsibility to develop it by intelligent effort, and by means of his labor to perfect it, so to speak, for his use. If the world is made to furnish each individual with the means of livelihood and the instruments for his growth and progress, each man has, therefore, the right to find in the world what is necessary for himself. The recent Council reminded us of this: “God intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of every human being and people. Thus, as all men follow justice and unite in charity, created goods should abound for them on a reasonable basis” (GS, n. 69). All other rights whatsoever, including those of property and of free commerce, are to be subordinated to this principle. They should not hinder, but on the contrary, favor its application. It is a grave and urgent social duty to redirect them to their primary finality.
- Paul VI, Encyclical Letter, Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples), March 26, 1967, n. 22.
To own goods privately, is a right natural to man, and to exercise this right, especially in life in society, is not only lawful, but clearly necessary. “It is lawful for man to own his own things. It is even necessary for human life” (Aquinas, STh, II—II, 66, 2, c). But if the question be asked: How ought man to use his possessions? the Church replies without hesitation: “As to this point, man ought not regard external goods as his own, but as common so that, in fact, a person should readily share them when he sees others in need. Wherefore the Apostle says:‘Charge the rich of this world ... to give readily, to share with others’” (Aquinas, STh, II-II, 66, 2, c). No one, certainly, is obliged to assist others out of what is required for his own necessary use or for that of his family, or even to give to others what he himself needs to maintain his station in life becomingly and decently: “No one is obliged to live unbecomingly” (Aquinas, STh, II-II, 32, a. 6). But when the demands of necessity and propriety have been met, it is a duty to give to the poor out of that which remains. “Give that which remains as alms” (Lk 11:41). These are duties not of justice, except in cases of extreme need, but of Christian charity, which obviously cannot be enforced by legal action. But the laws and judgments of men yield precedence to the law and judgment of Christ the Lord, Who in many ways urges the practice of alms-giving: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), and Who will judge a kindness done or denied to the poor as done or denied to Himself: “As long as you did it for one of these, the least of My brethren, you did it for Me” (Mt 25:40). The substance of all this is the following: whoever has received from the bounty of God a greater share of goods, whether corporeal and external, or of the soul, has received them for this purpose, namely, that he employ them for his own perfection and, likewise, as a servant of Divine Providence, for the benefit of others. “Therefore, he that hath talent, let him constantly see to it that he be not silent; he that hath an abundance of goods, let him be on the watch that he grow not slothful in the generosity of mercy; he that hath a trade whereby he supports himself, let him be especially eager to share with his neighbor the use and benefit thereof” ( St. Gregory the Great, Evangelium Homiliae, 9, 7).
- Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Cerum Novarum (On the Condition of Workers), May 15, 1891, n. 22.
In the light of today’s ‘new things,’ we have re-read the relationship between individual or private property and the universal destination of material wealth. Man fulfills himself by using his intelligence and freedom. In so doing he utilizes the things of this world as objects and instruments and makes them his own. The foundation of the right to private initiative and ownership is to be found in this activity. By means of his work man commits himself, not only for his own sake but also for others and with others. Each person collaborates in the work of others and for their good. Man works in order to provide for the needs of his family, his community, his nation, and ultimately all humanity ( Laborem Exercens, n. 10). Moreover, he collaborates in the work of his fellow employees, as well as in the work of suppliers and in the customers’ use of goods, in a progressively expanding chain of solidarity. Ownership of the means of production, whether in industry or agriculture, is just and legitimate if it serves useful work. It becomes illegitimate, however, when it is not utilized or when it serves to impede the work of others, in an effort to gain a profit which is not the result of the overall expansion of work and the wealth of society, but rather is the result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation or the breaking of solidarity among working people ( Laborem Exercens, n. 14). Ownership of this kind has no justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.
- John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, May 1, 1991, n. 43.
It will not be superfluous therefore to reexamine and further clarify in this light the characteristic themes and guidelines dealt with by the Magisterium in the recent years. Here I would like to indicate one of them: the preferential option or love of preference for the poor. This is an option, a special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness. It affects the life of each Christian inasmuch as he or she seeks to imitate the life of Christ, but it applies equally to our social responsibilities and hence to our manner of living, and to the logical decisions to be made concerning our ownership and the use of goods.
- John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern), December 30, 1987, n. 42.
In seeking to promote human dignity, the Church shows a preferential love of the poor and voiceless, because the Lord has identified himself with them in special way (cf. Mt 25:40). This love excludes no one, but simply embodies a priority of service to which the whole Christian tradition bears witness. This love of preference for the poor, and the decisions which it inspires in us, cannot but embrace the immense multitudes of the hungry, the needy, the homeless, those without medical care and, above all, those without hope of a better future.
- Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Asia, November 19, 1999, n. 34.