Aquinas and Calvin believed property rights were subject to the rights of the poor

Thomas Aquinas

The greatest theologian in church history between Augustine and Martin Luther was the Dominican Thomas Aquinas, author of the great 13th Century Summa Theologiae that so brilliantly articulated some of the best of 13th Century Christian theology (and philosophy). One of the topics Aquinas addressed in the Summa was the matter of property (Note: this post builds on my earlier post on the Christian tradition and property found here).

 

For Thomas Aquinas, of course, all material things are to be used by Christians as a means to the higher end of glorifying and enjoying God. Property therefore is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Only God has absolute lordship over material things, but he gives human beings the natural right to use these things for their benefit. In her Cambridge History of Medieval Political Thought Janet Coleman summarizes,

Man therefore, was created with the dominium naturale in this wider sense which did not specify the mode of possession, be it private or in common. Possessions were originally required to be for the use of all mankind. Private property is not wrong but it is a mode of possession that has only conventional justification (ius gentium), and the primary recognition of the purpose of property is its use for men in pursuance of higher ends… Human affairs are more efficiently organized when each has his own responsibility over his own things for there would be chaos if everyone cared for everything….

But natural law does not specify how private property should be arrived at and therefore historical institutions determine distribution; private possessions are not contrary to natural law but are inventions of reason. They are human additions to natural principles. (622-623)

Property is therefore justified, but the rights of property are always trumped by the basic rights of human beings according to natural law. Aquinas writes in 2.2, Q 66, A 7:

Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man’s needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals: “It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.”

In fact, Aquinas even argued that in cases of extreme necessity it is not theft for a person to take what he or she needs from someone who has excess. He certainly believed, as Coleman writes, that “when the common welfare is at stake, the civil law is obliged to activate the natural law principle of the primacy of use over ownership” (623). As Aquinas puts it,

It is no robbery if princes exact from their subjects that which is due to them for the safe-guarding of the common good, even if they use violence in so doing (2.2, Q 66, A 8, Reply 3).

To be sure, Aquinas did not hold the suspicion towards business, investment, or profit for which medieval Christian theology is often known. He appreciated the value of such economic activity for supporting families, the poor, and the public good (though his views of usury are more complicated). But he believed that individual rights regarding property were always subject to the greater rights of the broader society, to whom according to natural law God has given all possessions in common.

John Calvin

On virtually every point of substance John Calvin’s attitude toward property is directly in line with the Christian tradition running from Ambrose and Augustine through Huguccio, Johannes Teutonicus, and Thomas Aquinas. Calvin argues over and over throughout his commentaries and other writings that God has given human beings their material possessions in order they might meet their basic needs and even their desires (in moderation), and then share their excess possessions with those who are in need. Calvin believed the bond between all human beings created in the image of God is such that when people do not display generosity and liberality by sharing with the poor they are guilty of theft (a view later affirmed in the Westminster Larger Catechism’s exposition of the 8th Commandment, and less explicitly in the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the same).

 

Let me offer one very poignant example, although I could provide many more. In his commentary on Isaiah 58:7 Calvin writes,

Uprightness and righteousness are divided into two parts: first, that we should injury nobody, and second, that we should bestow our wealth and abundance on the poor and needy. And these two ought to be joined together, for it is not enough to abstain from acts of injustice, if you refuse your assistance to the needy, nor will it be of much avail to render your aid to the needy, if at the same time you rob some of that which you bestow on others….

By commanding them to ‘break bread to the hungry’ he intended to take away every excuse from covetous and greedy men, who allege that they have a right to keep possession of that which is their own. ‘This is mine, and therefore I may keep it for myself. Why should I make common property of that which God has given me?’ He replies, ‘It is indeed yours, but on this condition, that you share it with the hungry and thirsty, not that you eat it yourself alone. And indeed this is the dictate of common sense, that the hungry are deprived of their just right if their hunger is not relieved. That sad spectacle extorts compassion even from the cruel and barbarous.

To be sure, neither Aquinas nor Calvin nor the rest of the Christian tradition before them advocated anything like the modern welfare state any more than they opposed it. That is not my point. My point is that the Christian tradition has unanimously affirmed that all property rights are always qualified by the claims of the needy upon them. In addition, the tradition has explicitly or implicitly affirmed that God gives material possessions to human beings in common, and that although property regulations are necessary to keep peace between sinful human beings, in cases of necessity the natural law affirming this common right trumps human laws and conventions concerning property.

I’ll conclude this series with one final post (hopefully tomorrow) clarifying what I believe are the implications of this Christian political theology for government and and for contemporary politics.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on September 19, 2012, in Calvin, Property, Rights, Thomas Aquinas and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Aquinas and Calvin believed property rights were subject to the rights of the poor.

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