The Christian tradition has never recognised the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone”. These are strong words. He noted that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man”. He clearly explained that “the Church does indeed defend the legitimate right to private property, but she also teaches no less clearly that there is always a social mortgage on all private property, in order that goods may serve the general purpose that God gave them”. Consequently, he maintained, “it is not in accord with God’s plan that this gift be used in such a way that its benefits favour only a few”. This calls into serious question the unjust habits of a part of humanity.
94. The rich and the poor have equal dignity, for “the Lord is the maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2). “He himself made both small and great” (Wisdom 6:7), and “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45). This has practical consequences, such as those pointed out by the bishops of Paraguay: “Every campesino has a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish his home, work for subsistence of his family and a secure life. This right must be guaranteed so that its exercise is not illusory but real. That means that apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets”.
95. The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. That is why the New Zealand bishops asked what the commandment “Thou shall not kill” means when “twenty percent of the world’s population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive”.
There is a verse suppressed in modern editions of the Victorian hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’, which runs:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
It was a struggle, led by the churches, to establish the right to universal education in Britain, a struggle they are still involved with elsewhere. ‘Instructing the Ignorant’ is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, which together with the Corporal Works of Mercy are long seen as a distillation of Christian living. Ignorance, that is lack of education, orders the lowly estate of many people.