Consumerism, Property, Ownership, Community and the Eucharist

The link between property and freedom is a crucial one. Free-market advocates tend to be agnostic on the question of ownership: barring external interference, an exchange is formally free even if the only thing a person has to exchange is his or her labor. But as the example of Rosa Martinez makes plain, having no ownership of anything can make one little better than a wage slave. For much of the Catholic tradition on the subject of property, going back to Aquinas and beyond, the ownership of property is natural to human beings and allows them to develop their own capacities. As Belloc says, property is thus essential to human freedom. But he does not construe freedom negatively here. The ownership of property is not about power, and the wide distribution of property is not about a greater equilibrium of power. Rather, property has an end, which is to serve the common good. The universal destination of all material goods is in God. As Aquinas says, we should regard property as a gift from God, a gift that is only valid if we use it for the benefit of others. Thus Aquinas sanctions private ownership only insofar as it is put to its proper end, which is the good of all: “Man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need.” Absent such a view of the true end of property, freedom means being able to do whatever one wants with one’s property, and property can thus become nothing more than a means of power over others.

From a Christian point of view, the churches should take an active role in fostering economic practices that are consonant with the true ends of creation. This requires promoting economic practices that maintain close connections among capital, labor, and communities, so that real communal discernment of the good can take place. Those are the spaces in which true freedom can flourish.

Our work was meant to be an outlet for creativity, a vocation to make our impress on the material world. Work is the way we put our very selves into the world of material objects. As Pope John Paul II has said, “Work is a good thing for man – a good thing for his humanity – because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes `more a human being.”” According to John Paul II, work is the key to the whole social question, because the question facing society is how to make life “more human.”6 Being more human means, at the same time, participating in the creative activity of God. “The word of God’s revelation is profoundly marked by the fundamental truth that man, created in the image of God, shares by his work in the activity of the Creator.”‘ This is the true meaning of the call in Genesis to “fill” and “subdue” the earth, and to have “dominion” over it (Gen. i:z8).8 This spiritual view ofwork has an evocative appeal to many people who feel alienated from their work and detached from creative engagement with the material world. But this spiritual view of work has not waned simply because people have bad attitudes and negative values; rather, it is because our whole system of production has changed. The system has shown a tremendous capacity to increase the volume and variety of goods produced, while it also detaches us from the creation of things.

In the eucharistic economy, by contrast, the gift relativizes the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours by relativizing the boundary between me and you. We are no longer two individuals encountering each other either by way of contract or as active giver and passive recipient. Without losing our identities as unique persons – Paul’s analogy of the body extols the diversity of eyes and hands, heads and feet – we cease to be merely “the other” to each other by being incorporated into the body of Christ. In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver, and recipient. We are neither merely active nor passive, but we participate in the divine life so that we are fed and simultaneously become food for others.

All quotes from William T. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire 

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