In the wake of the publication of Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, there was a great deal of negative commentary regarding the pope’s attitude toward capitalism and private property. Many readers interpreted Francis to mean that the capitalist system is, in itself, exploitative and that the holding of private property is morally problematic. Like most who write in a prophetic mode, Pope Francis is indeed given to strong and challenging language, and therefore, it is easy enough to understand how he excites opposition. But it is most important to read what he says with care and to interpret it within the context of the long tradition of Catholic social teaching.

First, in regard to capitalism, or what the Church prefers to call the “market economy,” the pope has this to say: “Business activity is essentially ‘a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world’” (Fratelli Tutti, 123). He thereby distances himself from any ideology that would simply demonize capitalism, and clearly affirms that a morally praiseworthy economic arrangement is one that not only distributes wealth but creates it through entrepreneurship. Moreover, he argues, a certain self-interest, including the taking of profit, is not repugnant to the moral purpose of economic activity: “In God’s plan, each individual is called to promote his or her own development, and this includes finding the best economic and technological means of multiplying goods and increasing wealth” (123).  In making these observations, Francis stands firmly in the tradition of St. John Paul II, who saw the market economy as an arena for the exercise of human creativity, ingenuity, and courage, and who endeavored to draw ever more people into its dynamism. He also reiterates the teaching of the founder of the modern Catholic social tradition, the great Leo XIII, who, in Rerum Novarum, strenuously defended private property and, using a number of arguments, repudiated socialist economic arrangements. So I hope we can put to rest the silly canard that Pope Francis is an enemy of capitalism and a cheerleader for global socialism.

Now, without gainsaying any of this, we must, at the same time, point out that, like all of his papal predecessors in the social teaching tradition, without exception, Francis also recommends limits, both legal and moral, to the market economy. And in this context, he insists upon what classical Catholic theology refers to as the “universal destination of goods.” Here is how Francis states the idea in Fratelli Tutti: “The right to private property is always accompanied by the primary and prior principle of the subordination of all private property to the universal destination of the earth’s goods, and thus the right of all to their use” (123). In making the distinction between ownership and use, Pope Francis is hearkening back to St. Thomas Aquinas, who made the relevant distinction in question 66 of the secunda secundae of the Summa theologiae. For a variety of reasons, St. Thomas argues, people have the right to “procure and dispense” the goods of the world and hence to hold them as “property.” But in regard to the use of what they legitimately own, they must always keep the general welfare first in mind: “On this respect 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.”

Now, in regard to this distinction, Thomas himself was the inheritor of an older tradition, stretching back to the Church Fathers. Pope Francis quotes St. John Chrysostom as follows: “Not to share our wealth with the poor is to rob them and take away their livelihood.  The riches we possess are not our own, but theirs as well.” And he cites St. Gregory the Great in the same vein: “When we provide the needy with their basic needs, we are giving them what belongs to them, not to us.” The simplest way to grasp the distinction between ownership and use is to imagine the scenario of a starving man coming to the door of your house late at night and asking for sustenance. Though you are in your own home, which you legitimately own, and behind a door that you have understandably locked against intruders, you would nevertheless be morally obligated to give away some of your property to the beggar in such desperate need. In short, private property is a right, but not an “inviolable” right—if by that we mean without qualification or conditions—and saying so is not tantamount to advocating socialism.

What we might characterize as something of a novelty in Pope Francis’ encyclical is the application of this distinction to the relations between nations and not simply individuals. A nation-state indeed has a right to its own wealth, garnered through the energy and creativity of its people, and it may legitimately maintain and defend its borders; however, these prerogatives are not morally absolute. In Francis’ words, “We can then say that each country also belongs to the foreigner, inasmuch as a territory’s goods must not be denied to a needy person coming from elsewhere” (124). This is not “globalism” or a denial of national integrity; it is simply Thomas Aquinas’ distinction between ownership and use, extrapolated to the international level.

Once more, lest we see Pope Francis’ teaching here as egregious, I would like to give the last word to Leo XIII, ardent defender of private property and equally ardent opponent of socialism: “When what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over” (Rerum Novarum, 22).