I met a priest who stated that an economic system based upon shared property is the best and holiest possible system. The priest has made a few interesting Biblical arguments. In his opinion:

  • Such an economic system was given to people by Christ himself. He had had abstained from worldly goods during His earthen life; and also His Apostles, under His teaching, during and after His earthen life were living in a commune with no private property, with Judas Iscariot given the duty to administrate common wealths.
  • All Christians, not only the Apostles, from the earliest days of the Church and until about 100 A.D., were living in such communes, as testified by the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts of the Apostles are also the Biblical basis for the claim that such communism is the “correct” system people should live in, since it was imposed by the Apostles.
  • In this system love is at its highest, because everyone is given what they need and everyone work towards the good of the whole community.
  • After around 100 A.D. the Church allowed private property; they, however, did this only because there was much hostility towards this system among Christians themselves, so the Church allowed some sinless imperfection out of realism.
  • Modern Marxists borrowed the idea of Communism from Christianity. Their vice was that they attempted to impose it by force and through revolution rather than through sanctifying people’s hearts. Also, modern Marxists actually failed to even implement Communism; rather, they enforced a system that actually had little in common with true communism.

Does the Church teach that an economic system with no private property is best and holiest possible economic system, but one with private property is needed due to people’s imperfection? If the Church does not teach so, how does it interpret the relevant verses of the Acts of the Apostles?

Acts 4:32–37:

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. (…) There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. Thus Joseph, also named by the apostles Barnabas (which is translated "son of encouragement"), a Levite, a Cypriot by birth,sold a piece of property that he owned, then brought the money and put it at the feet of the apostles.

With annotation:

[32-37] This is the second summary characterizing the Jerusalem community (…). It emphasizes the system of the distribution of goods and introduces Barnabas, (…) who, as noted here (…), endeared himself to the community by a donation of money through the sale of property. This sharing of material possessions continues a practice that Luke describes during the historical ministry of Jesus (⇒ Luke 8:3) and is in accord with the sayings of Jesus in Luke's gospel (⇒ Luke 12:33; ⇒ 16:9, ⇒ 11, ⇒ 13).

So, judging from this annotation, it would seem that indeed the Bible wants such a system to be imposed. However, CCC 2401 and CCC 1883.1885 seem to say something contrary: (other interesting parts are CCC 2211, CCC 2402-2406 and CCC 2407)

1883 (…) the teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

1885 The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.

2401 (…) For the sake of the common good, it [the Seventh Commandment] requires respect for the universal destination of goods and respect for the right to private property. Christian life strives to order this world's goods to God and to fraternal charity.

How can CCC 1883.1885 and 2401 be reconciled with the aforementioned annotation to the Bible?

  • 4
    Your question is based on a false premise. The early Church was not communist. equip.org/article/was-the-early-church-communist Oct 10 '16 at 23:09
  • This is an interesting question for a lively discussion, but unfortunately that is not what this site is about. As it stands, the question invites a range of personal opinions. Oct 11 '16 at 2:28
  • @David Yes, that's true; Communism is atheist, and the early Church certainly wasn't atheist.
    – Geremia
    Oct 11 '16 at 2:32
  • @DickHarfield May I disagree, I'm asking about the teaching of the Church. Questions like "What does the Church teach about ... " are objective rather than subjective. Im not asking if you believe such system is the perfect system; Im asking if the Church believes so.
    – gaazkam
    Oct 11 '16 at 9:56
  • I suggest that you look into a modern attempt at that kind of system, called Distributism. It is very important to understand that things to not scale up evenly. Oct 11 '16 at 14:12

Not only has the early Church implemented such a "communal economic system" described in Acts 4:32–37, but it has been implemented in monasteries all throughout the Church's history, even today. For example, Benedictine monasteries have this rule (St. Benedict's Rule ch. 32):

Of the Tools and Goods of the Monastery

Let the Abbot appoint brethren on whose life and character he can rely, over the property of the monastery in tools, clothing, and things generally, and let him assign to them, as he shall deem proper, all the articles which must be collected after use and stored away. Let the Abbot keep a list of these articles, so that, when the brethren in turn succeed each other in these trusts, he may know what he giveth and what he receiveth back. If anyone, however, handleth the goods of the monastery slovenly or carelessly let him be reprimanded and if he doth not amend let him come under the discipline of the Rule.

Distributive & Commutative Justice

Fr. Hardon, S.J., defines "distributive justice" as

The virtue that regulates those actions which involve the rights that an individual may claim from society. According to distributive justice, the state has three basic duties: to distribute the common burdens and privileges equitably; to make it possible for each citizen to exercise natural and acquired rights without undue hindrance; to foster mutual relations among the citizens for living together peacefully. Inequitable imposition of taxes, for example, would be a violation of distributive justice.

and "commutative justice" as

The virtue that regulates those actions which involve the rights between one individual and another individual. If a person steals another's money, he or she violates commutative justice. Any violation of commutative justice imposes on the guilty party the duty of restitution, that is, the duty of repairing the harm caused. In fact, strictly speaking, only violations of commutative justice give rise to this duty of restitution.

John Horvat's Return to Order ch. 32 "An Organic Economic Order: A Passion for Justice" explains:

The Demands of Justice in Economy

Saint Thomas Aquinas defines the virtue of justice as “to render to each one his own.”³ In economic matters, commutative justice is the particular kind of justice that assures that one party will render to another in transactions what is due in strict equality as, for example, when the price one pays for an apple corresponds to its worth.⁴

It is by this justice that we own property. Although the earth was made to be shared by all, because of our fallen nature there arose the need for private property, so that by caring for that which is strictly ours, we preserve the peace and harmony of society. For as Aristotle points out, if property is commonly owned, “complaints are bound to arise between those who enjoy or take much but work little and those who take less but work more.”⁵

It is this justice by which we own the fruits of our labor, whether it be wages, fees, profits, or property. This is the basis of free enterprise since each tends to make the most efficient use of his own resources when properly compensated for those efforts. This, in turn, benefits the common good. Saint Albert the Great affirms that “everybody is by nature inclined to pay more attention to what is his own than to what is common; so that if this will be better cultivated it will also grow to good fruition where all are concerned.”⁶

[3] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 58, a. 11.
[4] See ibid., II-II, q. 61.
[5] Odd Langholm, Economics in the Medieval Schools: Wealth, Exchange, Value, Money and Usury According to the Paris Theological Tradition 1200-1350 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992), 172.
[6] Ibid., 174.

  • OK, thank you for your answer, have an upvote. However… one of the things that make me doubtful… CCC 1885 opposes “all forms of collectivism”… I am very much unsure how to reconcile this even with monastic life… much less with other things… How to interpret this canon?
    – gaazkam
    Oct 11 '16 at 11:36
  • "if property is commonly owned, 'complaints are bound to arise between those who enjoy or take much but work little and those who take less but work more.'" This is why communism does not work! The story in Acts about sharing was probably because of the vast number of people from far away gathering for the Feast. It was too much for the locals to help them so they all shared among themselves before going home.
    – Steve
    Oct 11 '16 at 13:26
  • Poor people get by via sharing. The early Church was a counterculture, not mainstream. So people worked together because it was a necessity to keep the community going. See a more recent and similar movement among the Kibutz' in Israel shortly after the 1948 war ... Oct 11 '16 at 14:09
  • @gaazkam Collectivism is the diametric opposite of individualism. There is no commutative justice and private property in collectivist societies/economies.
    – Geremia
    Oct 11 '16 at 16:34
  • 1
    This new book might be of your interest.
    – luchonacho
    Sep 16 '19 at 18:43

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