1. The Vatican II council gave a very clear statement about this principle. “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner. Whatever the forms of property may be...attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods” (Gaudium et spes #69). Note here the importance of faith in God who created the world and placed this world in the hands of humanity so that each one can live with dignity.
2. The Catechism of the Catholic Church also mentions this. “The universe, created in and by the eternal Word, the ‘image of the invisible God’, is destined for and addressed to man, himself created in the ‘image of God’ and called to a personal relationship with God….for God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him. ” (CCC# 299).
3. All of creation is destined for all humanity and must therefore be made accessible to all. It will be a violation of justice and charity if this is not respected. Faith in the Creator cannot be set apart from the responsibility to make the effort to bring the goods of the created world in the hands of all.
4. Popes showed the importance of this principle. So Pope Leo XIII, for example, wrote that “God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race” (Rerum novarum #8). He continued to say that since God gave the earth for use of all, then private ownership should not be prohibited. “For God has granted the earth to mankind in general…” (RN#8). Private ownership is a right of each human.
5. Pope Pius XII spoke about the use of material goods in his 1941 (June) Radio message. He said that “Material goods have been created by God to meet the needs of all men, and must be at the disposal of all of them, as justice and charity require. Every man indeed, as a reason gifted being, has, from nature, the fundamental right to make use of the material goods of the earth.” (#12).
6. Pope John Paul II, after the Vatican Council, in his different encyclicals repeated the notion that the goods of the earth are destined for all. Let us cite from one text: “It is necessary to state once more the characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine: the goods of this world are originally meant for all” (Solicitudo rei socialis #42).
7. What are the Popes and the Vatican council trying to say? God gave the earth to humanity for sustenance. The resources are for all without excluding or favoring anyone. God gave the whole earth to the human. All that the earth contains is for all so that all would be shared fairly by all.
8. Earth is God’s gift to us. Earth takes care of our basic needs—our “primary needs” allowing us to feed ourselves, grow, communicate, associate and attain our vocation—our highest purposes. The right to use resources of the earth is a right of all. The goods of the earth are for all—universally. They are destined for all. Access to resources must be granted to all members of society.
Private ownership is a right but should not prohibit others from having their own private ownership of goods.
9. Now the principle of the Universal Destination of Goods does not mean that we can do whatever we want. The principle does not mean that everything is at the disposal of everyone. This is the position of Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes. The goods of the world are destined for humanity “and people“. Let us quote the document: “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples” (GS#69). This may look strange but it is an emphasis on the political aspect of sharing.
10. Pope Leo XIII mentioned that “the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by… the laws of individual races” (RN#8). Note what the Pope is saying here. Politics and the legal systems of each country must assure social members of the right to private ownership. Vatican II picked this up and saw that it had to be applied in the social, economic and political fields. Pope John Paul II also made it clear. Christian tradition, he said, does not consider private ownership as absolute. This right is understood “within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone” (Laborem exercens # 14).
11. The Pope is emphasizing that even if everyone has the common right to private ownership even the things owned are meant for everyone. Each one has the right to own something—to have private property. But this ownership must be regulated. Why must it be regulated? The problem with owning something can happen when my ownership does not allow others to own. The universal destination of goods is violated--it is limited to the hands of a few.
12. As each person has ownership, the goods owned cannot be simply exclusive of the owner. Earth is from God. Resources are, in the final analysis, from God. God wanted all earth resources shared to all. It is a violation of justice and charity if my ownership cannot allow others to own. The earth is not mine, it is not from me, it is from God. So my ownership needs some regulation so that it does not stop the universal destination of goods. The earth is given to all—not just to the wealthy people. Pope Paul VI wrote: “The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich." (Populorum progressio #23).
13. Private property is not an absolute. It is only an instrument for respecting the principle of the universal destination of goods. Private property is the right of everyone. Therefore a private ownership should not stop others from having their own private ownership. It is necessary that the goods of the earth flow to all.
Private ownership has a social role.
14. Private ownership is still oriented to something social—what we own should be able to benefit not only us but also others. ” So ownership of goods must be equally accessible to all. The Church is saying that my private ownership must allow others their right to private ownership too. I cannot exercise my right to private ownership by prohibiting others to exercise their right to private ownership. So, the Church would emphasize that private ownership has an obligation. The obligation is to consider the effects of private ownership. Private ownership is still oriented to the common good. Owners have the obligation “not to let the goods in their possession go idle”. Goods privately owned must be channeled “to productive activity, even entrusting them to others who are desirous and capable of putting them to use in production”. (See Compendium #178).
15. So it is still to remove monopolies that marginalize people and countries. We must still provide all with the basic conditions that allow all to “bloom”.
16. What is the possible result of allowing private ownership for all? There is “better living conditions, security for the future, and a greater number of options from which to choose” (See Compendium # 181). Just make sure that private ownership is not made absolute. Recognize that whatever it is that we own “are dependent on God the Creator” and we must direct them for the common good. Private ownership is for the common good (See Compendium # 181).
The Universal destination of goods is for all humanity not just now but for the future too.
17. Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “The environment is God's gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole” (Caritas in veritate # 48).
18. This is why the notion of development must be durable. This means to leave something for future generations so that they can meet their needs to live with dignity. The Pope wrote that “we must recognize our grave duty to hand the earth on to future generations in such a condition that they too can worthily inhabit it and continue to cultivate it” (Caritas in veritate # 50).
Take the case of Business in the light of this principle
1. Let us talk about business. It may be awkward to discuss this among religious people with vows. Is it not true that you, religious, do not run after money and profit? Yet you hold schools and hospitals and clinics and other enterprises. In them there is money involved. There is a certain amount of profit. You still do business. If you are purely "non-profit" in your enterprises you will not be able to continue with them. How can you maintain a school or clinic without some profit? What will financially sustain your business? Let us see how doing business can be "in a Christian way".
2. Pope John Paul II, in his Solicitudo rei socialis, emphasized that we have to consider, in any business enterprise, human dignity and development. Yes, there will always be tension. A business will surely be thinking of profit. Profit has to be maximized. But what about personal development of workers? What about justice and charity for customers? What about respect for the ecology? When we start thinking of these and put them along maximization of profit, we really see tension. (Already you see the tension between your schools or hospitals making money while you try your best to be faithful to poverty. Surely a tension can be felt.)
What is a business enterprise for the Social Doctrine of the Church?
3 Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical Rerum novarum in favor of improving the lives of workers. The Pope John XXIII in his encyclical Mater et magistra wrote that the business enterprise must be a community of persons. Pope John Paul II in his Centesimus annus said that the business enterprise is more than a society of capital. It is a society of persons--a community of persons. "A business cannot be considered only as a "society of capital goods"; it is also a "society of persons" in which people participate in different ways and with specific responsibilities, whether they supply the necessary capital for the company's activities or take part in such activities through their labor" (Centesimus annus #43). It is not just a company out to make profit. It is a community of persons satisfying their basic needs and servicing society. Let us quote the Pope: "the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavoring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society" (Centesimus annus #35).
4. Of course what the Social Doctrine says and what really happens are very often in contradiction. A business is interested in profit, returns to investments, and at times paying debts. It is not easy to find a business enterprise where everyone--including the small workers--have a role in decision making. This was what Pope Pius XI proposed this: "Let, then, both workers and employers strive with united strength and counsel to overcome the difficulties and obstacles...." (Quadragesimo anno #73). Note that the strive to overcome difficulties is a shared task between employers and workers. Do not side-line the workers and other shareholders.
Is the business "universally destined" for all stakeholders?
5. Let us face it, there is a big gap between the actual business practice today with the ideal of a "democratic" doing of business. Small workers do not have real power. The "big shots" in the business have the power. Do we then say that this idea of a business as a "community of persons" a dream and is opposed to the real practices of business? Pope Benedict XVI saw this problem and noted that even if business ethics do not stand in line with the Church's social doctrine, "there is nevertheless a growing conviction that business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference" (Caritas in veritate #40).
6. The Social Doctrine of the Church invites everyone to think about this. Never forget human dignity, especially the dignity of workers. Pope Benedict XVI gave this his thought. He believed that "human social relationships of friendship, solidarity and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity.... The economic sphere is neither ethically neutral, nor inherently inhuman and opposed to society. It is part and parcel of human activity and precisely because it is human, it must be structured and governed in an ethical manner" (Caritas in veritate #36).
Business in the common good: society and workers
7. Business and economics should be oriented for the common good--that is, oriented for the "blooming" of social members. Businesses have a role to play here. We can ask if the service or product of a business is socially useful. Does it help make people really "bloom"? Pope John Paul II saw that today business should not just supply people with things but also with QUALITY. In other words, business should serve the quality of life. It is not enough to just sell anything to people. It is not enough to just think of making profits. "Profit is a regulator of the life of a business, but it is not the only one; other human and moral factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least equally important for the life of a business" (Centesimus annus #35). Businesses need to see how their services and goods help people live life with quality; with dignity. Pope John Paul II questions "life style" marked by having things, owning things such as what happens in consumerist societies.
8. So a business might have to consider its investments. He says that "even the decision to invest in one place rather than another... is always a moral and cultural choice". So the decision to invest--to do business--must see how it can "offer people an opportunity to make good use of their own labor, is also determined by an attitude of human sympathy and trust in Providence, which reveal the human quality of the person making such decisions" (Centesimus annus #36). Of course this includes the respect given to workers too; to those who participate in the production and supply of goods and services. Workers also have to be respected in their quality of life. They are not things or tools of production. They too must develop their humanity--their capacities and competences and talents. They are not just useful for production.
9. This is why the Social Doctrine emphasizes "integral development" as part of business. Business is oriented to development of society and its workers. Workers' rights and interests must be defended. They have a cultural role too. Through their labor they participate in the life of society. their nation and to assist them along the path of development.
10. Let us return to this discussion about profit. As we cited above, "profit is regulator of the life of a business" (CA # 35). But there are many other indicators too: "other human and moral factors must also be considered which, in the long term, are at least equally important for the life of a business" (CA #35). Indeed, it is not just about making profit. It is a kind of "community life" too. It is alright to look for profit but that should not remove the "communal" aspect of business and its societal role of servicing the needs of society too. Pope John Paul II note that when profit is the main goal of business, conflict arises. Workers, for example, are placed at the disposal of employers and capitalists who try to "establish the lowest possible wages" for the workers. Then there is "exploitation connected with the lack of safety at work and of safeguards regarding the health and living conditions of the workers and their families" (Laborem exercens #11). Profit then is criticized when it reduces and limits focuses human energies, making everyone just think of profit.
11. There is also one important point to consider. The ecological problem we have today tells us that profit at the expense of the environment is not a healthy business option. When the motivation is so focused on profit maximization, the risk is to allow even for a dis-respect of the environment. Again it is alright to go for profit, but know the price; know the consequences. Pope John Paul II saw the problem when he noted the "rebellion on the part of nature, which is more tyrannized than governed" by those who disrespect it.
12. Let us not forget Pope Francis in his Laudato si. There he writes about "economic ecology". Economics can involve maximizing profits and reducing costs. The Pope suggests that this be ecological too. "This suggests the need for an 'economic ecology' capable of appealing to a broader vision of reality. The protection of the environment is in fact 'an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it' (LS#141).
13. The world of the ecology cannot be separated, today, from the other domains of society including economics and business. There is an interrelation between ecosystems and between the various spheres of social interaction, demonstrating yet again that “the whole is greater than the
part” (LS #142).
A word to conclude: Ethics in Economics
14. We might think that the Social Doctrine of the Church is too "corny". Business can be exciting and challenging so why start making issues out of things like profit? What the Social Doctrine simply wants to put ethics in economics and business. Economy and finances should still be marked by ethics.