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Chapter 10: Work, Subhuman Realities, and Property


The Church’s social doctrine embodies a rich development of thinking about responsibilities regarding work and subpersonal creation, including those regarding property and ownership.

Work is a basic human good through which people realize themselves as acting persons, and workers also have responsibilities toward their employers and toward others. These include trying to do good work, being loyal to employers, treating fellow workers fairly and mercifully, and not seeking unfairly high payment. For their part, employers have responsibilities toward workers: to treat them as associates, to recognize the priority of work over capital, to provide appropriate working conditions and just remuneration, to respond fairly to merit, to treat both men and women fairly, and to make special provisions for the disabled. Justice requires either that employers pay a family wage or that social measures meet the needs of workers with families to support. Workers’ associations also have responsibilities. While they should not unfairly limit access to work, strikes can be justified within narrow limits.

Subpersonal creation neither is mere material for exploitation nor is it sacred in itself. Christians should treat subpersonal things as God’s good creatures, and should see their dominion over nature as limited by moral norms. Both good and bad human use of subpersonal creation transform it; and, as the subhuman world was adversely affected by Adam’s fall, so now Christians should help renew it. In enjoying and using nature, one should revere its creator. One also should use natural things reasonably and with restraint. As for animals, they do not have rights, but they should be treated kindly and used reasonably.

The ownership of property always remains subordinate to the universal destination of goods: God gives all material goods to humankind as a whole in order that everyone’s needs might be met. Both private and public property are morally justifiable, but the universal destination of goods limits the rights of owners. Insofar as it is just, each society’s property system specifies many moral responsibilities regarding material goods.

The Christian concept of property implies two basic moral norms applying to owners: they should share the use of their property with others and should practice conservation. A number of specific moral norms also must be observed in acquiring things, in caring for material goods, in seeing to their use and disposal, in returning lost or stolen property, and in regard to saving and insuring. Gambling can be morally acceptable but often is an abuse of property. Sins of thought bearing on property also should be avoided.

One also should help others to fulfill their responsibilities in regard to acquiring and using things, and should not unfairly take their property from them. Many acts which are not usually considered theft really are theft, morally speaking.

A person also has responsibilities in transactions. Giving and receiving gifts should promote interpersonal communion. Lenders should be generous and borrowers honest. Exchanges should be truly just, not merely mutually accepted. Seeking and accepting interest on a loan can be just.