SOURCE: Acton Institute
by Rev. Gregory Jensen
One thinker who can help us understand more fully the anthropological vision that underlies Chrysostom’s argument is the 19th century Russian Orthodox philospher Vladimir Solovyov. Though he doesn’t engage Chrysostom’s sermons, Solovyov advances an argument that helps us understand why for the saint even the materially poor are obligated to participate in the philanthropic work of the Church. Specifically, I have in mind Solovyov’s broader argument that our right to property and to use it as we see fit (within the limits of the moral law) reflects our ability (1) to think, (2) to recognize ourselves in our own thoughts, and (3) to recognize our thoughts as distinct from ourselves. These are qualities that are not limited to the middle class or much the wealthy but are common to all human beings, including the very poorest among us.
Though he begins with the thinking subject, Solovyov is no Cartesian and is sensitive to the social dimension of the person and so of property. While all “the acute questions of the economic life are closely connected with the idea of property,” the question of property itself “belongs to the sphere of jurisprudence, morality, and psychology rather than to that of economic relations” in the narrow sense. Moreover, all human wealth – not just material but intellectual, spiritual, and cultural – is always at least partially inherited. The Russian philosopher observed, in his The Justification of the Good: An Essay on Moral Philosophy, that if “it were not for the intentional and voluntary handing down of what has been acquired, we should have only a physical succession of generations, the later repeating the life of the former, as is the case with animals.” Inherited wealth has potential to humanize us because it embodies and communicates the “moral interaction in the most intimate and the most fundamental social group,” the family. As the “embodiment of pity” (i.e., philanthropy, compassion and love) inherited wealth transcends “the grave” making tangible the parents’ love “for their children” while at the same time serving as “a concrete point of departure for a pious memory of the departed parents.”
Solovyov concludes by arguing that “it is not sufficient to recognise the ideal character which obviously attaches to such property: it is necessary to strengthen and develop this character” through the protection of personal property rights. It is only in this way that we can hope to combat the sinful human tendency to treat “the earth as a lifeless instrument of rapacious exploitation; the plots of land handed down from one generation to another must, in principle, be made inalienable and sufficient to maintain in each person a moral attitude towards the earth.” While his last assertion is problematic — how precisely does one guarantee sufficient land for subsequent generations simply through inheritance? — nevertheless whatever the practical challenges, Solovyov is clear that private property is key to protecting human dignity and to creating a just society, both civil and religious.
Given the pressing need to undo the economic, and more importantly moral and spiritual, damage done during the Soviet era, it is not suprising that the Russian Orthodox Church affirms the right to property. The Moscow Patriarchate in its 2000 document, “The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” teaches that private property is essential to both a just civil society and the Church’s own ministries. Property, or more broadly wealth, is “God’s gift given to be used for [our] own and [our] neighbor’s benefit” (VII.2). The right to private property is “a socially recognized form of people’s relationship to the fruits of their labour and to natural resources” that under normal circumstances includes not only “the right to … use property” but also “to control and collect income” from one’s property and “to dispose of, lease, modify or liquidate property” (VII.1). While acknowledging that in a fallen world the creation of wealth and the right to private property can “produce … sinful phenomena” when undertaken in ways that are not “proper and morally justified” (VII.3), the Church stresses that this does not justify the dissolution of property rights or income re-distribution since “the alienation and re-distribution of property” violates “the rights of its legitimate owners” (VII.3).
To be clear, property rights are not a panacea – protecting and enhancing private ownership will not cure all that ails us personally or socially. Nor can we separate the exercise of our right to property from the moral law or, for Christians, the Gospel. But Orthodox social thought does I think allow us to make a convincing case that property rights are a key element of human flourishing, a necessary ingredient of a just society, and an aid to Christian ministry. Rooted as it is in human nature, it is also a right that can help us see the dignity of all members of the human family and of the ability that all of us – rich or poor, male or female, young or old – have to serve the flourishing of those around us, our society and the Church.