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Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, and the universal destination of goods

In making the distinction between ownership and use, Pope Francis is hearkening back to St. Thomas Aquinas.

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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).

Other CWR essays on Fratelli tutti:
• “Fratelli Tutti is a familiar mixture of dubious claims, strawmen, genuine insights” (Oct. 5, 2020) by Samuel Gregg
• “An encyclical filled with tensions and omissions” (Oct. 8, 2020) by Paulo Futili
• Fratelli Tutti and its critics” (Oct. 9, 2020) by Larry Chapp
• “Culture, dialogue, religion, and truth in Fratelli Tutti (Oct. 9, 2020) by Eduardo Echeverria
• “Brothers without Borders: Pope Francis’s Quasi-Humanitarian Manifesto” (Oct. 10, 2020) by Daniel J. Mahoney
“Reading Fratelli Tutti on Mars Hill” (Oct 14. 2020) by Douglas Farrow
Fratelli Tutti and the Preaching of the Good News” (Oct 23, 2020) by Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM., Cap.

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About Bishop Robert Barron 203 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at


  1. Well, that’s easy. Nothing remains over. So if God wants me to give anything to anyone, he’d better send some more my way. Otherwise, tough.

  2. In full appreciation for Bishop Barron’s contribution, but what if Fratelli tutti is not really about schools of economics?. . . Fratelli tutti concludes with a more illuminating reference to Charles do Foucauld (nn. 286, 287). Really brilliant. Prior to the self-defeating Versailles peace initiative, this 19th-century traveler (from a wealthy pedigree tracing back to the Crusades) retired deep into the Sahara…

    Foucauld (1858-1916) was a high living Foreign Legionnaire (colonialism!) who later turned priest. He lived for fifteen years as a solitary monk and teacher partly among the nominally Muslim Touareg peoples. Like Mohammad he had been orphaned at eight. And, like Mohammad and as a young man, he converted—but to Trinitarian Christianity rather than from paganism to monotheism, by subtraction. A turning point that happened in a cramped Paris confessional—rather than in a cave at Mt. Hira as was the case with Mohammad.

    Foucauld gained many converts—not by conquest (read short- or long-term jihad), but by the witness of his personal poverty and simplicity. Of missionary peoples (and not unlike Fratelli tutti), he said, “Neither does our role as Little Brothers include working for their adaptation to the Western materialistic, technological form of civilization, which, moreover, comes far from representing the only conceivable idea of a really human civilization.”

    Foucauld’s own conversion from a dissolute, comfortable and bored existence (a personal conversion rather than now possibly societal) continued in Morocco where “through the faith of an entire people of Moslems, he had glimpsed something of the greatness of God” (Rene Voillaume, Seeds of the Desert, Fides Publishers, 1964).

    But—as an (equivalent?) religion, Islam has no “memory” of original sin, and therefore no place for a Redeemer… So, while happily free of Versailles’ vengeance—and fully onboard with Fratelli tutti—how best can the Catholic Church help build/mediate/negotiate/craft a multireligious/generic Fraternity without our members fading into yet another post-Christian heresy: Masonic Pelagianism?

  3. LOL. Who is fully onboard with Fratelli tutti or untying else this pope serves up? Francis has pretty much gutted faithful Catholicism.

  4. Fruits of Labor, what Capitalism existed as, is, or that which in a cycle is the people produce to sustain themselves by, the “village of economics”. together we survive, divided, we starve and fail, and dissolve.

    Yet the fact of, the United States is now the Number one food importing nation, dependent on not the village IN the USA to feed the people in the USA.. BUT, A village in another country, continent to feed the USA…
    And,,,,,,,,,,,,,,… recent time, People in another Village on another Continent, just took over an entire Major Food Entity within the USA for their own USE, they control…by, Unbridled Capitalism…

    You Kiddies of assumed Intellect should study that one. Grasp it, and the consequences. Real wars started over that. World war TWO started over, UNBRIDLED CAPITALISM…. bUT WE CANT SAY THAT, ITS NOT POLITICALLY CORRECT. OR, ITS HOW THE INTELECT ARE HELD, STUPID. IN denial of reality.

  5. Both Chrysostom and Gregory were assuming a society of mainly Christians, in which the poor were entitled to fraternal charity by virtue of their membership in the covenant community. We see this same phenomenon in the Old Testament among the Jewish people. Leo’s novelty was to consider society-in-general as the equivalent of the church. “They held all things in common”. is a template for the church, not a program for improving the world.

    • Ah, you’ve reached the crux of the matter, Thomas! That which is “freely” given. Freedom. Freedom to live as we please, not as we are told, or forced to to. Freedom to worship. Freedom to read what we wish. Our Freedom is at stake here.

  6. Thank you !

    Having just started reading the above , see how the above too can serve as a good means of clarifying doubts about the ‘ brotherhood ‘ truth that the Holy Father is trying to help all to take in , through the glorious nature of Bl.Mother , so vividly given in the above .

    The misconceptions about The Truth of the Incarnation in other faiths too can be lifted away , in the role given to the Bl.Mother , having been gifted with such graces as to be only living in the Divine Will , with its awesome aspects , from the very moment of her Immaculate Conception .

    May The Queen of Heaven make each of us too , to be possessed by the Divine Will !

  7. Bishop Barron’s focus on Fratelli is the Common Good, the primary ethical principle that recognizes not only the right to property, but also the moral charge to meet the needs of those in want. To further explore this as a justice issue, what then of taking from others when in need? Saint Alphonsus divides sin as formal and material. “Formal sin is the free, knowing, and deliberate choice to engage in material sin—to do what we know to be evil. When we say ‘stealing,’ we’re talking about material sin. Material sin is in the act chosen; formal sin is in the will of the one who chooses. It’s possible to perform one without the other” (Fr Stephen Rehrauer on CSSR Alphonsus Liguouri). Liguori follows Aquinas on just confiscation of goods and the premise that when someone in sufficient need appropriates from another secretly [for example fruit from an orchard, or as in Brazil’s Amazonia more openly when the indigenous native appropriates land claimed by the State] the fault is material not morally culpable. Another current example, the Mexican government set up a Justice Commission for the Yaqui People, looking to solve the land, water and infrastructure problems of what President Andrés Manuel López Obrador called Mexico’s most persecuted Indigenous group. The Yaquis were attacked and temporarily evicted from their homeland in northern Mexico’s Sonora state over 100 years ago. Justice in distribution of goods varies in diverse instances. State control of that distribution has a just role to play. For the man with sufficient goods the persistent issue has always been the degree of coercive appropriation by the State such as taxes, levies on goods. And since Marx totality of coercive management of the universal destination of goods. As in excessive State control, and forms of utopian socialism that freedom is suffocated. Tutti Fratelli suggests the antagonism of a world order and the place of individual freedom in the praxis of Christian charity. The loss of that freedom in the exercise of charity is the perceived danger of such an order.

  8. Bishop Barron, really? The same bishop who endorsed Father James Martin’s latest prayer book? I read and give and purchase from Ignatius for orthodoxy, not pretty much anything his excellency has to say. Unless of course he’s ready to address the McCarrick situation and how much McCarrick and soon to be Cardinal Wilton Gregory worked together at he USCCB.

  9. Francis would lead best by example rather than words? If he disposed of all Church “luxury” assets to feed the poor he would demonstrate his belief in his words? It is hard to take a man serious re feeding the poor when he is holding a gold cup or standing in front of a statue worth many millions while members of the mystical body of Christ starve?

    • I don’t know what you mean by luxury assets, but if you mean churches and their accouterments, these belong to all the faithful, including the poor.

  10. The “poor” who are breaking into Western countries are often relatively well-off people looking for an opportunity to plunder. If anyone has a responsibility to more equitably share wealth with the indigent of the Third World, it would be the elites of their native lands whose gross mismanagement and thievery are responsible for most of the misery in these places. Mexico, a nation rich in natural resources, is a prime example. The rich there have used immigration to the United States as a safety valve for avoiding genuine reform for decades. Somehow, Francis’ lectures never seem to directed to them. Finally, Francis is nothing if not a Marxist and a globalist in a papal robe. His open affection for Communist thugs around the world and his great working relationships with the money men like Jeffrey Sachs make that abundantly clear.

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