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So it turns out that I had even less time on my travels than I expected, and there is no barrage of prefab blog posts about to be unleashed.  But I did read an article on Aquinas’s view of property rights, which, although rubbish in itself, contained some remarkable quotes from the Church Fathers on the subject of charity and property rights.  Very shocking stuff, and I can’t help but ask, with a bit of a sense of betrayal--why, all those times when I learned about the Church Fathers, was none of this mentioned?  
Here are two representative passages:

“Are you not greedy?  Are you not acting like robbers?  Are you not usurping that which you have received merely in trust?  He who steals some one else’s garment is called a thief.  But he who fails to clothe the naked even if he were able to do so, does he not by chance deserve to be called by a different name?  The bread which you hold back actually belongs to the hungry; the garment which you lock in your chest belongs to the naked; the shoes which rot in your store house belong to the bare-footed; and the money which you are hiding...belongs to the needy.  Thus you do a great injustice to all those whom you could succor.... ‘Whom do I injure’, says the greedy, ‘if I merely keep what is mine?’  But then, tell me, what is really thine?  Wherefrom did you take it?  And how did it get into thy life?  Is the greedy person not like the man who, after having taken his seat in the theater, restrains all latecomers from attending the show, thus acting like one who considers his own that which actually is meant for the common use of all?  Are not the rich of this type?  For after having taken care of themselves by crude usurpation, they declare that everything they have gained by this usurpation is theirs forever.  But if any man would claim only what he really requires in order to satisfy his true needs, and would leave to the needy what exceeds his own immediate needs, then no one would be rich, and no one poor.” [St. Basil, from a Homily on the Gospel According to Luke]

“Is wealth therefore good? By no means. At the same time it is not bad, he says, if its possessor be not covetous; it is not bad, if it be distributed to the poor, otherwise it is bad, it is ensnaring. ‘But if he does not evil, though he does no good, it is not bad,’ he argues. True. But is not this an evil, that you alone should have the Lord's property, that you alone should enjoy what is common? Is not ‘the earth God's, and the fullness thereof’? If then our possessions belong to one common Lord, they belong also to our fellow-servants. The possessions of one Lord are all common. Do we not see this the settled rule in great houses? To all is given an equal portion of provisions, for it proceeds from the treasures of their Lord. And the house of the master is opened to all. The king's possessions are all common, as cities, market-places, and public walks. We all share them equally.
Mark the wise dispensation of God. That He might put mankind to shame, He has made certain things common, as the sun, air, earth, and water, the heaven, the sea, the light, the stars; whose benefits are dispensed equally to all as brethren. We are all formed with the same eyes, the same body, the same soul, the same structure in all respects, all things from the earth, all men from one man, and all in the same habitation.... Yet those greater things He has opened freely to all, that we might thence be instructed to have these inferior things in common. Yet for all this, we are not instructed.
But as I said, how can he, who is rich, be a good man? When he distributes his riches, he is good, so that he is good when he has ceased to have it, when he gives it to others; but while he keeps it himself, he is not good. How then is that a good which being retained renders men evil, being parted with makes them good? Not therefore to have wealth, but to have it not, makes one appear to be good. Wealth therefore is not a good. But if, when you can receive it, you receive it not, again you are good.
If then we are good, when having it, we distribute it to others; or when offered to us we refuse it, and if we are not good, when we receive or gain it, how can it be a good thing in itself? Call it not therefore a good. You possess it not, because you think it a good, because you are anxious to possess it. Cleanse your mind, and rectify your judgment, and then you will be good. Learn what are really goods. What are they? Virtue and benevolence. These and not that, are truly good. According to this rule, the more charitable you are, the more good you will be considered. But if you are rich, you are no longer good. Let us therefore become thus good, that we may be really good, and may obtain the good things to come in Jesus Christ.” (St. Chrysostom, from the Twelfth Homily on 1 Timothy)

3 comments:

Brad,

Good to see that you are back. How were your travels?

The church fathers quoted here - did any of them have families? (i.e. wife, children, dependents?) What do you think they mean by "wealth?" Do they just mean regular stuff? Do they mean more food and clothing than you could possibly ever need and wear? Do they mean more than just the clothes on your back? Do they mean more than just the clothes on your family's back?

The idea of holding all property as in trust from God is a very powerful idea and one that needs much fleshing out in the church. As trustees, however, we have duties before the Lord to use it as he would use it for His chosen beneficiaries. It is easy to argue that God wouldn't want us simply to put His trust corpus in the bank and sit on it making healthy interest and never using it for His glory. Likewise, stewardship, as in the parable of the talents, presupposes some amount of dominion and production from God's trust corpus so that the dividends therefrom can be added to the trust and also used for His good pleasure.

Your thoughts?

Cheers,

JRM

March 23, 2010 at 3:39 PM  

Hey Jess,
Travels were great...Evensong in York Minster is not an experience quickly forgotten. I've got some breathtaking pictures that will be up on Facebook soon, I hope.

As for your questions, I don't know how good of a position I am in to answer them, but I will do my best.

I do not know if Basil and Chrysostom were married, though I certainly expect that some of the Church Fathers who said such things (there were a great many cited in the article) did--clerical celibacy was certainly not universal at that time, and never was in the East. As for a definition of "wealth," that is very significant, in fact...the author of the article I got this from seemed to take it to mean, as you say "just regular stuff," but he didn't seem to have a very well-developed critical faculty, to say the least. I'd say that it means, "Any of one's possessions over and above what was needed for the basic needs of oneself and one's family--unless there was more than enough to go around for everyone, of course." But, there's an ambiguity here, for many of these Church Fathers would have preferred that all goods, not merely the surplus we have just defined as "wealth," be held in common, under the trusteeship of the Church.

As far as your second paragraph, I have had similar thoughts. That is certainly what Aquinas seems to envision as the just use of property--if you're good at managing money, then continue to have dominion over it, only make sure that you are truly managing it so as to use it for the good of all who have need of it more than you. My only qualms here are that this does not seem to fundamentally challenge the power relationships that Jesus, for example, challenges. The Pharisees give generously to the synagogues, but they give out of a position of power; the Romans patricians give generously to their constituencies, but they give out of a position of power. They do not make themselves vulnerable in their giving. The position of wealthy benefactor, however benefacting, seems to be one fraught with danger (though not thereby illegitimate). I explored this a bit in my post "The Politics of Self-Interest."

March 25, 2010 at 9:32 AM  

This is pretty timely for me; I am reading the sermons of St. Basil the Great.

March 27, 2010 at 4:21 PM  

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