After providing three objections to private property, Aquinas now puts forward his own view justifying private property.

This is a continuation of my commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s  views of private property in Article 2, Question 66 of Summa Theologiæ.  ST II-II, 66, 2 [ST 2a2æ 66, 2]. The posts in sequence are: 1)  Article 1 Text and Commentary 2) Article 2 Text and Prologue 3) Objection 1 to Private Property 4) On relationship of Natural Law and Human Law 5) Objection 2 to Private Property 6) Objection 3 to Private Property 7) Aquinas’s Views of Private Property (this post) 8) The First Human Competence: Care and Commerce 9) The Three Reasons Private Property is Necessary  10) The Second Human Competence 11) Reply to Objection 1: All Things in Common  12) Reply to Objection 2: Analogy of the Theater 12) Reply to Objection 3: Over consumption is robbery


Here is Aquinas’s text in response to the Objections. I have added line breaks and bullets to make it easier to read:

On the contrary, Augustine says (De Haeres., haer. 40): “The ‘Apostolici’ are those who with extreme arrogance have given themselves that name, because they do not admit into their communion persons who are married or possess anything of their own, such as both monks and clerics who in considerable number are to be found in the Catholic Church.” Now the reason why these people are heretics was because severing themselves from the Church, they think that those who enjoy the use of the above things, which they themselves lack, have no hope of salvation. Therefore it is erroneous to maintain that it is unlawful for a man to possess property.

I answer that, Two things are competent to man in respect of exterior things.

One is the power to procure and dispense them, and in this regard it is lawful for man to possess property. Moreover this is necessary to human life for three reasons.

  • First because every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one would shirk the labor and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens where there is a great number of servants.
  • Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately.
  • Thirdly, because a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to be observed that quarrels arise more frequently where there is no division of the things possessed.

The second thing that is competent to man with regard to external things is their use. In 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. Hence the Apostle says (1 Tim. 6:17,18): “Charge the rich of this world . . . to give easily, to communicate to others,” etc.

My commentary:

Having covered the objections to private property, Aquinas now explains why he holds that private property is licit or legal. As always, he begins his response to the opposing views, with reference to an authority who holds his position, in this case Saint Augustine.

Augustine in his summary of heresies condemns the arrogance of those who call themselves as “Apostolici” and who refuse to admit to their ranks anyone who holds private property or who marries. “There are many monks and clerics who live this type of life. But the Apostolici are heretics because separating themselves from the Church, they think that they who make use of the things from which they themselves abstain have no hope for salvation.”  By saying this is a heresy, Augustine implies  that the possession of private property and marriage are licit and do not become a barrier to salvation.1)Following the English translation by L.G.Müller, The “De haeresibus of St. Augustine” (Patristic Studies 90), Catholic University of America, Washington 1956, p. 81. The Blackfriars  translation acknowledges that every form of monastic life has been characterized by the sharing of goods and chastity since they are inspired by the Apostolic community of Acts (Acts 2:45). The translation notes that many such groups have arisen including a sect during the time of St. Thomas begun by Gerard Segatelli, which was condemned at Rome in 1286 and 1291.

It is interesting that Aquinas marshals Augustine’s views of heresy, and not Augustine’s comments on private property, which could have supported Aquinas’s views. 2)See discussion in Richard J. Dougherty, “Catholicism and the Economy: Augustine and Aquinas on Property Ownership” In Journal of Markets & Morality. Vol 6:2 2 (Fall 2003): 479–495. I hope to return to the relationship of Augustine and Aquinas on the topic of private property later

Human Competences

Having marshaled Augustine in support of his own position, Aquinas now spells out the reasons that private property is licit and not against nature. We shall see that Aquinas here draws heavily on Aristotle’s Politics and the justification of private property.  Aquinas argument is a bit difficult to follow because he offers two major reasons for private property and then subdivides the first into three supporting points. His argument, reordered a bit, goes something like this:

Human beings have a twofold competence in relationship to material things:
1) the power to procure and dispense things (Latin: potestas procurandi et dispensandi)
2) [the competence] to use things. (Latin: competit homini circa res exteriors est usus ipsarum)

What does Aquinas mean here? The answer turns in part on the meaning of the word translated here as “competence.” “Competence,” as Aquinas uses it, carries multiple layers of meaning in Aquinas. He uses it to refer to a range of meanings in English including “capable,” “skilled at” “sufficiently trained in,” “fitting,” “appropriate,” “able, “ and even “natural.” If you want, you can look at other examples here. 3)For example, a body is “competent” [=made for, capable of, fitted to be] to be a living thing (ST Ia, 74, 1), “because of reason, man is competent [=fitted or appropriate] to have mastership” (Ia, 96, 2, ad. 2); “matter is not competent [capable of] to act” (ST Ia, 115, 2); “irrational animals are not competent [=able] to choose” (ST Ia-II, 13, 2); “though the soul is not composed of matter and form, yet it has something of potentiality, in respect of which it is competent to receive or to be passive” (ST I-II, 22, 1, ad. 1); “a drunken man… is incompetent to judge [certain words of significance], his drunkenness hindering him” (ST I-II, 77, 2, ad. 5); “Prelates are competent to preach in virtue of their office, but religious may be competent to do so in virtue of delegation” (ST II-II 186, 5 ad. 2).

The implication then is that humans are capable, fit, made, and entitled to engage in care, commerce and use of external things. Let us take up each of these competences up in turn.

References   [ + ]

1.Following the English translation by L.G.Müller, The “De haeresibus of St. Augustine” (Patristic Studies 90), Catholic University of America, Washington 1956, p. 81. The Blackfriars  translation acknowledges that every form of monastic life has been characterized by the sharing of goods and chastity since they are inspired by the Apostolic community of Acts (Acts 2:45). The translation notes that many such groups have arisen including a sect during the time of St. Thomas begun by Gerard Segatelli, which was condemned at Rome in 1286 and 1291.
2.See discussion in Richard J. Dougherty, “Catholicism and the Economy: Augustine and Aquinas on Property Ownership” In Journal of Markets & Morality. Vol 6:2 2 (Fall 2003): 479–495. I hope to return to the relationship of Augustine and Aquinas on the topic of private property later
3.For example, a body is “competent” [=made for, capable of, fitted to be] to be a living thing (ST Ia, 74, 1), “because of reason, man is competent [=fitted or appropriate] to have mastership” (Ia, 96, 2, ad. 2); “matter is not competent [capable of] to act” (ST Ia, 115, 2); “irrational animals are not competent [=able] to choose” (ST Ia-II, 13, 2); “though the soul is not composed of matter and form, yet it has something of potentiality, in respect of which it is competent to receive or to be passive” (ST I-II, 22, 1, ad. 1); “a drunken man… is incompetent to judge [certain words of significance], his drunkenness hindering him” (ST I-II, 77, 2, ad. 5); “Prelates are competent to preach in virtue of their office, but religious may be competent to do so in virtue of delegation” (ST II-II 186, 5 ad. 2).

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