The earth is for everyone

Man’s share in lordship

Rev José Mario O Mandía

When God created Adam and Eve, he gave them three natural gifts. First, he made them in his image and likeness, giving them an immortal soul equipped with the power to know and to love. Secondly, he gave them a share in his power – he made them lords and masters of material creation (cf Genesis 1:26). Lastly, he gave them a share in his creative work, making them man and woman (cf Genesis 1:27-28). Today, we will talk a bit about the second natural gift.

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)

Man is given dominion and lordship. The world belongs to him. “The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2402) The reason for this lordship is that God wanted man “to keep it and till” the earth (Genesis 2:15). Working on the earth requires dominion and ownership.

To own something is thus a God-given right of every single person. The Church calls this the “universal destination of goods”. The earth is for everyone. Nonetheless, because material things are by their very nature limited, the natural right to own them is also limited; the right to ownership is not absolute. Political authority has a grave responsibility “to regulate the legitimate exercise of the right to ownership for the sake of the common good.”(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2406)

The Catechism (no 2409) spells out the offenses against this right. “Even if it does not contradict the provisions of civil law, any form of unjustly taking and keeping the property of others is against the seventh commandment: thus, deliberate retention of goods lent or of objects lost; business fraud; paying unjust wages; forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another.”

It continues, “The following are also morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste. Willfully damaging private or public property is contrary to the moral law and requires reparation.”

In extreme cases, taking some thing from someone else may not be theft. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2408) declares: “There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing…) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others.”

To own something is a God-given right of every single person. Even more so if it is the payment for work done. The Catechism says in very clear terms, “A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice. In determining fair pay both the needs and the contributions of each person must be taken into account. Remuneration for work should guarantee man the opportunity to provide a dignified livelihood for himself and his family on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level, taking into account the role and the productivity of each, the state of the business, and the common good. Agreement between the parties is not sufficient to justify morally the amount to be received in wages.” (no 2434)

On the other hand, a person who works for pay must, in justice, work well. He has a right to receive just pay, but he has an obligation to be competent and honest at work. The Catechism points out in no. 2409 that work poorly done is akin to stealing and is morally wrong.

The Old Testament decreed: “Thou shalt not steal” (Exodus 20:15). But the New Testament makes it more challenging: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). We have a right to own things, but we should not be possessive. We, who live in a materialist culture, should be aware of this great temptation to become slaves of novelty.

Many people have praised Pope Francis for advocating poverty, but the Holy Father has clarified on a few occasions that he is not speaking about sociological poverty – the poverty of having nothing – but a theological poverty – freeing one’s heart from material things. This interior freedom makes one capable of loving God above everything else.

Lordship and mastery require the practice of the virtues. The Catechism (no 2407) points out the need for “the practice of the virtue of temperance, so as to moderate attachment to this world’s goods; the practice of the virtue of justice, to preserve our neighbor’s rights and render him what is his due; and the practice of solidarity, in accordance with the golden rule and in keeping with the generosity of the Lord, who ‘though he was rich, yet for your sake . . . became poor so that by his poverty, you might become rich.’

To own something, to acquire wealth, is good in itself, because it helps a person contribute to the common good and work for the welfare of others. Moreover, through proper use of material things in our work, we can become holy, like Saint Joseph and the Blessed Virgin.

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