Letter: Property rights a civil liberty - Southern Cross

22 April 2018 - Your article (‘What Church says on Land Redistribution’, 28 March 2018) opens with sentiments common among Catholic social thinkers: ‘The Catholic Church recognises the right to private property, but this right is subordinate to the common good and the needs of the wider community’. A nod at the right to private property, followed by a dismissal of it.

Property rights a civil liberty

Your article (‘What Church says on Land Redistribution’, 28 March 2018) opens with sentiments common among Catholic social thinkers: ‘The Catholic Church recognises the right to private property, but this right is subordinate to the common good and the needs of the wider community’. A nod at the right to private property, followed by a dismissal of it.

This is unfortunate. Church teaching regards the holding of private property as natural and positive. This is made clear in the Catechism and in Rerum Novarum. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, notes further that private property ‘constitutes one of the conditions for civil liberty’.

It is true that Church teaching does not view the right to property as absolute. The principle, however, needs to remain intact. The idea that property rights inhibit the common good is a pernicious one. It is contrary to Church teaching, and invariably brings suffering.

Totalitarian regimes typically use the deprivation of property to cripple opposition, real or potential. The Church has often faced this in ‘revolutionary’ societies in the past century.

It is also a mistake to assume that property rights are only valuable for the affluent and powerful. Poor people stand to suffer greatly when their small-scale holdings – a couple of acres of farmland, a small apartment, a few head of livestock – are not afforded protection. The world over, governments dispossess poor folk in the name of development. The ‘relocation’ of communities in Brazil and China from homes to which they lacked formal, legal title, in preparation for large sporting events is a prime example.

There are lessons here for South Africa. Redress measures such as land reform and housing provision are important. But they need to empower their beneficiaries, granting ownership and title deeds, and bringing them into structures of ownership – consonant with Church teaching, and making social and economic sense. At present, the trajectory of policy is to retain state ownership, making assets conditionally available to ‘beneficiaries’. This does little for real redistribution or the empowerment of ordinary people.

Rather than dismissing the value of property rights, the Church should affirm them, as intrinsic to the people’s dignity and prospects for prosperity.

Terence Corrigan, Johannesburg

© 2018 South African Institute of Race Relations
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