Property rights and Christianity

By Bernadette Meaden
June 20, 2017

The suggestion that the government could requisition empty properties to house survivors from Grenfell Tower has caused outrage in some quarters. On social media it was described as "the abolition of property rights." and, "Genuinely frightening…Property rights are the basis of Western civilisation.”

Firstly, as I understand it, Mr Corbyn was not proposing that property be confiscated, so ownership was not threatened, as this reaction seems to suggest.  And secondly, if the government required owners of empty properties to make them available, temporarily, for homeless, traumatised people, would that be a threat to Western civilisation, or an enhancement of it?

Property rights have been made subordinate to the common good on other occasions – during World War Two for instance, numerous country houses were requisitioned or commandeered to provide accommodation for the military, or to become hospitals. Under current legislation, an Empty Property Management Order gives local authorities some power to 'compulsorily lease' properties which have stood empty for a long time.

And whilst some may think the rights of property investors are key to civilisation, those same property rights don’t seem quite so sacrosanct when ‘ordinary’ people are involved. In London in recent years, many people have been moved to make way for luxury developments. Compulsory purchase orders have been used to remove homeowners from their property, sometimes leaving them considerably worse off.  And tenants, who don’t have any property rights, have been relocated en masse when it suited the needs of landlords or developers.

Indeed there is a gold rush, a land grab taking place in central London, in which poor people and public services are seen as little more than obstacles and obstructions to profit. They occupy prime real estate, so must be removed. Poor people are increasingly moved out, and public services like fire stations, libraries and hospitals are being run down so that the land they stand on can be redeveloped for huge profits.

But our current Prime Minister has made a point of talking about her Christian background, and of Britain as a country built on Christian values. So what would the Christian attitude to private property be, in the circumstances we now face? 

The early Christians certainly didn’t see private property rights as the basis of their civilisation. The basis of their civilisation was community and interdependence. In Acts 4 we read,  “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

The Church Fathers reflected this approach, making many statements which would now be considered far more radical than anything Jeremy Corbyn has said. St. John Chrysostom (344-407) said, “Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs.”

For early Christians, sharing was considered an act of justice, returning to the poor what in God’s eyes is rightfully theirs, but has been denied them by an unjust human system. In Catholic Social Teaching this view is referred to as ‘the universal destination of goods’, and is explained thus: "God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner. Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others. On the other hand, the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one's family belongs to everyone. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods. If one is in extreme necessity, he has the right to procure for himself what he needs out of the riches of others."  (Gaudium et Spes, 69).

To make unoccupied properties available for homeless and traumatised people would be a reasonable, and indeed a Christian thing to do.  Who knows, if the property owners were approached in the right way, they may agree to do so voluntarily. But if they will not act out of charity, then it would seem perfectly acceptable for the government to act out of justice.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.