Aurelius Augustinus is widely considered the most substantial Christian thinker of the early
Church and many, both Catholic and Protestant, consider him the greatest Christian theologian
of all time. So it is significant that so little attention has been given to his economic philosophy
while his thoughts on war and other political topics have been so exhaustively examined.
As with so much of Augustine’s thought, it is the inner dimension, its effect on the soul, of
the human reality under consideration which draws his most intense scrutiny. Augustine’s
philosophy of property centered on justice, rather than the legal conception of absolute
ownership which is regarded in our time as an immutable institution. Augustine, along with most
other early Christian thinkers, regarded private property as justified only by the fulfillment of its
moral purpose - the sharing of the goods of the earth with all.
For Augustine, the root of morality is found in the love of God. God is to be loved above all other
realities, both earthly and spiritual. For Augustine, only the perfect good can be enjoyed for its
own sake. Therefore, true enjoyment is found only in God. Other realities are to be used as
pathways which bring us closer to God. Earthly realities find their fulfillment only by leading us to
God. All lower values point toward the highest value - our hearts are ever restless until they rest
Since property is an earthy reality that tends to possess its possessors, tempting them to
enjoy it as if it were an absolute value, how should Christians use it? Morality, not the law of
the Empire, is the true criteria of ownership, “Property is wrongly possessed by evil persons;
while good persons who love it least have the best right to it” and later, “Whence does anyone
possess what he or she has? Is it not from human law? For by divine law, the earth and its
fullness are the Lord’s (cf. Psalm 23:1); the poor and the rich God has made from one mud and
the poor and the rich he sustains on one earth. Nevertheless, by human law, one says, ‘This
estate is mine, this house is mine, this servant is mine.’ This is by human law therefore - by the
law of the Emperors.” (Avila, Charles, Ownership: Early Christian Teaching, Orbis Books: 1983,
p. 111). Property is the gift of God best owned by those who use it as a means to reach him
who gave it. The emperor’s law grants absolute ownership without regard to how the possessor
uses his or her property, but in God’s eyes right use is the criteria of just ownership.
For Augustine, private ownership was an expression of sin when it was not used to fulfill God’s
plan for the just distribution of the world’s resources. This sin was a failure to recognize that all
being participates in God, the source of being. Private property in the Roman (and American)
sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation. As William
Cavanaugh put it, “To be left to our own devices, cut off from God, is to be lost in sin, which is
the negation of being.” (Cavanaugh, William T., Being Consumed, Eerdmans: 2008, p. 8). Yet
this autonomy is exactly what Milton Friedman and other neoliberals praise as “freedom” as in
the famous phrase, “Free to Choose.” To be encased in “one’s own choice” is to be the slave of
sin. Such “freedom” is slavery to one’s own will which has not yet been healed by God’s power.
The beginning of healing is the recognition of God’s sovereignty: “...freedom of choice is not
made void but established by grace, since grace heals the will whereby righteousness may
freely be loved.” - Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter. “Humans need a community of virtue in
which to learn to desire rightly.” (Cavanaugh, p. 9).
The Creator has not made human beings a sequence of autonomous units each pursuing its
own atomistic interests utterly divorced from all the others. Such fantasies are the result of sin.
When this sin is healed, we begin to see in each other the faces of single human family, made
from the same mud and sustained by God’s love on one planet. Augustine’s view of property
is a scandal to those who pride themselves on what they own: “Both the person to whom a
wealthy inheritance has fallen, and the one who has happened on impoverished conditions,
have the same fundamental claim to the goods of earth, which neither of them originally
possessed. For both, the most basic rule to consider in ownership is what one really needs. If
one therefore keeps more than what is sufficient, ethically speaking one is really keeping others’
property, because these others, by virtue of their need, have a fundamentally greater right to
those material goods.” (Avila, p. 114) Right ownership is a function of need rather than the laws
of the Empire.
In addition, property flows to those who know how to use it rightly. “Gold and silver therefore
belong to those who know how to use gold and silver. For even among human beings
themselves, each must be said to possess something [only] when he or she uses it well. For
what a person does not treat justly, that person does not possess rightly. If one should call
one’s own what one does not possess rightly, this will not be the voice of a just possessor.”
(Augustine, Sermo L, 1, PL 38:326) True ownership is granted only to the one who uses
property justly - otherwise one is a thief and one’s property can be justly expropriated by those
who will use it rightly. Those who abuse their property and by extension degrade the ecological
integrity of God’s earth, “...have forfeited their participation in God’s true ownership” (Avila, p.
A prime example of such forfeiture can be found in BP’s abuse of its undersea property in
the Gulf of Mexico, Such behavior, though sanctioned by law, involves a direct violation of
Augustine’s principles of right ownership. This violation can only be healed by a sincere effort to
restore the ecological system which has been so critically damaged. Otherwise, if BP’s concern
for profit prevails over the obligation to set right what has been destroyed, world citizens have
the right and obligation to expropriate the property which has been so abused for the sake of
profit. God’s justice demands it.
In Augustine’s view, property must never abuse the common wealth which God has granted
as a gift to all people. Otherwise, “Instead of ownership being used to foster community, it
becomes a means to destroy human solidarity. In the Roman law concept of private property,
then, a means has become an end. It has ceased to be relative and inclusive, and has become
absolute and exclusive” (Avila, p. 118). The scandal which Augustine presents to modern
Americans is that there is a higher law that sanctions private property only when it is a means to
greater human solidarity, not when it is treated as an absolute right walling people off from each
other. The corporate person also cannot do with its property whatever garners the greatest profit
regardless of the human and natural consequences, but must follow God’s law - “because each
of us is a member of the one great human family.” (Avila, p. 118).
The law of the New Jerusalem does not acknowledge “mine” and “not mine”, but
only “ours.” “Those who wish to make room for the Lord must find pleasure not in private, but
in common property...Redouble your charity. For, on account of the things which each one
of us possesses singly, wars exist, hatreds, discords, strifes among human beings, tumults,
dissensions, scandals, sins, injustices, and murders. On what account? On account of these
things which each of us possesses singly. Do we fight over the things we possess in common?
We inhale this air in common with others, we all see the sun in common. Blessed therefore are
those who make room for the Lord, so as not to take pleasure in private property.” (Augustine,
Enarratio in Psalmum CXXXI, 5, PL 37:1718). As we saw in my previous article "The Meaning
of 'Mine' and 'Not Mine' in Early Christianity" the Church fathers were not simply making a
critique of “greed” the way many churches do today. We live in a society so fundamentally anti-
Christian that the subjective attitude of greed is openly celebrated and must be countered by the
remaining bastions of moral sanity. But the Church fathers’ critique was much deeper than that.
They had the courage to openly challenge one of the most powerful institutions of their time, the
law sanctioning absolute ownership, rejecting it as undesirable and dangerous. As Charles Avila
put it, “In [Augustine’s] view, private property is the chief enemy of peace.” (Avila, p. 121).
As one would expect from Augustine, his interest centers on the sinful attitudes which private
property engenders. It does not merely isolate us from our fellow creatures, but bloats our sense
of self, encasing us in prideful fantasies. These fantasies are the result of the tyranny of our own
wills which fail to acknowledge membership in the family God wishes to create among us. “In
Augustine’s thought, we desperately need not to be left to the tyranny of our own wills. The
key to true freedom is not just following whatever desires we happen to have, but cultivating
the right desires. This means that the internal movement of the will is not a sufficient condition
for freedom; we must consider the end toward which the will is moved.” (Cavanaugh, p. 12)
Cultivating a right desire regarding property requires us to view it as a means of building up
solidarity in God’s family, and envision a world in which “mine” and “not mine” are subsumed
Capitalism is often justified as a way to redirect the unalterable facts of human selfishness
into socially beneficial channels, but the early Christians were not so pessimistic about human
nature. For them, every earthly reality was a path that leads to God because God’s power to
save was real. As with Chrysostom, Augustine did not believe that property was in itself evil. It
was the Roman law of absolute ownership which permitted owners to wall themselves off from
the human family that was evil. In this philosophy of the right use of property, as in so much
else from the early years of Christianity, Augustine uncovered the revolution embedded in the
teachings of Christ.