Sunday, June 22, 2008

Personalism and Property

Dorothy Day would often follow her quotations from Aquinas on the common good with one of her favorite quotations from St. Gertrude:
Property, the more common it is, the more holy it is.

Dorothy had a distinctively personalist approach to property, one that she had derived partly from the influence of Emmanuel Mounier, an important intellectual influence on Peter Maurin. The Zwick's summarize briefly Mounier's De la propriete capitaliste a la propriete humaine:
Mounier reiterates the classic view that property is a man's extension of himself. He notes that through the acquisition of property, the capitalist extends the sphere of his control. However, it is only a physical and not a personal extension of himself that occurs through his acquisition of property. He uses his property like a protective shell to make himself less vulnerable to the intrusion of a world which makes demands on the unprotected. By means of property the capitalist arranges for himself a spacious solipsism and becomes unavailable to the outside world.

On the other hand, true personal possession involves the use of goods not for self-protection, but for self-exposure. As an extension of the person, and not simply of the body, it facilitates communication and the possibility of making oneself present to others. Personal property is the extension of one's being, not simply of his having. It facilitates the personal act of self-donation and generosity.

Fr. Norris Clark, SJ, the great Thomistic-Personalist of our day who only recently passed away echoes this beautifully in his small book Person and Being. To be is to self-communicate, whether as a whole person, not just as a body, or as any part of creation, animate or inanimate. Dorothy regularly referenced Stenbeck's Grapes of Wrath, one of her favorite books that prompted her to drive cross country to observe the situation in California. In that great book Steinbeck writes:
The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth. Men are what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had not prayers or curses.

The vision of the Catholic Worker was for a society in which every action of every human being was truly a human action, and not just an act of a human being, to use a medieval distinction. To borrow the image from above, a society in which every action was a crumbling of a hot clod, a feeling of one's work in a connection not just with the body but with the person. Such a society is still far distant.

Markel, SJ

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