Conservatism and Catholicism: right to life vs. right to property

St. John Chrysostom ties together what we might now understand as the "right to life" and the "right to property."

Over the last few months, I’ve facilitated a seminar on Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Most of the participants came from conservative backgrounds and wanted to understand the history and philosophical underpinnings of American conservatism, so that they might make informed decisions about how to relate to it. Most of us found ourselves surprised throughout the book at Kirk’s overview of what it means to be truly conservative, and how conservatives have understood themselves over the last 250 years.

One remark that gave us pause was a quotation by the Christian apologist Paul Elmer More. Kirk called More “the twentieth century’s greatest apologist,” greater even than C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton (the latter of whom Kirk saw as “outside the true line of descent in conservative ideas,” even if he “did more to nourish the conservative impulse during… dark times than did the men who should have carried on the tradition of Burke”). But for all of Kirk’s praise for More as a champion of of American Conservatism, we still found him surprising. The quote by the conservative More which caught our attention was: “To the civilized man the rights of property are more important than the right to life.”

American Catholics might find this statement jarring. But Kirk himself was a devoted Catholic, a man striving for orthodoxy and praising devotion to religious tradition. For right-wing apologists today, Kirk’s arguments might make sense when considering deadly self-defense of one’s property in the face of riots and looting. But for the same apologists, what about arguments by poor women advocating for the ability to abort their unborn children because, they argue, without the ability to do this, they will plunge into greater poverty that will render them incapable of feeding the children already born to them? In the American context, where a wealthy nation should be able to provide food for its poor children, these arguments should be unimaginable. And yet they are made, at times with great sincerity. And they’re certainly made on behalf of families in impoverished nations.

(Before I continue, I should perhaps state my personal opinions, as a matter of honest disclosure. I believe that one becomes a human being as soon as one acquires a unique biological identity–at conception. Thus, I oppose abortion, understood as the elective ending of a human life before birth. I advocate the criminalization of abortion, with legal penalties for those performing the abortions but not for the women who have sought them, or who might have performed them on themselves. I also believe that anti-abortion advocacy should be accompanied by advocacy for increased resources and support for women who find themselves in unplanned pregnancies, especially in countries like the United States that have sufficient wealth to provide such resources and support. However, I do not believe that the protection of human life should be conditioned upon the provision of such resources and support.)

Of course, taking the life of a looter is different from taking the life of an unborn child. For one thing, the looter is actively engaging in theft, while the unborn child is simply living in a helpless state. This alone certainly does not justify taking the life of a looter. But it is an important distinction.

But, again, how might Catholics make sense of an argument that the rights of property are more important than the right to life? Evangelium Vitae calls the right to life “the first of the fundamental rights” and “the source of all other rights.” The encyclical says, “Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good.” The encyclical argues that “a law which violates an innocent person’s natural right to life is unjust and, as such, is not valid as a law.”

We might notice that there is a qualification here. The “right to life,” even in Evangelium Vitae, is qualified. The right to life in the encyclical is fundamental and inviolable for the innocent person. This may be why one does not necessarily violate the “right to life” when killing in self-defense or while defending one’s property.

But neither does Catholic social teaching defend the “right to property” as inviolable. Indeed, the Catechism’s paragraph 2446 draws on St. John of Chrysostom in a way suggesting that the poor can rightfully take a share of the goods of the wealthy. Failing to share goods with the poor is actually a form of stealing and deprives them of life: “‘Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.’ ‘The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity.'”

The interesting thing about these passages from St. John of Chrysostom is that they tie together what we might now understand as the “right to life” and the “right to property.” They rely on, enable, and facilitate one another.

So as our seminar group worked through More’s controversial statement, we started to come to a consensus on how we might understand the remark: “To the civilized man the rights of property are more important than the right to life.” The rights of property enable and facilitate the right to life. When one’s property is secure, one can escape a state of manic frenzy and relate to one’s neighbors in a mode involving trust, security, and care. To the atomized man or woman with no right to secure goods, a right to life cannot be secure, because there is no means for living, no security to engage one’s neighbors with trust, and no ability to establish a place in the world for oneself and one’s children.

In this way, the right-wing right defend one’s property from looters may come closer to the left-wing argument that women should be provided for if we expect society to respect the rights of unborn children. As Catholic social teaching suggests, these rights are qualified and interdependent. They rely on one another in order to cultivate a full and flourishing community. And so Catholic social teaching also shows us that we need to understand and respect the fears, cares, and concerns across our political divides. As we do this, we may come to a fuller understanding of what it means to be human in the world today, and how we might better love and respect one another.

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

3 comments on “Conservatism and Catholicism: right to life vs. right to property

  1. paularuddy

    Are you saying that one is justified in killing another if the other is an imminent threat to property that is necessary to one’s own life or to the life of others? I’m reminded of that film set in Ireland, The Field. The calculations would be how imminent, how necessary, other means of avoiding the threat besides killing the threatening person. Does this analysis apply to killing looters? Is it applicable to a woman considering abortion?
    In this statement of justification, isn’t the basic value life? Isn’t it just wrong to say that the right to property is more important than the right to life? Was More’s statement descriptive about civilized man or was it prescriptive? If prescriptive, why is it important to salvage Paul Elmore More? And when St. John Chrysostom speaks of food as “goods” is he referring to “property” in the same sense as More? Lots of questions!I
    A question or two about your parenthetical paragraph: Does the government protect the freedom of its female citizens by criminalizing all means of obtaining safe abortion? If a woman performs the abortion herself, is she not subject to the law? Is the government in the position of choosing between protecting the freedom of its citizen and the right to life of the fetus inside that citizen? On what basis does the government make the choice?
    Thanks for providing a forum for these questions, Chris. Paula



    I don’t know what this study group is like, but I was curious enough to look up the quotation in my copy of Kirk. It appears on p. 438 as part of a longer discussion on the natural inequality among human persons. Kirk (and More, presumably) called for “not more democracy but better democracy”. He argued against mixing matters of justice with sentiments related to something outside the realm of politics, such as life, which “is a primitive thing…we share it with the beasts, but property is the mark of man alone.”

    You see where this is going, and it has no relation to John Chrysostom. Kirk (and More), in true conservative terms, limit the jurisdiction of law to human constructs such as property, which he saw as one of “the very foundations of society.” To extend law to something entirely natural such as life would be “an overextension, [an] expansion to fields in which it cannot be competent.” This argument regarding the centrality of property to law goes on at length; this is basic conservatism going back to Locke and Hobbes.

    I think this means that Kirk’s tradition of political conservatism offers little direct support to anti-abortion conservatives or the broader pro-life movement. Conservatives limit their reach; that is what the word means. Hence, conservatives refrain from using government to try to solve all sorts of human failings or social ills; such things are matters of nature, “natural inequalities.”

    The anti-abortion and pro-life movements are not politically conservative; they are radical (in the sense of radix, root, fundamental) Christian moral stands.


  3. Pingback: In What Ways am I a Conservative? – Chris Damian

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