Pope Francis says the right to private property is “a secondary natural right derived from that which everyone has,” which in turn arises from the “universal destiny of created goods” and affirmed that “the Christian tradition never recognized as absolute and the right to private property untouchable.”
Pope Francis’ thinking on the topic of private property is muddled and contradictory. Private property is not a “natural right.” Private property follows directly from God as the Ultimate Property owner and His sovereign right to declare how property is used and maintained. God has declared that private property is a divine right, not a natural right. Without God, there are no rights.
Because God is sovereign, no earthly institution can claim independent and absolute ownership of other people’s property. Only God can claim such a right. Man’s claim to absolute sovereignty over property is an act of treason because “God is the Creator, and therefore the Proprietor, Owner, and Lord of all things; apart from him there is neither existence nor ownership; he alone has absolute authority; his will is decisive everywhere and always. Again and again Scripture makes mention of God’s sovereign will.” (Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), 223.)
The accumulation of property through theft (“You shall not steal”: Ex. 20:15), confiscation of property by governmental decree (Naboth’s vineyard: 1 Kings 21), and the willful destruction of property by the envious (Gen. 26:12–17) are lawless acts, destructive to an orderly society. The possession of property is a way for the righteous to fulfill their dominion assignment under God. God gives His image-bearers possession of the Earth to extend the boundaries of the kingdom as they fulfill their calling in obedience to His Word; therefore, the confiscation of property is an attack upon the kingdom and its advance. It’s no surprise that tyrannical governments work to abolish or control the use of property.
Since the family is the primary institution whereby the Dominion Covenant is to be extended, laws were given to protect the property of individuals and families. Fathers were instructed to lay up an inheritance for their children so their work of dominion under God could continue.
When a man is secure in the possession of his property, he has an area of liberty and dominion which is beyond the reach of other men. If no man and no state can reach in to tax and confiscate his property, man can enjoy true liberty and great security, whether he be prosperous or poor. Every attack on private property is, therefore, an attack on man’s liberty. Man’s freedom and security in the possession of his property is not only basic to man’s independence, but it is also basic to his power. A man has power if he can act independently of other men and the state, if he can make his stand in the confidence of liberty. Every attack on private property therefore is also an attack on the powers of free men as well as their liberty. (Rousas J. Rushdoony, Law and Liberty (Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1971), 65.)
Is it any wonder, therefore, that Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto declared that the right to hold individual private property was a crime against the State? Marx’s first “commandment” called for the “abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.” His third “commandment” abolished “all right of inheritance.” Both of these edicts sought to overrule the biblical order where laws against theft operate and inheritance laws are the norm. Marx understood that “property is power.”
The Bible secures private property for many individuals and many families. Communism consolidates power under the umbrella of the dictatorial State. From this position of consolidated power, the State controls the individual, the family, church, school, and every other institution God ordained for the proper ordering of society. The State, therefore, becomes both sovereign and owner, displacing God as the absolute sovereign and owner over all creation. The State’s central planning committee determines what is “best” for the people but only in terms of the best interest of the State.
Those who wish to deny private property, and thus, the biblical mandate of stewardship, fail to recognize God’s order for society. A person’s property is tied to the past and has meaning for the future because it is seen in the context of the family as God’s means of ensuring future dominion. This is why Naboth was unwilling to sell his vineyard: “The LORD forbid that I should give you [Ahab] the inheritance of my father” (1 Kings 21:3). The commandments “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet” (Ex. 20:17), and laws regarding restitution for the theft of property (Ex. 22:1–31; Luke 19:1–10; Rom. 13:9; Eph. 4:28) are meaningless unless there are prior owners responsible to God as faithful stewards of His property.
Naboth, who owned a piece of land on which was a fine vineyard, had inherited this land from his ancestors. King Ahab wanted it. Naboth did not want to sell it. Stiffed by his evil wife, Jezebel, Ahab took the land and had Naboth and his family executed. This was theft plus murder; and for these crimes, the judgment of God fell upon Ahab and his wife (1 Kings 21:1–16).
The New Testament ratifies the teaching of the Old Testament on this subject. The parables of Jesus have economic implications. The talents were distributed unequally among the servants. Each man was given according to his ability (Matthew 25:15). It was the right of each one to keep that property and to use it as he chose. In the parable of the pounds the men were afforded equal opportunity, but each one improved upon his opportunity differently—it was his right to do so. (John R. Richardson, Christian Economics: The Christian Message to the Market Place (Houston, TX: St. Thomas Press, 1966), 97.)
Since the image bearer’s relationship with God is one of steward under His heavenly Master, we can expect God to require an accounting of the property He places in our possession. A steward manages the household and resources of his owner. The parable of the unfaithful steward shows how serious God is about the resources He places in our care. He expects a return on His investment: “A certain nobleman went to a distant country to receive a kingdom for himself, and then return. And he called ten of his slaves, and gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Do business with this until I come back’” (Luke 19:12–13). The slave who refused to develop and extend the stewardship that was given to him lost even the original possession: “Take the mina away from [the poor steward] and give it to the one who has the ten minas” (19:24). When the bystanders protested, Jesus silenced them with these words: “I tell you, that to everyone who has shall more be given, but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away” (19:26). This is not the role of the State.
Those who fail to recognize their ownership is stewardship seldom understand that without God they would have nothing. Even the ability to use the property God gives us comes from Him. It is God who gives gifts to men (Eph. 4:8) and supplies resources for productivity:
It is God who gives rain upon the earth, and sends water upon the fields. He makes His sun to rise upon the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. He clothes the grass of the field, causing the grass to grow for cattle and herb for the service of man. He feeds the birds of heaven. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His knowledge and will. He gives us our daily bread … He crowns the year with goodness and the paths drop fatness. He even gives that which is abused and used in the service of another god. He gave grain and new wine and the oil and multiplied silver and gold which they used for Baal. He makes the wind His messengers and flames of fire His ministers. The whole earth is filled with His glory. So that the pious contemplation of His working brings forth the exclamation of adoration, “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches” (Job 5:10; Matt. 5:45; Ps. 104:4 104:24; 65:11; Hos. 2:8). (John Murray, The Sovereignty of God (Philadelphia, PA: Great Commission Publications,  1977), 9–10.)
The unrighteous steward claims to be the absolute sovereign. He claims absolute ownership because he fails to recognize that all good things come from God’s gracious hand. God will have His day of accounting where He will determine the faithfulness of our stewardship under Him (Matt. 25:21). The unrighteous steward considers himself the source and distributor of wealth. He is accountable to no one for how he uses “his” own property.