Catholic social teaching is often referred to as “the best kept secret of the Catholic Church.” This teaching concerns the role we as disciples of Jesus Christ play to make our world a more just and peaceful place. Drawn from magisterial documents such as St. Pope John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, Catholic social teaching is ultimately rooted in the life and teaching of Jesus and given unique expression through the personal witness of greats such as Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, Lech Walesa and the Polish Solidarity movement, and St. Oscar Romero and his heroic witness in El Salvador. The dignity of persons, the rights of workers and preferential option of the poor are some of the well-known principles of Catholic social teaching. A perhaps lesser known doctrine, and yet one that is important for our lives and times, is the “universal destination of goods.”
In the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” section 2402, the “universal destination of goods” is explained: “In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of Creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.”
In our society, which promotes material gain and unlimited consumption, we often focus on our economic freedom and miss the notion that money and goods are ultimately destined for the common good of all. The “universal destination of goods” may sound like an abstraction, but it has significant implications for the life of every disciple.
Does this teaching mean that we are all called to live as St. Francis of Assisi or St. John the Baptist, to give up everything and beg for our very subsistence? Perhaps not, but all followers of Jesus are called to a lifestyle of simplicity nonetheless. What does a simple lifestyle mean for me? For you? While each Christian must discern the meaning of this in their life, there is a deeply personal demand placed on each of us to lead a life of detachment and simplicity. Each person and each family must think, pray and act on this calling to the best of their ability, capacity and conscience.
By no means, however, is this discernment about the simple life merely a private matter. Our personal choices have a social impact. The universal destination of goods reminds us that we are interconnected with our brothers and sisters across time and space. The choices we make personally have an impact on those in our local community, the Church and around the world. And as part of an integrated ecology, as Pope Francis teaches, we are also called to consider how our lifestyles impact the environment in which we live and will leave to our children.
The social dimension of the universal destination of goods also has economic and political implications. How to apply this doctrine to public policy is also a matter of serious discernment and discussion. Disciples should seek to allow this teaching, deeply rooted in Scripture, tradition and the lives of the saints, to form our approach in matters of justice and peace. Disciples should look to Jesus Christ for guidance on how to avoid the overwhelming predominance of ideology and partisanship in our politics. In the end, it is not an endorsement of socialism to say that our approach to politics, while always respecting our economic freedom, ought to be animated by this sense of the social purpose of goods and the common good of all.
In closing, the Gospels are replete with messages from Jesus about our attitudes towards money and the goods of this world. Detachment from material things, leading a simple lifestyle, and caring for the poor are inescapable parts of the Christian life. Even our talents and gifts are to be shared for the common good of others! With this in mind, let us prayerfully and purposely reflect and act on the meaning of the “universal destination of goods” for us personally, as a Church and as a society.
Peter Shaughnessy is president/principal of Bishop Stang High School in North Dartmouth. He resides in Fairhaven with his wife, Anabela Vasconcelos Shaughnessy (Class of ’94), and their four children: Luke (Class of ’24), Emilia (Class of ’25), Dominic (Class of ’27) and Clare (Class of ‘30).