Aurelius Ambrosius, better known in English as Saint Ambrose (340 – 397), was a bishop of Milan who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the 4th century. He was one of the four original doctors of the Church. He set an early Christian view of property, stating that “Nature has poured forth all things for all men for common use.” Or said otherwise, “God has ordered all things to be produced so that there should be food in common for all, and that the earth should be the common possession of all. Nature, therefore, has produced a common right for all, but greed has made it a right for few.” (St. Ambrose, Duties of the Clergy, 1. 132).
A. J. Carlyle finds this point of view very striking. “The most arresting aspect of the patristic theory of property is well illustrated by such phrases as those of St. Ambrose, when he says that nature produced all things for the common use of all men, that nature produced the common right of property, but usurpation the private right; or again that God wished the earth to be the common possession of all men, to produce its fruits for all men, but avarice created the rights of property.” [Carlyle: 127]
This being said, “it is therefore just that the man who claims for his private ownership that which was given to the human race in common, should at least distribute some of this to the poor.” [Carlyle: 129] This theme continued throughout the years in the Catholic Church, even up to today. Parishioners are told to “feed the hungry” and “clothe the naked”. Sharing the wealth is not only kind, but it is the natural way and the godly way.
“Ambrose states that dominium means exclusive control over an object. Therefore, because bringing something into being is the criterion for possessing natural dominion over it, it follows that only God can be said to have natural dominion over substances. As a consequence, dominion of property is not natural to man.” [Tully: 65] Ambrose does seem to think that, although unnatural, private ownership is not forbidden. A distinction should be made there.
Implicit in Ambrose’s words is the idea of positive community, that all mankind owned the earth equally (rather than negative community, wherein all of mankind owned none of the earth and possession originated in occupation). This view has its share of problems, most notably how we are able to take land as our own without the consent of all, but they can be reconciled through various theories. Ambrose, being a Christian, might hold that in the beginning “common ownership” went to Adam, and the solution was simply to divide up land amongst his children. One would be wise not to speculate too much.
Carlyle, A. J. “The Theory of Property in Mediaeval Theology” in Property, Its Duties And Rights: Historically, Philosophically And Religiously Regarded. The Macmillan Company, 1922.
Tully, James. A Discourse on Property: John Locke and his Adversaries Cambridge University Press, 1980.