An Eastern Orthodox Case for Property Rights

Fr. Jensen:

…[P]roperty rights are not a panacea – protecting and enhancing private ownership will not cure all that ails us personally or socially. Nor can we separate the exercise of our right to property from the moral law or, for Christians, the Gospel. But Orthodox social thought does I think allow us to make a convincing case that property rights are a key element of human flourishing, a necessary ingredient of a just society, and an aid to Christian ministry. Rooted as it is in human nature, it is also a right that can help us see the dignity of all members of the human family and of the ability that all of us – rich or poor, male or female, young or old – have to serve the flourishing of those around us, our society and the Church.

fr-gregory-jensen-150x150Source: Action Institute | Fr. Gregory Jensen

As a pastor, I’ve been struck by the hostility, or at least suspicion, that some Orthodox Christians reveal in their discussions of private property. While there are no doubt many reasons for this disconnect, I think a central factor is a lack of appreciation for the role that private property can, and does, play in fostering human flourishing. It is through the wise and prudent use of our property that we are able to give ourselves over in love to the next generation and so give them the possiblity of likewise transcending a purely material way of life through an act of self-donation. Economists Terry Anderson and Laura Huggins, in Property Rights: A Practical Guide to Freedom and Prosperity  (Hoover Institution, 2009), are right when they remind us that while not a panacea, “property rights to oneself (human capital), one’s investments (physical capital), or one’s ideas (intellectual capital), secure claims to assets” and so “give people the ability to make their own decisions, reaping the benefits of good choices and bearing the costs of bad ones.” In part, I think the hesitancy among some Orthodox Christians to embrace a robust understanding and application of property rights reflects an uncritical reading of the patristic witness. I have in mind here specifically the homilies of St. John Chrysostom in which the saint is often critical of how some abuse their wealth. But as recent scholarship has demonstrated, his argument is more subtle than we might at first think. As with other Church fathers, Chrysostom is not a proponent of abolishing private property but of its morally right use.

We see this especially in his teaching on almsgiving where he distinguishes between “beggars” (ptōchoi) and what today we call the working poor (penētes). For the latter, the Church’s intervention aims at helping the working poor obtain a degree of economic independence so that they too can meet their own personal familial obligations. Thus anything that undermines our ability to work is morally evil and the Church must seek to correct it. As for those who, objectively, are unable to care for themselves because they can’t work, yes, the Church has an obligation to care for for them — but this doesn’t exhaust Chrysostom’s economic argument. Like members of the working poor, the small middle class and the even smaller upper class, the beggar is expected to allieviate the suffering of others in whatever way his circumstances make possible. According to Eric Coztanzo in his study of St. John Chrysostom, “John exhorted the wealthy and the poor to participate” in almsgiving “as an act of virtue.” In any case, while Chrysostom speaks in terms of the morally good use of wealth, it is a standard inconceivable apart from private property and, as his understanding of the moral obligation of even the poorest Christian suggests, there is no one so poor as to be wholly without any personal wealth even if that wealth is other than material.

Social Dimensions

One thinker who can help us understand more fully the anthropological vision that underlies Chrysostom’s argument is the 19th century Russian Orthodox philospher Vladimir Solovyov. Though he doesn’t engage Chrysostom’s sermons, Solovyov advances an argument that helps us understand why for the saint even the materially poor are obligated to participate in the philanthropic work of the Church. Specifically, I have in mind Solovyov’s broader argument that our right to property and to use it as we see fit (within the limits of the moral law) reflects our ability (1) to think, (2) to recognize ourselves in our own thoughts, and (3) to recognize our thoughts as distinct from ourselves. These are qualities that are not limited to the middle class or much the wealthy but are common to all human beings, including the very poorest among us. 

Though he begins with the thinking subject, Solovyov is no Cartesian and is sensitive to the social dimension of the person and so of property.  While all “the acute questions of the economic life are closely connected with the idea of property,” the question of property itself “belongs to the sphere of jurisprudence, morality, and psychology rather than to that of economic relations” in the narrow sense. Moreover, all human wealth – not just material but intellectual, spiritual, and cultural – is always at least partially inherited.  The Russian philosopher observed, in his The Justification of the Good: An Essay on Moral Philosophy, that if “it were not for the intentional and voluntary handing down of what has been acquired, we should have only a physical succession of generations, the later repeating the life of the former, as is the case with animals.” Inherited wealth has potential to humanize us because it embodies and communicates the “moral interaction in the most intimate and the most fundamental social group,” the family. As the “embodiment of pity” (i.e., philanthropy, compassion and love) inherited wealth transcends “the grave” making tangible the parents’ love “for their children” while at the same time serving as “a concrete point of departure for a pious memory of the departed parents.”

Solovyov concludes by arguing that “it is not sufficient to recognise the ideal character which obviously attaches to such property: it is necessary to strengthen and develop this character” through the protection of personal property rights. It is only in this way that we can hope to combat the sinful human tendency to treat “the earth as a lifeless instrument of rapacious exploitation; the plots of land handed down from one generation to another must, in principle, be made inalienable and sufficient to maintain in each person a moral attitude towards the earth.” While his last assertion is problematic — how precisely does one guarantee sufficient land for subsequent generations simply through inheritance? — nevertheless whatever the practical challenges, Solovyov  is clear that private property is key to protecting human dignity and to creating a just society, both civil and religious.

Given the pressing need to undo the economic, and more importantly moral and spiritual, damage done during the Soviet era, it is not suprising that the Russian Orthodox Church affirms the right to property. The Moscow Patriarchate in its 2000 document, “The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” teaches that private property is essential to both a just civil society and the Church’s own ministries. Property, or more broadly wealth, is “God’s gift given to be used for [our] own and [our] neighbor’s benefit” (VII.2). The right to private property is “a socially recognized form of people’s relationship to the fruits of their labour and to natural resources” that under normal circumstances includes not only “the right to … use property” but also “to control and collect income” from one’s property and “to dispose of, lease, modify or liquidate property” (VII.1). While acknowledging that in a fallen world the creation of wealth and the right to private property can “produce … sinful phenomena” when undertaken in ways that are not “proper and morally justified” (VII.3), the Church stresses that this does not justify the dissolution of property rights or income re-distribution since “the alienation and re-distribution of property” violates “the rights of its legitimate owners” (VII.3). 

To be clear, property rights are not a panacea – protecting and enhancing private ownership will not cure all that ails us personally or socially. Nor can we separate the exercise of our right to property from the moral law or, for Christians, the Gospel. But Orthodox social thought does I think allow us to make a convincing case that property rights are a key element of human flourishing, a necessary ingredient of a just society, and an aid to Christian ministry. Rooted as it is in human nature, it is also a right that can help us see the dignity of all members of the human family and of the ability that all of us – rich or poor, male or female, young or old –  have to serve the flourishing of those around us, our society and the Church.

Fr. Gregory Jensen is an Orthodox priest and blogs at Koinonia.


  1. Thanks for posting this Father!

  2. cynthia curran says

    I don’t think that private property is question in orthodox circles, both the Byzantine and the Russian empires had law codes that dealt with property issues. My thing with Acton is why they don’t seem to developed a theory that reduces poverty for Latin America. Why is it that Acton thinks the only way Mexicans or Central Americans or Puetro Ricians can make it in life is they have to come to the US, why not make it better in their home countries. In fact when immigration was tightened in the Us in the 1920’s until 1970, wages and poverty dropped the fastest since the labor market was not being flooded with high or low skilled labor.

    • The only way to reduce poverty in Latin America is by strengthening local pro-liberty groups. I’ll speak from a Brazilian perspective, because that’s my country and the only one I can speak with a reasonable degree of accuracy.

      Despite much of what people say, Brazil has never been capitalist. It’s been traditionally mercantilist all its history. If anyone here follows South American economy, you may be aware of the case of Eike Batista. From “common” millionaire up to one of the world’s richests in a couple of years, he is now in disgrace having lost most of his fortune. Only the uninformed are surprised. *Every* rich person in Brazil owns it to the government directly or indirectly. Either they depend on the government buying their services or providing loans, or from favors and the right “friendships” among the politicians. The government can create and uncreate them with a snap of their fingers. People talk of corruption, as if enterpreneurs bribed government officials “buying” them. That’s just half truth. Most of the “corruption” can more accurately be described as *extorsion* from those government officials upon enterpreneurs. I’ve met more than one company owner that have confessed they’d rather not pay anything to anyone but they receive threats all the time.

      On top of that, Brazil is the radical left’s playground. Democrats-style liberalism is painted here as radical American conservatism and everything to the right of that the product of moral monsters. Leftist cultural hegemony here is pervasive. In a country with 201 million people there are exactly 5 conservative journalists and the left – in power since 1995 – paints that as a horrible conspiracy of the right.

      That, though, is a local consequence of the fall of the URSS. When it fell, Lula and Fidel Castro founded the “Foro de São Paulo”, in their words, “to reconquer in Latin America all that was lost in Eastern Europe”. Also, to organize the funding of leftist parties, since the URSS was no more. The substitute was the local drug trade. The Foro is a kind of “mutual help” and “strategy organization” conference group. Lula has also confessed on video that the rise of the left in the continent is due to the Foro activities.

      To fight poverty in Latin America, it’s necessary to: 1) Classify the Foro de São Paulo as the strategical enemy of the free-world that it is; 2) Take whatever measures are necessary to destroy it and destroy leftist hegemony in the continent; 3) support the few scattered groups that defend true liberty. South America is no Middle East though. Most of this action is *cultural*.

      The left rose to power in Brazil precisely during the military regime. The military had an official policy they called “Pressure Pot Strategy”: zero tolerance with guerrillas, but let some steam out by allowing the left to have the cultural world because that is irrelevant. Today we pay the price for that monstrous decision. Lots of initiatives from the very poor are anihilated in its roots because being a “accumulator of capital” is an evil thing and one’s life has to depend on social welfare for the poor, government jobs for the middle class and governmental loans for the rich.

    • Cynthia,

      Thank you for your observations. I’d be interested in the sources in Byzantine & Russian law that address property rights. My comment in the essay was not directed toward the tradition. Rather, as Fabio comment illustrates, I was responding to those Orthodox Christians for who don’t see the importance to a right to private property. For example, the Diocese of Alaska (OCA) recently expressed their support for the Arctic 30 (see here:, a group of environmentalists who attempted to board a Russian oil platform as part of a Greenpeace protest against oil drilling. Whatever might be the prudence of their position, the Arctic 30 we’re violating the property rights of the oil company. Nor was their protest peaceful.

      As for Acton and poverty in Central and Latin America, while it must be done lawfully, immigration is certainly something that is compatible with the moral tradition of both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. I’m not aware that Acton has a position beyond affirming a general right to immigrate.

      If you’ve not seen it already, you might want to take a look at the Acton program PovertyCure The goal of the program is to help people in the developing world move away from foreign aid and self-support through enterprise and the free market. Where other programs are concerned with the cause of poverty, Acton is looking at the cause of wealth and how these can be applied to folks in the developing world. The website has several short videos and articles as well as links that you might find of interest.


      Thank you for your thoughtful analysis of the economic and political situation in Latin and South America. There is, as you note, more than a little irony in the fact that many Orthodox Christians are enamored of the ideas of the Left. You have said things better than I could so I will simply say thank you!

      In Christ,


  3. We need more articles like Fr. Jensen’s. The Orthodox Church is the source of life and an oasis of health spirituality, but most of its members are contaminated by the murderous ideas of the Left. Which is an irony, because no heresy killed more Orthodox Christians than the left in Eastern Europe. One should expect that of all Christian groups, the Orthodox would be the most aware of the very concrete and inevitably lethal consequences of leftism. From French Catholics to Russian Orthodox, the march of the “social” ideal is one of continuously spilling blood.

    At the same time, sound economical theories and practices are shunned by them as imoral, cruel and inhumane. No other practice in the world has moved, in the long term, more poors up to a middle class level of material prosperity than the free-market and capitalist practices. And yet all those “kind-hearted” people hate it, educate their children to hate it and, when they can, fight against it.

    Ironically, whether they notice it or not, they just help the meta-capitalists, those individuals and/or groups who have achieved mammothian fortunes and who are reknown for financing leftist ideals and groups around the world.

  4. cynthia curran says

    Well, the environmental issue is more difficult since the Byzantines followed Roman Law which didn’t have ownership in the ocean and the air This was their common property issue because its difficult to own parts of the sea or air. In fact the Justinian Code which some countries follow blocks ownership near the shoreline and this why the Orthodox you mention support the environmental view over the oil company drilling in the ocean but even in Justinian’s time commercial ships carry grain to Constantinople and the ships were private even if the grain might have been contracted by the state. The Justinian Code has several laws dealing with inheritance and business agreements, so yes there was private property in the 6th Century. There were some pretty wealthy individuals in the time period. Theft was punished by repayment which means that someone committed a crime since they had to repay back.

  5. cynthia curran says

    Well, I follow Milton Friedman view you can’t have unlimited immigration in a welfare state which the US had had for 30 years particularly when it comes to Mexico. In fact the Mexico government doesn’t want to do much in the rural areas since their poor just have to come to the US. Probably living in the Southwest like me I have seen this. England has the same complaint now with Poles who come from a country on the level of Mexico.

  6. cynthia curran says

    The Farmers law deals with farm ownership among free peasantry. Its dated by one source around the 8th century. Most of it deals with the pre-modern rural life though of the Byzantine empire.

  7. cynthia curran says

    ccording to the 2010 census, Mississippi’s population was 2,984,926. The Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) confirmed that as of October 2013, 671,800 people, or 22.5 percent of the state, were receiving SNAP benefits.

    Wyoming has the lowest with six percent.

    When the country entered the Great Recession in 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allowed for extended funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. When that Act expired earlier this month, state officials in Mississippi braced for the worse. As recipients were notified of the decrease, the negative effects were almost immediate. MDHS agents saw a surge in complaints and concerns due to the impending change in benefits.

    Less than a month ago, SNAP recipients at a Philadelphia, Miss., Wal-Mart caused a near riot when a computer glitch with the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards refused to expend their benefits. Dozens of carts, overflowing with groceries, were abandoned in the aisles as customers marched out angry. Fearing reprisals and the safety of their patrons and employees, management called police and temporarily closed the store.

    MDHS said thus far, no such disturbances have been reported with the recent decrease in benefits.

    Rickey Berry, the executive director of MDHS, said the latest figures show that more than $83.4 million in SNAP benefits are being dispensed throughout the state each month. MDHS said they won’t have the final numbers of what the cuts will amount to until the end of November. But analysts predict it will be substantial.

    As an example of how a household in Mississippi will be affected, Berry said a family of four receiving the maximum allotment of benefits at $668 will now receive $632, a reduction of $36 a month. Similar cuts will take place across the board.

    But those numbers are far more reaching in that federal cuts will not only affect SNAP recipients, but the state’s entire economic climate as local stores feel the pinch of the food assistance cuts.

    “We live in a town where we have a large EBT card trade here and it will hurt some because that’s money they won’t have to spend,” said Randy Mills, Assistant Manager of Food Giant in Aberdeen. “I personally feel it should make them spend their money better. But it’s not going to put anybody out of business. But from a store’s point of view, the more they get, the more we get.“

    Food Giant has about 26 stores in Mississippi including the Aberdeen/Monroe County location. Monroe County has 7,557 people receiving SNAP benefits totaling $890,905 per month.

    Mills said he often sees a lot of those benefit dollars wasted.

    “I’m in my 50s,” Mills said. “And I worked at a store when I was young, And older people back then who got assistance, they cooked. And people who get it now, they don’t cook. They buy a lot of things they don’t need and it’s just wasted. And that’s just the way it is.”

    Mississippi is home to 82 counties. MDHS Spokesperson Julia Bryan confirmed that eight of those receive 40 percent or more in SNAP benefits per month. Four counties in particular top out at more than 43 percent: Tunica and Washington counties tie with 43.5 percent; Sharkey at 45.6 percent, and Humphreys – with more than half the populace – with 50.7 percent.

    Tunica, which oddly enough now stands as the third largest gaming region in the United States, behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City, is home to nine casinos and draws huge crowds each month with their gambling and concert attractions.

    But out of a population of 11,800 (74 percent are black), 4,693 receive SNAP benefits.

    “We’re in the gaming industry, but the wages are not the best,” said James Dunn, Executive Director of Tunica County Community Development. “They’re not livable wages. They pay $8, $9 and $10 an hour and most of those are service jobs. And a large percentage of the population here are employed in the gaming industry.”

    Dunn said because of technology and gaming competition from surrounding states, Tunica doesn’t see as much tourism as it has in the past, resulting in a cut in employee hours.

    “The industry has downsized,” he said. “So, with the price of gas and things like that, instead of people driving to Tunica, so many choose to stay close to home and patronize the casinos in their area.”

    Tunica has faced staunch criticism in the past when a report on “60 Minutes” in 1985 exposed the segregation and degenerate conditions of black residents living in Sugar Ditch Alley.

    While Tunica, located in the Mississippi Delta, boasted at least three dozen millionaires living in colonial-style homes at that time, the scene was much different a few miles away where black families were living in dilapidated, wooden shacks with no drinking water, no inside toilets and an infestation of roaches. Residents were forced to defecate in portable containers which they then carried outside their doors and threw in the “Sugar Ditch.” At the same time, the county was receiving millions of dollars in grant funding for county improvements in the “white” areas and the construction of a new airport.

    The last tenants of Sugar Ditch Alley moved out in 1991, and Tunica is now a force to be reckoned with as they attract international industries to their county. But the majority of its black citizens still don’t have a voice in the community and rely heavily on governmental assistance.

    “Thirty-three percent of our population is still below the poverty level and it’s been that way for years,” Dunn said. “That issue has not been addressed and many of them have not been able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

    Dunn said his organization is community-service based and assists with affordable housing and credit counseling. The area once known as Sugar Ditch Alley is now a series of housing units for the elderly and disabled, many of whom receive SNAP benefits. The other residents were moved to 202 or HUD homes where they also receive SNAP benefits.

    “A lot of those individuals are employed. But once again, when you have large families and a fixed income coming into the household, you’re still below the poverty level,” said Dunn. “So, this is going to impact the community and those really dependant on those benefits to put food on the table.”

    MDHS officials, however, said that counties like Tunica, Coahoma and Leflore in the Mississippi Delta overall have the highest cases of fraud.

    “The highest fraud numbers and the counties which will be hit the hardest by the decrease in benefits would be in the counties with the highest number of SNAP cases and highest rate of poverty,” Bryan said. “[But] the agency is always actively pursuing those whose intent is to defraud a system in place to assist those in need with teams of investigators dedicated to looking at individuals and stores.”

    Bryan said MDHS administers SNAP benefits to the elderly and those with children according to federal guidelines and they are bound by those regulations until they are changed on a national level. And they will continue to adhere to the allowable benefit levels to help those truly in need.

    “SNAP is meant to be a supplement to one’s income to help ensure nutritional needs are met,“ she said. “Nationally, SNAP is the largest program in the domestic hunger safety net. As the holidays approach, those who face food insecurity are urged to visit a local office and apply for the program. Despite cuts to SNAP, help is available for those needing assistance to meet their nutritional needs.”

    “I don’t think the cutback will hurt the average family,” Mills of Food Giant said. “If they will be just a little bit more conscious of what they’re buying.”

    Well, this is a state run by the Republicans and stagnant in poverty for decades, wealthy by Latin American standards but poor by US standards. Like father Jansen I’m not against free trade, I don’t believe if you placed high tariffs all the factory jobs will come back but the Republicans need to offer more than service jobs that don’t have management opportunities or large tip opportunities to advance. The Republicans need to encourage online business particularity in poor Southern States run by them. One reason why you are seeing strikes for higher wages for Walmart which has lots of its employees one welfare is more of these jobs are done by adults with families.

Speak Your Mind