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like. " It was not for pork, but for pippins, that the first
man met death ; and Esau lost his birthright, not for poul-
try, but for pottage. I know, too, that Noah was given for
food, all kinds of flesh which can be eaten ; that Elijah was
refreshed with flesh food ; and that John, endowed as he was
with marvellous abstinence, was not defiled with the animals
■ — to wit, locusts, — which fell to his food. Yes, I know Esau
was deceived with the lust of pottage ; and David severely
rebuked himself for his desire for water ; and that our King
was tempted not with butcher's meat, but with bread." f



* Enarr. in Psalm cv. (Vulg.).
t Cf. S. Bernard hi Apologetic.



SOCIAL TEACHING OF THE EARLY FATHERS. 15

St, Leo, in one of his sermons, lays down the usual maxim
that collective property is always to be preferred before
private property, because the general watch and ward over
it is more likely to secure a right use of it.

There is one author with whom we may fittingly close
this essay, St. Gregory the Great, the friend of the English.
Both the necessity of his unhappy, disorderly time, and his
own ruling spirit, tended to make him a friend to authority
and a foe to innovation. His teaching upon social subjects
is cautious, and he tries to balance his utterances. If he
tells us that riches are very dangerous to the spiritual life,
he almost immediately tells us that the faithful Abraham
was rich.* If he tells us that the Gospel calls equally to
men of every class, he is careful to add that to each type
of character the call comes in a different manner.f If he
has to point out that men who have heard the voice of God
often defy the powers that be, he is careful to show that
they also burn with charity towards those whom they
rebuke. |

Yet St. Gregory, in his ''Pastoralis Cura," — a book which
" has always been a text-book for the formation of members
of the ecclesiastical hierarchy," § and which, more than
any of his works, bears the mark of extreme care and com-
pressed thought, — distinctly explains his theory of alms-
giving, and explains it from a strongly socialist standpoint.
This is all the more telling, because the boundless generosity
of the saint, and his severe attention to sympathetic alms-
giving, are the keynotes of his whole life. He was more
renowned for his almsdeeds even than for anything else
in his strenuous and valorous career ; and those who came
after him blamed him, if for anything, for a chairity which
exceeded his very powers of giving. His words to those
who are called upon to teach the Faith are these : |1 " This
is how we must preach to those who neither covet other
men's goods nor yet bestow their own in alms. We must
make them clearly understand that the land which yields
them income is the common property of all men, and for
this reason the fruits of it which are brought forth are for

* Magna Moralia, iv. 60, 61 ; x. 41-49. f Ibid., vi. 21, 22.

I Ihid , vii. 53, 54. § Father H. J. Coleridge, Preface to Dialogues.

II De Cura Pa^torali, Tertia pars. c. xxi.



1 6 SOCIAL TEACHING OF THE EARLY FATHERS.

the common welfare. It is therefore absurd for people to
think they do no harm when they claim God's common
gift of food as their private property, or that they are not
robbers, when they do not pass on what they have received
to their neighbors. Absurd ! because almost as many folk
die daily as they have rations locked up for at home.
Really, when we administer any necessities to the poor, we
give them their own ; we do not bestow our goods upon
them. We do not fulfil the works of mercy ; we discharge
the debt of justice. Hence it was that Very Truth, when
He told us to be careful to show mercy, said, ' See that ye
do not your justice before men.' In harmony with this the
psalmist too said, ' He hath dispersed, He hath given to
the poor, His justice remaineth for ever.' For when he
reviewed a lavish generosity to the poor, he chose to call it
justice rather than mercy, because what is given us by a
common God is only justly used when those who have re-
ceived it use it in common. Such people must also be told
to consider carefully the barren fig tree. The husbandman
quarrelled with it, because it merely held the land. Indeed,
a barren fig tree holds the land when the mind of the
owners idly keeps what could benefit so many. A barren
fig tree holds the land when a fool overcasts with the
shadow of his inactivity a place which another could use
with the sunshine of good work."

It is with social teaching of this sort that the English
people received their Church, — teaching which was no
idle whim of a few loose thinkers, but the settled convic-
tion of the highest and saintliest of the Church's own
teachers. And when, after a long winter of protestant dis-
content and commercial individualism, such teaching is
once more found among us, we might expect that our lead-
ing and most learned Churchmen would welcome it indeed.
Such, unhappily, is not yet the case.



THE FATHERS ON PROPERTY.

By the Rev. W. F. Cobb.

An attempt has recently been made to claim the high
authority of the Fathers for the doctrines of the Fabian
Society, for " the frankest Socialism," for community of
goods, and against the lawfulness of private property. The
Fathers are so widely and so justly regarded as unimpeach-
able witnesses to the purity of Evangelical truth, that it is
important to ascertain whether they did hold as a body any
theories about economic problems which satisfy the test of
quod ab omnibus. Of course no one regards the private
opinions of the Fathers as having more weight than those
of any other fallible and good men. Take, for instance, the
austere and fervent, but also narrow and violent, monk of
Bethlehem, St. Jerome. We do not feel bound to follow his
exhortation to Furia to " repel a singer like some poison " ;
nor, when he tells Lseta to let her daughter Paula be " deaf
to the sound of the organ, and not know even the uses of
the pipe, the lyre, and the cithern," do we regard this as a
command binding for all time ; much less when he declares
that chastity forbids a maiden ever to take a bath, or when
he praises the mother of Eustochium because, after the
death of her husband, she never sat down to meat with a
man. These are local and temporary opinions, interesting
as historical documents, but of little interest beyond that.

What is claimed for the alleged social teaching of the
Fathers goes far beyond the irresponsible dicta of illustrious
individuals. We are assured that collectivism is an integral
part of the Catholic deposit, or, if not part of its essence, at
all events a "property " of it, a beloved friend never to be
found absent from its sworn companion. Thus, for instance,
we are assured —

" where the Catholic faith is merely latent, there the Socialiam is also
less explicit. When the writer is unsound in his orthodoxy (^zV), there
he is almost sure to favor some form of individualist law or possession."

This is to force Christianity to stake her all on one throw
of the dice. If she teaches individualism in any shape,



1 8 THE FATHERS ON PROPERTY.

then she is heretical, or apostate, or not divine. Those,
however, who have watched in history one shibboleth after
another raised to the status of an articulus stantis aut
cadentis Ecclesice will view with equanimity the elevation of
another to imperial rank, and will calmly await the moment
when its pretensions are exposed, and its real worth ac-
curately gauged. The issue put before us hie et nunc is
whether undiluted collectivism, or competitive individual-
ism in all its nakedness, or a tertium quid, individualism
limited by socialism, is the system of economic living
favored by the early Fathers.

The question is likely to be usefully narrowed by the
patent consideration that the first and chiefest interests of
the early Christians were religious and ethical rather than
social or economic. They regarded themselves as the torch-
bearers of a revelation from God to man, whereby the road
from earth to heaven was at last made clear, and the weary
voyager endowed with strength and will to go on his up-
ward way. They held, moreover, that this revelation was
not offered to isolated individuals, in such a sense that those
who accepted its guidance had no interest in one another.
On the contrary, a religious gift common to all involved
social obligations. Charity, like Janus, had two faces, of
which one was turned towards God and the other towards
man. But though they both belonged to the same owner,
though both expressed the same spirit, though both were
essentially equal, yet there was a priority of order, and the
love of man was a consequence of the love of God, and not
vice versa. " This commandment have we from Him, that
he who loveth God love his brother also." The importance
of this consideration will appear directly.

If we are to find the social teaching of the Fathers any-
where, we should look for it especially in their exhortations
about the use of money. And here their teaching is sin-
gularly rich. The only difficulty is that caused by an em-
barras des richesses. A few specimens taken at random
from their works will show their economic leaning better
than pages of description. St. Clement of Rome says —

" Let the rich minister aid to the poor; and let the poor give thanks
to God, because He has given him one through whom his Yi^ants may
be supplied.'"

' E^., § 39-



THE FATHERS ON PROPERTY. 19

St. Irenaeus, in denouncing the party of Simon and Car-
pocrates, declares that the Lord ordered us to be —

" so far from denying another man's ownership in things, as even to
refrain from demanding our own back from such as may have taken
them," 1

which sanctions involuntary almsgiving in its crudest form.
Justin Martyr, in describing the worship of his day,
says —

" Of those that are well to do and willing, every one gives what he
will according to his own purpose, and the collection is deposited with
the president, and he it is that succours orphans and widows." ^

In a similar way, Tertullian says —

" Each of us puts in a trifle on the monthly day, or when he pleases;
but only if he pleases, and only if he is able, for no man is obliged,
but contributes of his own free-will." ^

One more instance may suffice. St, Augustine, preach-
ing on the words " The gold is Mine and the silver is Mine,"
says —

" Let him, who is unwilling to share his goods with the poor, under-
stand, when he hears exhortations to show mercy, that God does not
order him to give of his own but of that which is God's." *

One thing is clear from the teaching of the Fathers on
almsgiving, of which the above extracts are fair samples ;
and that is, that they regarded God as the sole absolute
owner of all things, the rich as His stewards, the poor as
His pensioners, and riches itself as " the touchstone of
humanity, the punishment of lust ; " but they never breathe
a hint of their latent belief that society was wrongly con-
stituted ; that mankind was unjustly divided into the
oppressing rich and the oppressed poor, and that when
Christianity was victorious " collectivism " would take the
place of individual possession and pecuniary inequality.
Their appeals are invariably made to the individual con-
science, not to a collectivist future when all shall share and
share alike, and the very fact that their appeal is of this
kind is the strongest testimony to their ingrained individ-



1 Adv. H<Er., lib. ii., c. 32. ^ ApoL, i. 67.

s Ibid., c, 39. * Sertn. 4, torn, v., p. 326 (Migne).



20 THE FATHERS ON PROPERTY.

ualism. It may be described as unorthodox, or as border-
ing on heresy, if you please, but it is there.

This inference is supported, too, by many passages in
which the Fathers are led to state explictly their economic
views. They point to the bounty of God, to the free access
given to earth and air and water, to the wasteful extrava-
gance of Laissezfaire^ to the wickedness of confiscation, to
the proper use of temporal things, but never to the duty of
teaching community of goods as one of the precepts of the
gospel. For example, St. Chrysostom, when commenting
on Acts iv. 32, a passage which, if any, would impel the
preacher to state explicitly the binding force of collectivism,
contents himself with praising " the exceeding ardour of
the givers," and with urging that, if the same thing were
done by his hearers, they would live more cheaply, and the
poor would be provided for. Indeed, a few pages further
on, when dealing with the case of Ananias, all that Chrysos-
tom says is —

" Sacrilege, beloved, is a most grievous crime, insulting and full of
contempt. * We neither obliged thee to sell,' the Apostle says, ' nor to
give thy money when thou hadst sold; of thine own free choice thou
didst it; why hast thou then stolen from the sacred treasury ? . . .
Didst thou wish to keep it? Thou oughtest to have kept it all along,
and never to have professed to give it.' "

Again, his constant conception of riches as private prop-
erty entrusted to each man by God comes out in his homily
on St. John xvii. 5 —

" Riches are called tisables, that we may use them rightly, and not
keep and bury them ; for this is not to possess them laut to be possessed
by them. . . . Let us then free ourselves from this grievous bondage,
and at last become free. ... So many hindrances are there; that we
may conquer them all let us keep to the mean estate."'

St. Gregory, in his Morals^ expresses the unanimous
opinion of the Fathers on the ethical meaning of property :

" We often see rich people, who might have had wealth and glory
without guilt, if they would have had them with humility. But they

iThe writer of the very sane leaflet, No. 15. published by the Oxford University
Branch of the Christian Social Union, will be glad to have the above support of
St. Chrysostom for his statement that, " granting the necessity and desirability of
different standards of comfort, the highest permanently justifiable mode of living
will perhaps be more nearly that usual among professional men of moderate means
thiin that of the wealthiest classes." — Chiysostom's ivreXeia, in fact.

- Lib. xiv., § 19.



THE FATHERS ON PROPERTY. 21

are uplifted by possessions, they are flushed with honours, they disdain
the rest of the world, and place their life's whole hope and trust in the
mere abundance of good things alone."

But how could they possess their wealth without guilt if
community of goods is ordered to accompany the recep-
tion of the gospel? or how can St. Gregory be acquitted of
trifling with heresy if any form of " individualist law or
possession " is a mark of unorthodoxy?

A passage from Irenseus has a special bearing upon our
present subject, because he is directly dealing with the
question of the private possession of goods. Answering the
charge of dishonesty brought against the Israelites for spoil-
ing the Egyptians, he urges that what they did they did
under the command of God, and proceeds to say —

" Had not God permitted this in the typical journey, no man could
at this day be saved in our real journey, i. e. in the faith wherein we are
established, whereby we are taken out of the number of the Gentiles.
For we are all accompanied by some property, moderate or large, which
we have gotten out of the Mammon of iniquity." ^

A little further on, Irenasus is even stronger. For he
declares that, if a man from a Gentile become a Christian,
and live homeless and barefoot, " he will obtain pardon as
not knowing what is needed in our manner of life," The
same ingenuity which makes the Fathers communists, may
easily make the above passage to condemn St. Francis of
Assisi for teaching utter poverty.

One more passage, and this from St. Ambrose, may be
examined, and the more carefully, because no patristic
statement appears to make more for community of goods
than this. He is discussing the four Platonic cardinal vir-
tues,^ and observes that justice, according to the Stoics, is
defined as hurting no one unless provoked to it by some
injury, which, he says, is a mere passive virtue, and beneath
the Chris dan virtue, which is actively beneficent. Then,
he says, they have again treated justice as if it meant that
by it public rights are held to be public, and private private.
But this, he says again, is contrary to that nature to which
Stoics are always appealing —

"For nature has given all things to all men in common; for God
has ordained that all things shall be so produced that food shall be

^ Adv. Hcer., lib. iv., c. 30. - De Officiis, lib. i., c. 28.



22 THE FATHERS ON PROPERTY.

common to all, and the earth as it were the common possession of
all. Nature, therefore, is the mother of common right, appropriation
[usurpaiio'] of private. Hence the favourite saying of the Stoics, that
the fruits of the earth were created for the use of men, but men were
made for the sake of men, viz. that they might be of mutual service to
one another."

Then, after a reference to Eve being given to Adam as a
helpmate, St. Ambrose draws his conclusion —

" Therefore, according to the will of God or the bond of nature, we
are bound to help one another, to vie with one another in kindly
offices, and, as it were, put all our resources into one heap \_in ?nedio
omnes utilitates ponere] ; in the words of Scripture, to help one
another, by kindliness, by service, by money, by good works, in every
way, that social feeling may grow, and no one be called from his duty
even by fear of danger, but that each may go on his own way, whether
of prosperity or adversity."

How strong was the Christian tradition for an individual-
ism tempered only by Christian love maybe seen from the
hiatus between the premises and the conclusion of this ex-
tract. By nature all things are common, says St. Ambrose ;
their divisions into parcels of private property is not of
nature, but of history. Therefore, what ? Return, as Rous-
seau did, to the state of nature? No, let the present con-
stitution of things remain. But let Christians be ready to
help one another with their purse. St. Ambrose, in laying
thus an individualistic basis for property, was not deliber-
ately flying in the face of Christian tradition. Nay, he does
not seem to be aware that there was any Christian tradition
at all which concerned itself with those economic problems
that disturb our industrial age.

Some idea may now be had of the bearing of a previous
remark, that the early Church's concern was chiefly with
religion and ethics. In the light of the passages already
quoted, it is not too much to say that the economic side of
the gospel — that is to say, the theories of the distribution
of wealth which the establishment of Christianity must inev-
itably call into being — had, for the Fathers, no existence
at all. Their minds were too full of the other world and its
glories to take much account of this, except so far as it was
the vestibule to heaven. Economic problems, and even
social ethics, are the children of later-born parents, and see
the light under conditions which were utterly wanting to
the first three centuries of our era.



THE FATHERS ON PROPERTY. 23

Three other converging lines of argument may be briefly
traced as leading us to the same conclusion, (i) The per-
sistency with which the doctrine of a millennium survived
in the Church is proof that under it was something more
than a particular interpretation of passages that proclaim a
first resurrection. It is true that Chiliasm was never held
by more than a small fraction of Christians ; it is probably
true that the condemnation of it by Origen and Caius and
Dionysius, on the ground of its sensuality, is an exaggera-
tion. But to every caricature there is a substratum of truth.
And the doctrine which charmed some few Christians in
early days into Chiliasm was in all likelihood the alluring
prospect of an earthly Paradise where greed, and envy, and
oppression — and shall we add money and private property ?
— were not known, but where justice, judgment, and truth
were supreme under King Jesus. It appears that this lofty
vision is that which is tempting some of the nobler souls
among us to try to build Jerusalem in England's green and
pleasant land, oblivious of the fact that to mortals it is not
given to do more than yearn and strive for the ideal, and
that ideals ex vi termini never can be fully and adequately
realized, save in an ideal world.

2. The second buttress for my argument is derived from
the grounds on which the early Christians incurred the
wrath of the civil power. Professor Ramsay has so conclu-
sively dealt with this head that it will be enough to point out
that it was "the Name " which was obnoxious to the Em-
perors. It led to riots, as at Ephesus ; it interfered with
trade, as at Philippi ; it emptied the heathen temples, as
in Bithynia ; it broke into the civil system by insisting on
an origin for religion higher than the imperial will ; it set
up a heavenly King, over whom the haughty Csesar had no
sway. But Christianity was not charged with being anar-
chical on socialistic or economic grounds. The head and
forefront of its offending was its audacious and inflexible
assertion of the rights of the individual to obey spiritual
truth. For example, there is not a word in the account of
the sufferings of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne, as given
by the Church there, to show that the magistrates punished
them on any grounds but those of professing unauthorized
religion. In the rescript of Gallienus it is liberty of relig-
ious worship alone that is specified as conferred by it. The



24 THE FATHERS ON PROPERTY.

same is true of the Toleration Edict of Galerius as given by
Lactantius. The Edict of Milan put forth by Constantine
and Licinius is express on this point : —

"We thought that, amongst other things which seemed likely to
profit men generally, we ought in the very first place to set in order
the conditions of the reverence paid to the Divinity, by giving to the
Christians and all others full authority to follow whatever worship any
man has chosen. . . . Therefore we thought it good, with sound coun-
sel and very right reason, to lay down this law that no man whatever
should be refused any legal facility, who has given up his mind either
to the observance of Christianity, or to the worship which he person-
ally feels best suited to himself."

The Emperors punished Christians as disorderly, but the
disorder they caused was like that of the " Ritualists " ;
they denied the authority of Caesar to legislate in religious
matters for individual consciences. Had the civil power
been able to point to them as fanatical communists it would
eagerly have done so. But had the Christians been nothing
else save communists the issue would have been reversed —
Christianity would have been crushed, and no Constantine
would have been the first Christian Emperor.

3. Monasticism is sometimes appealed to as an irre-
fragable proof of the communistic tendency always present
in the Church, but not fully manifested till the Churches
had quieted. But this is at best a two-edged weapon. It
may be as plausibly maintained that you have to go to
monks of a much later date, say the seventh century, before
you can find any expression of a behef that monasticism
was a necessary means of salvation. To the Church at large
it was not, and never could be, more than a counsel of per-
fection — that is to say, a way of life to which some few
might be called, and from which it follows, therefore, that
the rest were absolved.

Community of goods, the wrongfulness of individualism,
may be defended on other grounds. But what is not legit-
imate is a reading of history backwards, and the attributing
to men, whose whole mind was turned upon a religious
revolution, ideas and aspirations which they would not have
understood. If ever they were led to mention the distribu-
tion of wealth, they invariably treated their subject from
the point of view of Teachers of Religion, and not of Pro-
fessors of Political Economy. They appealed to individuals



THE FATHERS ON PROPERTY. 25

to remember the duties of property ; they would have been
horrified at the doctrine of " ransom," and would have de-
nounced Proudhon's maxim, "Z« propriete c'est le vol^'' as
an incitement to break the Eighth Commandment. On
the other hand, they were so far from being advocates of
Laissez /aire that they passionately exhorted to brotherly
liberality ; they never dreamed of community of goods as


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Online LibraryR. A. (Robert Afton) HollandThe church of the world → online text (page 12 of 19)