As to the use of land, we hold: That —
While the right of ownership that justly attaches to things produced by
labor cannot attach to land, there may attach to land a right of possession.
As your Holiness says, “God has not granted the earth to mankind in
general in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they
please,” and regulations necessary for its best use may be fixed by
human laws. But such regulations must conform to the moral law — must
secure to all equal participation in the advantages of God’s general
bounty. The principle is the same as where a human father leaves property
equally to a number of children. Some of the things thus left may be incapable
of common use or of specific division. Such things may properly be assigned
to some of the children, but only under condition that the equality of benefit
among them all be preserved.
In the rudest social state, while industry consists in hunting, fishing,
and gathering the spontaneous fruits of the earth, private possession of
land is not necessary. But as men begin to cultivate the ground and expend
their labor in permanent works, private possession of the land on which labor
is thus expended is needed to secure the right of property in the products
of labor. For who would sow if not assured of the exclusive possession needed
to enable him to reap? who would attach costly works to the soil without
such exclusive possession of the soil as would enable him to secure the benefit?
This right of private possession in things created by God is however very
different from the right of private ownership in things produced by labor.
The one is limited, the other unlimited, save in cases when the dictate of
self-preservation terminates all other rights. The purpose of the one, the
exclusive possession of land, is merely to secure the other, the exclusive
ownership of the products of labor; and it can never rightfully be carried
so far as to impair or deny this. While any one may hold exclusive possession
of land so far as it does not interfere with the equal rights of others,
he can rightfully hold it no further.
Thus Cain and Abel, were there only two men on earth, might by agreement
divide the earth between them. Under this compact each might claim exclusive
right to his share as against the other. But neither could rightfully continue
such claim against the next man born. For since no one comes into the world
without God’s permission, his presence attests his equal right to the
use of God’s bounty. For them to refuse him any use of the earth which
they had divided between them would therefore be for them to commit murder.
And for them to refuse him any use of the earth, unless by laboring for them
or by giving them part of the products of his labor he bought it of them,
would be for them to commit theft. ... read the whole letter