The Universal Destination of Goods. *

* The column «Christians and citizenship» is produced in collaboration with CERAS (Centre de Recherche et d’Action Sociales in Paris) and its Review magazine Projet. The original texts are available on the website ‹›. The English translation is by Fr. Ugo-Maria Ginex ESB (csr) of St. Mary’s Hermitage Nr. Canterbury, (Holy Celtic Church International) ‹›. For the texts of the magisterium, reference is made to the version available on ‹›.

The universal destination of goods is a concept in Catholicism, by which the Church professes that all of the goods of creation are destined for all of humanity as a whole, whilst also recognising an individual’s right to private property within reason (by ‘within reason’ I meant that if someone owns –for example– 10 acres of arable land and does not grow anything on it or underutilises it, that it should be given to someone who would make it fruitful and productive in order to provide sustenance).

If the principle of the “universal destination of goods” has its roots in the most ancient tradition, it is the formulation offered by the Second Vatican Council that is most commonly cited: “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and people. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner.” (Pastoral Constitution: Gaudium et Spes, № 69).

This text sets out a theological foundation: faith in God who creates the world and entrusts it to humanity so that humanity can find everything they needs to live in dignity. It is a reference to the book of Genesis, which the Church summarises as follows: “God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him” (№ 299). From this derives a concrete ethical requirement: since the goods of creation are, in line of law, destined for all, they must, in fact, “be shared by all” in an equitable way. Whenever this is not the case, justice and therefore charity are injured. Theological fact and the ethical-political requirement are inseparable: faith in God the creator of all good cannot be dissociated from the responsibility assigned to humanity to ensure that we  all have access to the products of creation.

The universal destination of goods thus presents itself as a criterion for evaluating the justice of any given concrete situation and as a stimulus to act so that that justice is honoured and maintained. It is important to note that, the goods of creation are destined not only for “all men,” but also for “all peoples”: an authentic inclusion, which gives the principle of the universal destination of goods a quasi-political dimension.

In the social teaching prior to the Second Vatican Council, both Leo XIII and the Venerable Pius XII had formulated reflections on this subject matter which kindled people’s attention. It was during the course of the debate against the socialist proposal to abolish private property that Leo XIII mentions the fact that God gave the land for the use and enjoyment to all mankind ‘Hence, man not only should possess the fruits of the earth, but also the very soil, inasmuch as from the produce of the earth he has to lay by provision for the future. Man’s needs do not die out, but forever recur; although satisfied today, they demand fresh supplies for tomorrow. Nature accordingly must have given to man a source that is stable and remaining always with him, from which he might look to draw continual supplies. And this stable condition of things he finds solely in the earth and its fruits. There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body (cf. Rerum Novarum, № 7). The context clearly indicates what the goal is: to refute those who claim to derive an argument against the legitimacy of private property; the fact that God gave the earth to all mankind means only that “no part of it was assigned to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races” (cf. Rerum Novarum, № 8). For practical purposes which will be essential for the Second Vatican Council — so as to ensure that this principle is translated into a socio-economic reality — is not for Leo XIII, who seemed to judge the situation as satisfactory on the basis that “the earth, even though apportioned among private owners, ceases not thereby to minister to the needs of all, inasmuch as there is not one who does not sustain life from what the land produces. Those who do not possess the soil contribute their labor; hence, it may truly be said that all human subsistence is derived either from labor on one’s own land, or from some toil, some calling, which is paid for either in the produce of the land itself, or in that which is exchanged for what the land brings forth” (ibid). Frankly, I personally believe this to be an extremely aberrant argument —especially when it is purported that the estimated total of land held by the Pope as Head of State is around 177 million acres— an argument which in fact reduces a person’s access to the goods of creation and access to food and water.

The relevant text can be found in Pius XIIs Radio Message of Pentecost June 1, 1941, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Rerum novarum, which addresses the three “‘fundamental points’ upon which of the social question is based, that the goods created by God for all men should in the same way reach all, ‘justice guiding and charity helping,’” picking up from what the Pontiff had written a short time earlier in the encyclical Sertum laetitiae, addressed on 1 November 1939 to the bishops of the United States: it is “an imperative requirement that” the goods created by God for all men should flow equally to all, according to the principles of justice and charity”” (RM 1941, citing № 34 of the Sertum laetitiae). We observe the similarity with the conciliar formulation, 24 years later, but with a notable difference as regards the foundation of the “original law on the use of material goods” (ibid); for Pius XII, who mentions only incidentally the fact that such goods are “created by God”, it is not inscribed in the theological register, but is rather based on nature: “Every man, as a living being endowed with reason, has in fact the fundamental right to use the material goods of the earth” (ibid).

However clear-cut these affirmations are regarding the universal destination of goods — that of Pius XII, which will be taken up by John XXIII in the encyclical Mater et magistra (№ 30), and that of the Second Vatican Council, which Paul VI will quote in the encyclical Populorum progressio (№ 22) —, it does not seem that one of the fundamental principles of social doctrine can already be recognized, in the same title, for example, of the dignity of the human person. It will be John Paul II to affirm it, first in passing in № 14 of the encyclical Laborem exercens, then very explicitly in the encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis, where it presents as a “characteristic principle of Christian social doctrine” the conviction that “the goods of this world are originally meant for all” (SRS, № 42 ). Since then, all systematic presentations of the Church’s social doctrine include the universal destination of goods among its fundamental principles (cf., for example, CSDC, chap. IV).

Prevalence on property rights

If we pay attention to the contexts in which this principle appears, we note that it is a question of reflections or controversies regarding the right to property. This occurs in all the texts just mentioned, from Leo XIII to John Paul II, passing in particular through Gaudium et spes, where we read: “Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only for themselves but also for others” (GS, № 69). The right of property therefore finds a limit in the universal destination of goods, without however constituting a principle of the same level: except for Rerum novarum, all the texts affirm that the second must prevail over the first.

It is very clear in Populorum progressio, in which Paul VI specifies that “all other rights, of whatever kind, including those of property and free trade, are subordinate” to the universal destination of goods (PP, № 22), and shows that this principle is rooted in the most ancient tradition, quoting, in support, the Fathers of the Church and the great theologians, especially St. Ambrose:  “You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.” (De Nabute, c. 12, n. 53: PL 14. 747; cf. J. R. Palanque, Saint Ambroise et l’empire romain, Paris: de Boccard (1933), 336 ff.) These words indicate that the right to private property is not absolute and unconditional.  (PP, № 23).

John Paul II is equally explicit: “the difference consists in the way the right to ownership or property is understood. Christian tradition has never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” (LE, № 14). In SRS, № 42, he takes up the image of a “social mortgage” on private property, used for the first time in 1979 in a speech in Mexico.

If the universal destination of goods limits and frames the right of property, one should not think that they are necessarily in conflict. Rather, they support each other. Thus, according to Pius XII, quoted by John XXIII in MM, № 101, also the right of property should become universal in order to respect the “right to use the goods of the earth,” which translates into the “fundamental obligation to grant private property to everyone if possible” (RMN 1942). For John XXIII it is important that the social function of property is not presented as a burden imposed by an external principle, since it “springs from the very nature of the right of property” (MM, № 108) and therefore forms part of his definition.

Some applications

Like the other principles of social doctrine, that of the universal destination of goods also allows to illuminate the ethical judgment on certain issues and finds application in the search for solutions to concrete problems.

A first case is that of agrarian reform. The Second Vatican Council dedicates a fairly broad reflection to the ethical and political question raised by the existence, in many poor countries, of “large or even extensive rural estates which are only slightly cultivated or lie completely idle for the sake of profit,” (GS, № 71, § 6). The criticism of the Council Fathers is aimed above all at the unjust conditions of wages, work and accommodation imposed on the labourers who work in these “estates”. To justify a possible agrarian reform, which should make it possible that “insufficiently cultivated estates should be distributed to those who can make these lands fruitful” (ibid), they invoke the common good, and not the principle of the universal destination of goods.

The latter is instead at the centre of the argument developed in 1997 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in the document entitled “Toward a better distribution of the land. The challenge of agrarian reform.” After describing the situation of the large estates in its various aspects, it refers to the Second Vatican Council to declare: “In the social teaching of the Church, the process of the concentration of landholdings is judged a scandal because it clearly goes against God’s will and salvific plan, inasmuch as it deprives a large part of humanity of the benefit of the fruits of the earth.” (№ 27).

A second area in which the principle of the universal destination of goods is recalled is that of migratory movements. Pius XII, in the Apostolic Constitution Exsul familia, affirms that migration allows “the more favourable distribution of men on the earth’s surface suitable to colonies of agricultural workers; that surface which God created and prepared for the use of all” (№ 78). The introduction of the notion of the earth’s surface, which gives the universal destination of goods a geographical dimension, constitutes an interesting innovation: people have in a certain way the right to go and look for earthly goods anywhere, if they are not available in quantity, sufficient in the place where they live. The most recent document on the issue, the Erga migrantes Caritas Christi (The love of Christ towards migrants) instruction, invokes the same principle, but building the reasoning in the opposite direction: if populations are forced to migrate, one of the reasons is the bad distribution of the earth’s goods. The conclusion is essential: to reduce the push for migration, a more equitable distribution of these goods is needed, which requires the search for a new international economic order.

One consequence, rather indigestible for rich peoples, is the duty to welcome people who migrate in search of the resources that are lacking in their countries. The Catechism of the Catholic Church formulates it in very clear terms: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin” (№ 2241). According to Catholic doctrine, the right of states to regulate migratory flows (in view of the common good and for no other reason) is in any case subordinated to that recognized to every man of having access to vital resources. this is what the Mexican Bishops’ Conference recalls, for example: “The gift of the earth to man, the universal destination of goods by the Creator’s desire and human solidarity are prior to the rights of States” (Mensaje al Pueblo de México y a los hermanos migrantes y residentes en el extranjero, CEM, № 15 de noviembre de 2002, ‹›).

New developments

The Church’s slow awareness of the ethical importance of environmental challenges, sketched out since 1971 (cf. OA, № 21), has almost never been based on the principle of the universal destination of goods, but in this regard it is necessary to point out the news of chap. IV of the encyclical Caritas in veritate, in which Benedict XVI expresses the conviction that when we affirm that God has destined the goods of creation to all men, we must also include future generations (cf. CV, № 48). The expansion of the temporal horizon of the universality of the destination of goods represents a fundamental step for the ethical study of the concept of sustainability (cf. CV, № 50).

In no way, then, does the formulation of the principle of the universal destination of goods include a distinction between “goods of nature,” given by the Creator and which must be accessible to all, and products of human action, for which a different regime would apply. This way of seeing, in addition to being practically unsustainable (almost all goods incorporate, albeit in varying proportions, products of nature and the fruits of human labor), is not in conformity with the Christian theology of creation, for which the Creator entrusts to the human activity the continuation of one’s work. All existing goods, whatever their origin, must “be shared equally by all.” Shortly before his death, John Paul II had specified this point regarding the fruits of scientific and technical progress: “The good of peace should be seen today as closely related to the new goods derived from progress in science and technology. These too, in application of the principle of the universal destination of the earth’s goods, need to be put at the service of humanity’s basic needs” (Message for the 2005 World Day of Peace, № 7).

This declination of the principle could illuminate the debate on “common goods” (global commons), the definition and extension of which is a matter of controversy within international institutions. Christians will strive to make their broad understanding prevail (for example, in the matter of intellectual property of therapeutic discoveries; cf. CV, № 22), rather than the defence of national claims or particular interests.

In the context of globalisation, the violations of the principle of the universal destination of goods are more evident, as is the awareness of the scandal of inequality between men and peoples. Can the Church be satisfied with forcefully affirming that goods are intended for all without providing indications on how to enforce this requirement? Indeed, the social magisterium contains some stimuli: they are the invitations — very explicit in John XXIII (cf. PT, №s 71-74), in the Council and recently in Benedict XVI (cf. CV, № 67) — to build political institutions world endowed with the power of decision on problems that cannot find solutions other than planetary.

This is a rather general orientation, which does not say much about the means to implement it, the research of which belongs more to the competence of the laity — especially those committed by conviction or profession in international fora — than to the magisterium. It can perhaps be asked to affirm with even greater clarity that there will not be a just distribution of the goods of the earth among the peoples if the unequal distribution of decision-making powers among them is not remedied.


CCC = Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1992.

CDSC = PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 2004.

CV = BENEDICT XVI, encyclical letter Caritas in veritate, 2009.

GS = Gaudium et spes, pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, 1965.

LE = JOHN PAUL II, encyclical letter Laborem exercens, 1981.

MM = JOHN XXIII, encyclical letter Mater et magistra, 1961.

OA = PAUL VI, apostolic letter Octogesima adveniens, 1971.

PP = PAUL VI, encyclical letter Populorum progressio, 1967.

PT = JOHN XXIII, encyclical letter Pacem in terris, 1963.

RM 1941 = Pius XII, Radio Message on the 50th anniversary of “Rerum novarum”, 1 June 1941. [in Italian only].

RMN 1942 = Pius XII, Christmas radio message, 24 December 1942 [in Italian only].

RN = LEO XIII, encyclical letter Rerum novarum, 1891.

SRS = JOHN PAUL II, encyclical letter Sollicitudo rei socialis, 1987.

JOHN PAUL II, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”, Message for the celebration of the XXXVIII World Day of Peace, 1 January 2005.

PIUS XII, apostolic constitution Exsul familia (The émigré Family), 1 August 1952. [in Latin only]

PONTIFICAL PASTORAL COUNCIL FOR MIGRANTS AND TRAVELLERS, instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi, 3 May 2004.