published on September 18, 2020
Is the Institution of Private Property Part of the Natural Law? Ius gentium and ius naturale in Aquinas’s Account of the Right to “Steal” When in Urgent Need
Is the institution of private property part of the natural law? Leo XIII seems to say simply that it is, and many modern Catholic thinkers have followed suit. Aquinas presents a more nuanced view. On the one hand, he denies that the institution of private property is “natural” in the strict sense—unlike the ordering of physical goods to general human use. On the other hand, he maintains that private property does belong to the ius gentium, which is founded directly upon natural law in the strict sense. I argue that this relegation of private property to the ius gentium is necessary in order for Aquinas to coherently maintain that it is licit to “steal” when in dire need, but that this relegation nonetheless does not deprive private property of the kind of “natural” character which Leo XIII ascribes to it.