Property is commonly understood as a socially recognized form of people’s relation to the fruits of labor and to natural resources. The basic powers of an owner normally include the right to own and use property, the right to control and collect income, the right to dispose of lease, modify or liquidate property. The Church is not an entity that defines the rights to property. However, the material side of human life is not outside her field of vision. While calling to seek first “the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Mt. 6:33), the Church does not forget about people’s need for “daily bread” (Mt. 6:11), and believes that everyone should have resources sufficient for life with dignity. At the same time, the church warns against the extreme attraction to wealth, denouncing those who are carried away by “cares and riches and pleasures of this life” (Lk. 8:14). The Church, in her attitude towards property, does not ignore people’s material needs, nor does she praise the opposite extreme, the aspiration for wealth as the ultimate goal and value of life. The status of a person in itself cannot be seen as an indication as to whether God is pleased with him.
The attitude of Orthodox Christians to property should be based on gospel’s principle of love of one’s neighbor, expressed in the words of the Savior: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another” (Jn. 13:34). This commandment is the basis of Christian moral behavior. For Christians – and the Church believes, for other people as well – it should be an imperative in regulating interpersonal relationships, including property relations.
According to the teaching of the Church, people receive all their earthy blessings from God, Who is the One Who holds the absolute right to possess them. The Savior repeatedly points to the relative nature of the right to property in His parables about a vineyard rented out to be used (Mk. 12:1-9), about talents distributed among many (Mt. 25:14-30), and about an estate handed over for temporary management (Lk. 16:1-13). Expressing the idea inherent in the Church that god is the absolute owner of everything, St. Basil the Great asks: “Tell me, what do you have that is yours? From where did you take it and bring it to life?” The sinful attitude towards property manifested in the conscious rejection of this spiritual principle generates division and alienation among people.
Wealth cannot make man happy. The Lord Jesus Christ warns: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses” (Lk. 12:15). The pursuit of wealth makes a pernicious impact on the spiritual condition of a person and can lead him to complete degradation. St. Paul points out that “people who long to be rich are a prey to temptation; they get trapped into all sorts of foolish and dangerous ambitions, which eventually plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evil: and there are some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds. But, as a man of God, you must avoid all that” (1 Tim. 6:9-11). In a talk to a young man the Lord said: “If you will be perfect, go and sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Mt. 19:21). Then He explained those words to His disciples: “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven… It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:23-24). St. Mark clarifies that it is difficult to enter the Kingdom of God precisely for those who trust not in God but in wealth, who “trust in riches” (Mk. 10:24). Only those who “trust in the Lord shall be as Mount Zion, which cannot be removed, but abides for ever” (Ps. 125:1).
However, a rich man can be saved as well, for “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Lk. 18:27). In Holy Scripture there is no censure of wealth as such. Abraham and the Old Testament Patriarchs, the righteous Job, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea were all affluent people. One who owns considerable wealth does not sin if he uses it in accordance with the will of God, to Whom everything belongs, and with the law of love; for the joy and fullness of life lie not in acquiring and possessing, but in giving and sacrifice. St. Paul calls people “to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said: It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). St. Basil the Great regards as thieves those who do not give away part of their property as charity to their neighbors. The same idea is stressed by St. John Chrysostom: “Failure to share one’s property is also theft.” The Church urges Christians to see in property a gift from God, given to be used for their own and their neighbors’ benefit.
At the same time, Holy Scripture recognizes the human right to property and deplores any encroachment on it. In two out of its Ten Commandments, the Decalogue states clearly: “You shall not steal… You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is your neighbor’s” (Ex. 20:15, 17). In the New Testament, this attitude to property continues, acquiring a more profound ethical confirmation. The Gospel says: “You shall not steal… You shall not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, namely: You must love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom. 13:9).
The Church recognizes the existence of various forms of ownership. Public, corporate, private and mixed forms of property have taken different roots in the course of the history of various nations. The church does not give preference to any of these forms. Any of its forms can produce both sinful phenomena – such as theft, greed, unfair distribution of wealth – and the proper and morally justified use of wealth.
Intellectual property, such as scientific works and inventions, information technologies, works of art and other achievements of the creative thought acquires a growing significance. The Church welcomes creative work aimed at benefiting society, and deplores the violation of copyright.
In general, the Church cannot approve of the appropriation and re-distribution of property that violates the rights of its legitimate owners. An exception may be made only for the appropriation of property based on the law, conditioned by the interest of the majority of people and accompanied by fair compensation. Russian history has shown that the violation of these principles has always resulted in social upheavals and people’s suffering.
In Christian history, many communities have pooled their property, abandoning personal proprietary aspirations. This kind of property relations contributed to the consolidation of the spiritual unity of the faithful and in many cases proved rather effective economically, as in the case of Orthodox monasteries. However, the repudiation of private property in the early apostolic community (Acts 4:32) and later in coenobite monasteries was exclusively a voluntary affair and a personal spiritual option.
The property of religious organizations is a special form of property. It is acquired in various ways, but the primary characteristic of its development is the volu7ntary donation by believers. According to Holy Scriptures, donation is sacred, that is, it belongs directly to God as a donor gives to God, not to a priest (Lev. 27:30; Ez. 8:28). Donation is a voluntary action made by the faithful for religious purposes (Neh. 10:32). Donation is called to support not only the servants of the Church, but also the whole people of God (Phil. 4:14-18). Being consecrated to God, donation is immune, and any one who has stolen it must return more than has been stolen (Lev. 5:14-15). Donation belongs to the basic commandments given by God to man (Sirach 7:30-34). As donation is a special case of economic and social relations, it should not be made automatically subject to the laws regulating finances and economy of a state, in particular, public taxation. The Church declares that the income drawn through entrepreneurial activity can be taxed, but any encroachment on the donations of believers is a crime before people and God.