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Ad Usam: A philosophical straight jacket
By Wayne Sayles

A friend and fellow collector of ancient coins sent me an interesting article this year along with the annual family news and holiday greetings. The title is “Everything viewed as ‘Ad usam,’ For use, as gift.” The piece was written by Ron Rolheiser, OMI and may be read in its entirety on Rolheiser’s web site. The OMI, by the way, stands for Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Father Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest, is a noted speaker, columnist and author. He is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. The essence of his article is encapsulated in the extracted quote:

“What ultimately undergirds all spirituality, all morality, and all authentic human relationship is the unalterable truth that everything comes to us as gift, so that nothing can ever be owned as ours by right.”

I have to admit that this premise led me to a moment or two of introspection. Try though I may, I cannot personally imagine a world in which we own nothing. The introspection came when I had to ask myself if this view of mine is somehow aberrant. For most people, the philosophical question probably never arises, but having been told by several people in recent years that it is “immoral” for an individual to own cultural property, specifically ancient coins, I’ve become a bit sensitized to that line of reasoning. Father Rolheiser goes on to say that “…nobody has a right to ultimately claim anything as his own.” Admittedly, perpetual ownership is impossible because mortality trumps all. However, for the here and now, I cannot agree with his view that we have no “right to ownership.” In fact, I would argue that Father Rolheiser is way out on a limb with his view, as are those who believe that the private collecting of cultural property is somehow immoral or inappropriate.

The essence of Cultural Property Nationalism, and the law of the land in some intensely nationalist countries, is that the State owns everything of cultural significance found in (or on) the ground. The removal of any cultural property from these States is by their law considered theft. In recent years the U.S. National Stolen Property Act has become a vehicle through which foreign governments attempt to retrieve property that they claim as cultural patrimony. It is impossible to have theft without ownership. The laws of practically every modern nation are built around the concept of property rights, whether they be the rights of States or of private citizens. Even the Bill of Rights embodied in the United States Constitution includes the protection of property rights and ownership. I’m sure that the Roman Catholic Church, Father Rolheiser’s view notwithstanding, considers its exemption from taxation in the U.S. a “right” rather than a gift. I suspect that the church also believes, beyond any doubt, that they “own” the substantial properties to which they hold title. The observance of absolute poverty and obedience may be spiritually rewarding to some monastical visionaries, but it is not the axis upon which the world turns.

I submit that individuals do have a moral and legal right to own property that is not prohibited by law. In fact, under law in most places what is not specifically illegal is by default legal. Contrary to the opinion of some idealists within the archaeological community, the right to own cultural property is not an exception to basic universal rights. But even if it were, and Father Rolheiser’s view were to become a world consensus, what divine or mortal law mandates that possession ad usam is limited to self appointed or parochial stewards? Whether those stewards be Benedictine abbots or academic archaeologists, the controls they wield under the guise of stewardship are no less repressive to mankind than the draconian laws of repressive political regimes. They seek to strip individuals of inalienable rights and often do so with relish and bravado. When a Benedictine monk relinquishes his rights voluntarily, as Father Rolheiser has described, it is one thing. When rights are involuntarily stripped from one person to serve the ideological agenda of another person it is something entirely different.

I really do have a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept of mandatory stewardship when it amounts to nothing more than a usurpation by controlling interests without even the pretense of “Divine Right” or “Controlling Legal Authority.” Make no mistake, the confrontation between cultural property nationalists and private collectors is indeed about ownership and rights— the concept of Ad usam is just an esoteric mask for the institutional repression of individual freedoms.

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