Justifying Theft

Did you know that St. Thomas Aquinas taught that there are occasions when it is OK to steal? Consider this from the Summa (II-II, q. 66, a. 7):

In cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common. … [I]f the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another’s property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.

He’s pretty generous with another’s goods! If you have need, take what you want, “openly or secretly,” this isn’t theft or robbery! Well, what thief wouldn’t say he had “need” of it?

Well, perhaps that is making too much of this particular quote, as Jim notes in a comment below. Thomas is talking of cases in extremis. But consider how this principle gets expanded in the 20th century, when it goes from being an exception to the rule to a major principle for Catholic Social Thought. Consider this statement in the Vatican 2 document, Gaudium et Spes:

69. God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner.(8) 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 him but also others.(9) On the other hand, the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods.(10) If one is in extreme necessity, he has the right to procure for himself what he needs out of the riches of others.(11)

John Paul II developed the thought in his encyclical, Laborem exercens. He says that this “principle of the common use of goods” is “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order.”

The above principle, as it was then stated and as it is still taught by the Church, diverges radically from the programme of collectivism as proclaimed by Marxism and put into pratice in various countries in the decades following the time of Leo XIII’s Encyclical. At the same time it differs from the programme of capitalism practised by liberalism and by the political systems inspired by it. In the latter case, 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. …

From this point of view, therefore, in consideration of human labour and of common access to the goods meant for man, one cannot exclude the socialization, in suitable conditions, of certain means of production. In the course of the decades since the publication of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, the Church’s teaching has always recalled all these principles, going back to the arguments formulated in a much older tradition, for example, the well-known arguments of the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

What is the Biblical foundation for this teaching? We can find places where Scripture exhorts those with means to share with those who lack; we find exhortations to care for the widow, the orphan, the poor; there are laws about leaving the corners of the fields unharvested so the poor can glean. But where is there anything like this principle that any person has a “right” to what another owns, and that, in case of “need,” that person can simply “help themselves”?

In light of this, no wonder Liberation Theologians took the stand they did toward social conflict. Perhaps if some of their number hadn’t openly embraced Marxism, John Paul wouldn’t have had a problem with their methods of “redistribution” of wealth.

See also the Catechism of the Catholic Church; its discussion of the commandment against stealing is a philosophical treatise that begins with this “universal destination of goods” and gives greatest attention to its socio-political implications. Contrast with the straight forward explication in the Catechism of the Council of Trent.

In this principle, I think we also find the origin of the Catholic Church’s approach to immigration. The Catholic bishops are just extending this economic principle. If Mexican poor have “need,” the “right to common use” stipulates that they should be able to walk across the border and take what belongs to someone else. Consider the legislative agenda of the Bishops of Texas: illegal immigrants must not be hindered by a border fence, they must have the same access as legal residents to health care and education, they should even be able to get a government issued driver’s license. They are not to be called “illegal,” or “criminal,” despite having broken the laws of another nation–they are to be called “undocumented,” as if they simply left their papers at home.

God’s law is clear: “Thou shalt not steal.” The Catholic Church can’t change that. Aquinas, Vatican 2, John Paul II, and the Texas Bishops are as wrong as can be.

20 thoughts on “Justifying Theft

  1. You’re begging the question by quoting “thou shall not steal,” Bill… the point is that an instance of taking something that doesn’t legally belong to you isn’t *necessarily* stealing.

    I’m not a fan of the immigration bill that went down yesterday, but I also give due credit to the positions of many Catholics and others who supported it (you might want to check out http://www.vox-nova.com). I disagreed with many of their arguments, but they at least demonstrated that their perspective wasn’t as simplistic as you might think it is.

  2. Is there a point when accumulation of resources by individuals becomes theft? Did the Prodigal Son eat the pig’s food, that would have been theft? The command to not steal was given to a nomadic people escaping slavery, people who lived hand to mouth, in the New Testament we read St. Paul tell us that those who do not work do not eat, does this mean that an illegal migrant is more entitled to eat than your teens who go to school but don’t have a job?

  3. Chris — You’re going to have to do better than that statement that “taking something that doesn’t legally belong to you isn’t ‘necessarily’ stealing.” That is the commonly understood definition of theft. The Catechism of the Catholic Church limits theft to “the usurpation of another’s goods against the reasonable will of the owner.” That’s a rather strange qualification which is missing in the Catechism of the Council of Trent–that Catechism’s explication of the commandment is clear, straightforward, and in accord with common sense.

    Yes, there could be good or bad reasons to oppose a particular piece of legislation–but to suggest, as a video does on that site–that someone from another country somehow has a right to come to this country, to break the laws of this country to do so, to take someone else’s property, is extreme–but the logical consequence of the theory being described here.

    Liam, how does the mere accumulation of goods (assuming in this case it was through legal and moral means) become “theft”?

    The commandment was written with the finger of God, and expresses his immutable will to people of all times and places–it can’t be qualified by the conditions under which it was given in history.

    As to my kids–they know that if they don’t work, they don’t eat. 🙂

    As to illegals in that instance–are they legally entitled to the job they have? If not, it is a form of theft as well.

  4. I think you’re being more than a little unfair to Aquinas. He’s talking about extreme examples, where “the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy).”

    So let’s say you and the family are shopping in Wal-Mart. Somebody comes in and robs the place, shooting your son in the process. Wouldn’t you be justified in taking a towel off the shelf to stop his bleeding? Would you even give it a second thought?

    Or let’s say you’re living in one of the flooded areas of New Orleans after the hurricane hit. You have no food or water, and haven’t seen any police. Your neighbor has a boat, but he’s in Texas on vacation. Are you saying you shouldn’t be able to use his boat to escape?

  5. Those might be the kinds of examples that Aquinas might have had in mind. But clearly, by the time it has been enunciated as a general principle of Catholic Social Teachings, it has been extended way beyond such things.

    And consider how this has been lived out in history … this principle has justified all sorts of injustices, from feudalism in the Middle Ages (and its modified forms in colonial Latin America and post-colonial oligarchism) to Franco’s fascism and Liberation Theology–all based on restricting rights and appropriating the possessions of others in the name of “the greater good.”

  6. In Lv 19:9-10: Landowners in harvest are commanded, not exhorted, to leave gleanings. Three times Jesus and his disciples are recorded eating the gleanings (Mt 12:1-12, Mk 2:23-24, Lk 6:1-2). They are accused of violating the Sabbath, but not of stealing.

  7. OK, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. the drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to make. He paid $400 for the radium and charged $4,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman’s husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money and tried every legal means, but he could only get together about $2,000, which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said, “No, I discovered the drug and I’m going to make money from if.” So, having tried every legal means, Heinz gets desperate and considers breaking into the man’s store to steal the drug for his wife.

    1. Should Heinz steal the drug? Why or why not?

  8. I can see why you chucked my first, irritated comment–I knew you would–, but why the second, measured and perfectly relevant one pointing out the command about gleanings? I enjoy this blog but that seems arbitrary to me.

  9. Jeremy, in answer to your other question — I’m not by my computer all day long. Sometimes things don’t appear simply because I haven’t seen them yet. 🙂

  10. Universality of God’s creation doesn’t translate into either fascism or communism. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” but he gives it to us to care for. He gives us freedom, as well. He calls us to be stewards, and to provide for the poor (hence the command about gleaning). But the New Testament does not provide a social plan for the state. Nowhere do you find the apostles lecturing the Romans on their social duties.

  11. Liam, has he really tried every legal means?

    Has he prayed? Has he put it before the church?

    Has he gone to Marvin Zindler? 🙂

    Do the ends justify the means? Shall we do evil in the hopes that some good may result?

  12. But the New Testament does not provide a social plan for the state.

    Nor does the Catholic Church.

    Universality of God’s creation doesn’t translate into either fascism or communism.

    Who said it does?

    How does “the principle of the common use of goods” differ from the “universal destination of the earth’s resources”?

  13. You must be joking to say that the Catholic church doesn’t provide a social plan for the state. Of course it does. That’s why the Church spends beau coup bucks promoting specific legislation and seeking to impose magisterial opinion on secular governments. In a previous generation this was called the “Social Reign of Christ the King,” today it’s called Catholic Social Teaching. Same thing.

    Regarding the second point–I don’t see that they are any different. And it has, in fact, been used to justify communism (Liberation Theology) and fascism (Franco).

  14. That’s why the Church spends beau coup bucks promoting specific legislation and seeking to impose magisterial opinion on secular governments.

    And how exactly does the Church go about doing this? I’m really interested to hear this.

  15. Bill, that’s Kohlberg’s dilemma, the answer that one comes to does not matter as much as the reasoning behind the answer (OK, thats relativism) but conscience is important as you well know. Of course we do not do evil so that good may come from it, that is the very first thing I learned when I studied Moral Philosophy. But real life is never so easy. Walmart has a responsibility to make money for its shareholders, it provides employment and a place to sell goods that may not be sold otherwise, yet it does not pay its employees very well and will prosecute a starving person who steals a sandwich. Yet the starving person could get a job if they wanted and so on … Either we have particular laws that all people must adhere to, without exception or we have situation ethics, what does the good citizen do?

  16. How, Katrina, does the Church promote specific legislation and seek to impose magisterial opinion on secular governments?

    Check out the “legislative agenda” of the Texas Bishops: http://www.txcatholic.org/legislative-agenda.html

    The webpage of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops: http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/national/

    For another perspective, see Michael Davies: http://distributist.blogspot.com/2007/02/reign-of-christ-king.html

    And here’s Katherine Lopez writing about a specific program, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3827/is_200011/ai_n8925797

    Finally, folks might want to check out what you’ve written: http://www.evangelical-catholicism.com/2006/10/catholic-social-teaching-what.html

  17. Does the Church try to impose its will or do the leaders of the Church give a Catholic position, to which they are prefectly entitled? I never try to persuade anyone to take the Church position on social issues because I am not a citizen. The bishops have a right to speak as citizens and church leaders.

Comments are closed.