March 8, 2010
It is axiomatic among Christian conservatives today that theft and stinginess are fundamentally different sins. One way of describing the distinction is to say that theft is a sin against justice, while stinginess is a sin against charity (this justice/charity distinction will be the subject of a forthcoming post); another is to say that theft is a crime, prosecutable by civil authority, while stinginess is a sin, prosecutable only by God alone. In the second case, the distinction may serve the purpose of trying to guard against government involvement in things like welfare programs, which, as it were, compel giving to the poor. This concern may be a legitimate one, though in such cases, I’m more inclined to blame the people who only do their duty when compelled, than the government that has to come along and compel them--”for rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil.” (Rom. 13:3)
In either case, the distinction also serves the purpose of establishing that theft is a much worse sin than stinginess; indeed, some might even tend to think that giving is something of a work of supererogatory merit, and so the failure to give is perhaps not a sin at all. Private property is conceived of as a sacred right, and so theft, by violating it, is a grave sin, whereas the failure to use one’s property (over which one has the freedom to do what one wants, after all) to help another is a fairly venial sin.
I had been uncomfortable with the rigidity of this distinction before and had even pointed out that Aquinas relativized theft and property by saying that someone in extreme need is morally and legally justified in stealing another’s property to meet that need. But when I read Aquinas more thoroughly last week, it made me uncomfortable with a lot more than the rigidity of that distinction.
In II-II, Question 66, he quotes Ambrose approvingly as saying, “Let no man call his own that which is common,” (meaning by this all external things), and adds: “He who spends too much is a robber.” A little later he quotes Ambrose again, “It is no less a crime to refuse to help the needy when you are able and prosperous than it is to take away someone else’s property,” and summarizes “Therefore just as theft consists in taking something from another, so also does it consist in withholding it.” But this is just Ambrose’s opinion, right? We all know he was something of a radical. We’re expecting something a bit more toned down from Aquinas, the defender of private property against the Franciscans, the proto-capitalist (if you listen to Rodney Stark). But no. When Aquinas comes to give his own opinion on Ambrose’s quote, he states bluntly “To withhold what is due to another inflicts the same kind of harm as taking something unjustly; and so unjust taking should be understood to include unjust withholding.”
Thus both of the distinctions with which we reassure ourselves are undercut.
Now if that ain’t scary, I don’t know what is.
PS: You should know, of course, that Aquinas, as always, takes the time in another place to flesh out just when and how much you are obliged to give to the needy, and how to balance it with providing for your own needs. I expect I’ll post those details sometime soon; but suffice to say here that his qualifications and specifications offer little comfort to the troubled middle-class conscience.