Posted by Brad Littlejohn at 11:16 AM
I have mentioned a couple times before, I think on this blog, but certainly elsewhere, Aquinas’s (in)famous teaching that it is just for a poor man in great need to “steal” what he and his family need for life from someone who has resources to spare (assuming, of course, that he has no other way to get them). Although this teaching is a long tradition of the Church (and indeed, Aquinas is being rather conservative, compared to Basil and Chrysostom--see previous post), I always get remarkably violent reactions when I mention this.
Why? Somewhere along the way, conservatives picked up the idea (oddly enough, in direct contradiction to at least the first millenium of Christian teaching) that the Bible is especially concerned to safeguard the right of private property, indeed, that this particularly distinguishes Biblical ethics, over against surrounding pagan nations. (This last part is particularly odd, given that both the pagan societies surrounding ancient Israel and the Roman society surrounding the early Church were noted for legal structures that favored unrestricted and absolute private property rights, against which the Bible seems to be directly aiming.) Christian conservatives have gone even further, and, defining capitalism (again, in my mind, very oddly) as consisting fundamentally in an affirmation of private property rights (see, for example, here, and Rodney Stark’s The Victory of Reason), have concluded that the Bible is a blueprint for free-market capitalism.
So, I wanted to take this opportunity to establish that Aquinas’s claim is firmly in line with Scripture. The main objection, so far as I have seen, consists in pointing out that Scripture says “Thou shalt not steal,” but that entirely misses the point, because if steal means “to take that which rightfully should belong to another,” then Aquinas certainly does not advocate stealing. In fact, his point is that the act of the poor man is not an act of theft, because he has taken only that which should rightfully belong to himself, which is to say, enough for his sustenance, since no one’s property right extends to the point of denying another the right to sustenance.
Before going any further, I should make sure we’re all on the same page, by quoting Aquinas precisely (from ST II-II, Q. 66, a. 7):
“It would seem unlawful to steal through stress of need....
On the contrary, 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 answer that, Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man's needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man's needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): "It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom."
Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if 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.”
Now, is this Biblical? I think that can be shown rather straightforwardly: Here’s three passages:
Lev. 19:9-10: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Etc...." Deuteronomy 24:19-22: "When you reap your harvest in your field, and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back and get it; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. Etc...."
Deut. 23:24-25: "When you come into your neighbor's vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes at your pleasure, but you shall not put any in your container. Etc...."
All of these establish the same principle that Aquinas is at pains to establish--the right to private property is not absolute, but is relative--it exists as a means to serve the common good. Therefore, property cannot justly be held in a way that seriously harms the common good, so no one has the right to hold their property so tightly as to restrict access to it by those in great need. Those in need, of course cannot abuse this right (see especially the last verse), but within these reasonable limits, they are always permitted to go into a neighbor's field or vineyard and take enough for their sustenance. Obviously, if someone was doing this regularly because they were chronically lazy, rather than absolutely unable to provide for themselves, the community might see the need to restrict this right.
Of course, one might object that this is different--gleaning wasn't stealing, because God gave the poor the right to that food. But that's precisely Aquinas's point--the desperate man's taking of a loaf of bread isn't stealing, because no property right extends so far as the impairment of another's access to it in great need. The only difference is that in the OT, this principle has been institutionalized, whereas Aquinas is imagining what the hungry man would have to do in a situation where this right of his has not been institutionalized.
And while we’re on the subject, it’s worth pointing out many other features of OT law that clearly relativize property rights. In the Old Testament, just because you’ve purchased something or have lawfully brought it into your possession does not mean that you are free to do with it as you will--either to use it exclusively, or to dispose of it entirely as you would like. Here’s some examples, from Leviticus 25 alone:
The Jubilee law (Lev. 25:8-22)--you cannot sell your land in perpetuity, however much you would like to, nor can you buy a property and have rights to it for more than fifty years.
Rules for Hebrew slaves (Lev. 25:39-46)--even if someone sells himself to you, he is not thereby your property, but your hired servant. Your rights over him are quite limited.
Rules of property redemption (Lev. 25:23-24)--if you purchase a property from someone, his kinsman-redeemer can buy it from you, and you have no right to refuse him. It’s kinda like eminent domain, only the kinsman, not the State.
Sabbath year laws (Lev. 25:1-7)--the owner is not to reap the land in the seventh year, but its produce is to be shared with all, rather than belonging to its owner. In other words, the Israelites were basically communists in every seventh year. (Ok, not exactly, I just said that to be provocative.)
And then of course, there are the usury prohibitions, which put a very big limitation on one’s freedom to use the most important and flexible kind of property--money.
So, Aquinas is actually being rather conservative about property rights, in comparison to the Old Testament--he never limits the right of someone to buy or sell their land, nor obliges them to let everyone come and take food from their fields every seven years.
This seems rather straightforward, but everyone insists in telling me how adamant the Bible is about property rights. So please tell me, am I missing something?