when is taking another's property not theft?

By Diogenes (articles ) | Sep 02, 2005

If you were in New Orleans today, in desperate circumstances, and it was impossible to buy food for your children, would it be sinful to take food from an abandoned house or store?

Here's a paragraph from the Catechism:

2408: The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another's property against the reasonable will of the owner. There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing ...) is to put at one's disposal and use the property of others.

The Catechism explains the Church's teaching on the universal destination of goods in para 2402: "God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race." Para 2403 explains the relation of goods to property: "The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise."

Notice how carefully qualified the teaching is. Appropriating the goods of another may be licit if the act is necessary, urgent, and consonant with the reasonable will of the owner. If a gallon of milk is indispensable to provide for an urgent and essential need, and you intend to compensate the owner when possible, and the owner of the milk is not available to give his consent, and you are not depriving someone else whose need is more urgent still, you do not sin by appropriating it.

Televisions, quarts of Jim Beam, and the Collected Works of Benedetto Croce are harder to fit into the above-mentioned categories.

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  • Posted by: - Sep. 06, 2005 3:40 PM ET USA

    Maybe it could be said that someone was removing the Beam in another's eye before the speck in their own.

  • Posted by: Fr. William - Sep. 04, 2005 7:53 PM ET USA

    Thanks, Diogenes. I wove this point into my homily this weekend, as I spoke about our obligation to practice fraternal correction with love (Mt 18), telling the Truth with love; and relating spiritual works of Mercy (admonishing sinners; instructing the ignorant...) to such fraternal correction in the context of Hurricane Katrina & people's response to the disaster... as well as mentioning our obligation (Mt 25) to practice the corporal works of Mercy (in light of the hurricane). AMDG.

  • Posted by: parochus - Sep. 03, 2005 1:40 AM ET USA

    Let's take another hypothetical: If you were watching New Orleans on TV today, and you just went about your business without doing anything (spiritual, material or otherwise) to help, would you be guilty of a sin of omission?

  • Posted by: Vincit omnia amor - Sep. 02, 2005 2:15 PM ET USA

    perhaps we might also consider at this point when the use of deadly force is morally licit to restore order because the dis-order is placing many innocent victims in even greater danger. bread, milk and water understandable. rape, robbery, stepping over the dead in their own homes to steal valuables, taking pot shots at law enforcement, arson: abominable.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 02, 2005 12:34 PM ET USA

    Well, since their owners abandoned the goods, those who took possession of them were really performing a charitable service by rescuing the goods from spoilage or certain destruction. That’s good stewardship, and will we not all be called to give an accounting of our stewardship, Di? (Luke 16:2) Besides, the Beam was probably for medicinal purposes.

  • Posted by: - Sep. 02, 2005 12:18 PM ET USA

    A very timely observation, Diogenes!