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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