Jean Valjean is the guy in Les Miserables who steals a loaf of bread and is sentenced to prison for theft. Had St. Thomas been his judge, he would have gotten off scot free—and for very good reason, as Thomas explains with typical lucidity when answering the musical question “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?.” First, as is his custom, St. Thomas lists various arguments that, yes, it is theft when a poor person takes something in a situation of real need. Then he replies to all these arguments thus:
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.
The implications for us who are rich (and that’s pretty much all Americans, even poor ones, by global standards) are intimidating. Especially intimidating is St. Ambrose’s remark. I have very little idea what to do about it, but I would be faithless if I didn’t note that’s what the man says.
The discussion takes place, by the way, in the midst of a discussion of theft, robbery, and the commandment not to steal (just click th link and scroll up and down to read the whole thing). Basically, Thomas is saying that theft is a sin, but that taking stuff is not always theft, because the material blessings God gives are intended to be given to all human beings who need them, not just to some. Everybody has a right to food, water, shelter, love, work, medical care and other such necessities which are fundamental to human life and dignity. So, for instance, a person with more food than he needs who withholds it from the starving man is the real thief, not the starving man who takes the bread. This is what the Church means by the “universal destination of goods”.
Of course, what has to be balanced with that is the reality that we really do have a right to private property, too. (There’s no sense forbidding stealing if there’s no such thing as “mine” and “yours.”) Nor does a sudden burst of envy on my part make your iPod “common” and something to which I am entitled. But in our individualistic culture we are much more able to see that point than we are able to see that the poor may really have a genuine claim on our excess in the eyes of God. If you are curious about how the Church does that balancing act, I would recommend reading the discussion of it here. I would also recommend checking out the Church’s teaching on the preferential option for the poor. As usual, the Church’s teaching is full of common sense and makes you go, “Of course!” And yet, such are the times in which we live that this well-rounded common sense typically gets torn into strips by our political and cultural factions and we are commanded by our political gang leaders to only accept the bits that fit their agendas rather than think with the Church and take the whole thing as an unshredded whole.
If ever it happened that a people tried to enact all of Catholic social teaching, it would be truly revolutionary—but in a good way.