Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Stealing from the poor

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 12:13-21
The rich man of this Sunday’s Gospel is blessed with a bountiful harvest. Rather than thanking God for this gift, he hoards the grain in his barns – his heart is possessed by his possessions. At the moment of death, the Lord calls him a fool, for he was not rich in what matters to God.
The Fathers of the Church, and St. Thomas Aquinas following them, see in this parable a strong teaching of social justice. Their teachings have in turn been integrated into the Social Doctrine of the Church. Here we will consider St. Thomas’ exposition of the doctrine as well as several important quotations from the Church Fathers.

The common destination of all goods and right to private property
We must first affirm that man has a right to own private property. All men have a natural right to make use of material goods. According to positive human law, men also have a right to private property – this is necessary for the good order of society and the proper care of the goods themselves, it also serves as a means of restraining greed and inciting toward generosity (a man can give alms only if he has some property of his own).
However, it is equally clear in the Church’s Tradition, as expressed by the Fathers of the Church and magisterial teachings, that the right to private property is subordinate to the universal destination of all goods. That is, the right to private property cannot be extended to the point of depriving others of the basic material necessities of life. Every man has the right to the material necessities of life – when he is deprived of these, while another has excess wealth, a grave injustice has occurred.

When one man has excess wealth (that is, property and wealth which are beyond his legitimate needs) while another is in poverty (lacking material necessities), the rich man is a thief. The excess he possesses belongs to the poor man and, if he refuses to distribute his wealth accordingly, he plays the part of the “rich fool” in the Gospel parable.
The same fundamental doctrine underlies both the right to private property and the teaching against possessing excess wealth while others are in need. Each and every man has the God-given natural right to make use of the earth to supply for his own necessities as well as those of his family. Thus, we have the right to personal property, by which we secure a means of satiating our needs. Likewise, however, whenever anyone is lacking in basic necessities (food, water, shelter, medical care) he has a right to whatever excess wealth is present in his community. Thus, the excess food in your fridge and in mine, belongs to the poor. The excess money in your bank account and in mine, belongs to the poor. It is no alms to give to the poor from our excess wealth, we only restore to them what had belonged to them by divine right.
All men have a right to maintain the necessities of their own existence – and this includes saving a little something for the future – to hoard any wealth beyond this, is to commit the sin of theft. It is always a sin and, when the injured party is a poor man, it is always mortal.
(See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q.66; also Catechism of the Catholic Church 2443-2449)
The Fathers of the Church
St. Ambose (De Nabuthe, c.12, n.53, cited in Populorum Progressio of Paul VI): “You are not making a gift of your possessions to poor persons. You are handing over to them what is theirs. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich.”
St. John Chrysostom (Hom. in Lazaro 2,5, cited in CCC 2446): “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”
St. Gregory the Great (Regula Pastoralis 3,21, cited in CCC 2446): “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”
The Decretals (Dist. XLVII, cited in ST II-II, q.66, a.3, obj 2): “It is no less a crime to take from him that has, than to refuse to succor the needy when you can and are well off.”
St. Ambrose (cited in ST II-II, q.66, a.6): “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.”
From the Catena Aurea
St. Gregory the Great: “For if everyone receiving what is sufficient for his own necessity would leave what remains to the needy, there would be no rich or poor.”
St. Basil: “Are not thou then a robber, for counting as thine own what thou hast receivest to distribute? It is the bread of the famished which thou receivest, the garment of the naked which thou hoardest in they chest, the shoe of the barefooted which rots in they possessions, the money of the pennyless which thou hast buried in the earth. Wherefore then dost thou injure so many to whom thou mightiest be a benefactor.”
St. Bede: “He then who wishes to be rich toward God, will not lay up treasures for himself, but distribute his possessions to the poor.”
From the Magisterium
First, note that St. Gregory the Great spoke with the authority of the ordinary Magisterium, so his quotations above should be reviewed. Also, consider that the first quotation from St. Ambrose was taken from an encyclical letter by Paul VI.
Leo XII (encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, 1891): Every person has by nature the right to possess property as his or her own […] But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used?, the Church replies without hesitation in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘One should not consider one’s material possessions as one’s own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when other are in need.’ […] True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for one’s own needs and those of one’s household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly one’s condition in life. […] But when what necessity demands has been supplied and one’s standing fairly provided for, it becomes a duty to give to the needy out of what remains over.
Pius XI (encyclical letter Quadradesimo Anno, 2931): “The right to own private property has been given to the human by nature, or rather by the Creator himself [...] At the same time a person’s superfluous income is not left entirely to one’s own discretion. […] On the contrary, the grave obligations of charity, beneficence and liberality, which rest upon the wealthy are constantly insisted upon in telling words by Holy Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. However, the investment of superfluous income in secureing favorable opportunities for employment […] is to be considered […] an act of real liberality, particularly appropriate to the needs of our time.
Gaudium et Spes (Vatican II, 1965): “God has intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of all people and all peoples. Hence justice, accompanied by charity, must so regulate the distribution of created goods that they are actually available to all in an equitable measure. […] Therefore, in using them everyone should consider legitimate possessions not only as their own but also as common property, in the sense that they should be able to profit not only themselves but other people as well. Moreover, all have the right to possess a share of earthly goods sufficient for themselves and their families. This is what the Fathers and Doctors of the Church had in mind when teaching that people are obliged to come to the aid of the poor, and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods.”
Paul VI (encyclical letter Populorum Progressio, 1967): “Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditional right. No one is justified in keeping for one’s exclusive use what one does not need, when others lack necessities.”
John Paul II (encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, 1991): “It will be necessary above all to abandon a mentality in which the poor – as individuals and as people – are considered a burden, as irksome intruders trying to consume what others have produced.”


Anonymous said...

I have several questions:

1. How much is a "little something for the future" and who defines this?
2. According to the article all persons hoarding more than what they needed (plus a little for the future) are in danger of committing a mortal sin. That would include most of the people I know who are middle class.
3. What about leaving some money to your heirs? That money has to be from over abundance and I guess leaving your heirs money will also be sinful since one should not have hoarded it to start with but should have given it away while alive.
4 How come in the OT the rich like Abraham gave 10 % and not everything over and above what is needed? Were Abraham and other rich OT personalities sinning?
This is really very confusing to me. Is there any official document from the Church stating that one cannot have more than what is needed (plus a little more for the future) in their possession? That would be very helpful to me.
BTW, I love this site.
Thanks and God Bless.


Iosephus Sebastianus said...

Let's not forget the teaching of Leo XIII that one can keep for himself goods both according to necessity and according to propriety (i.e. saving for the future and for heirs, etc.). No one defines how much belongs to "propriety" (or necessity, for that matter). This is a matter of the judgment of prudence in the practical intellect of the acting person. Once this judgment is made, he gives his money freely according to the virtue of liberality in the concupiscible appetite. We should recall that morality is not a matter of living according to a defined boundary of action ("how much is too much to save?") but of putting into action the virtues informed by the moral law.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@anonymous (isydel)
Thank you for your comments and questions.
I have updated the post with several magisterial texts.

To answer your questions.
1) How much is needed for each individual is determined by the individual's prudence. Would you rather had the State or the Church define it? Certainly, in cases of grave abuse, the State has a right to intervene. For the most part, however, prudence must dictate. (Thank you Iosephus for clarification on this point as well).
2) You are correct, it is a mortal sin for a man to accumulate excess riches to himself while others in his proximity are poor.
3) Leaving money to heirs would be part of the "something for the future" - and would be morally acceptable. However, to attempt to leave a vast fortune to heirs is certainly gravely sinful, when others lack basic necessities.
4) The 10% which Abraham gave is the Tithe. This was not to the poor but to Melchisedech. The tithe is given to the Church, not to the poor. It is a recognition of our sinfulness and need for salvation.
For info on the OT's approach to the poor, it would be good to consider the Jubilee year in which all debts to the poor were remitted.
Also, take a look at the Letter of St. James (NT) for a strong indication of the obligation of the rich to help the poor.

This teaching is a challenge to all (or at least most) of us. But remember the the Lord became poor for our sakes that we might be shall we truly be CHRISTians if we remain rich while others are poor?

Tito Edwards said...


I'd like permission to reprint your entire post (with full accredition and links).

I couldn't find an email address so hence why I am requesting this as a post.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Tito Edwards,
Please feel free to reprint the post with a link to the New Theological Movement blog.
Many blessings to you!

Tito Edwards said...


Thank you!

It will appear on The American Catholic tomorrow morning (7-30-2010) at midnight Central Standard Time.

Full credit will be given to you, your article, and your website. With links going back to your article and website.

Thank you again and God bless!

In Jesus, Mary, & Joseph,


Anonymous said...

I have assumed your permission to Tito would apply to anyone of good will, and I have, with full credit and links, also reprinted your post on my blog, Nimble As The Pen of A Scribe. Thank you so much for making this teaching so accessible.

Anonymous said...

"Poor", "excess", and several other key terms in this article are undefined term and have different meanings for different people. Each needs a precise definition for such writings as these to be substantial contributions to the discussion of social justice in the religious sense. As for the modern secular/political/governmental sense of the term social justice, James Madison wrote (I paraphrase here) "charity is not an appropriate activity of government," and I must agree with him. The reason for the current existence of social injustice is three-fold: the lack in the past and present of sufficient charity on the part of nominal Christians, the increasing socially-acceptability of governmental dependency, and the divinely-lamented ineradicability of poverty ("The poor you will always have with you"), the latter of which never can be an excuse for a lack of Christian charity. We must not kill the goose ("capitalism") that lays the golden eggs, and we must remember we are NOT God, so we will never be able to entirely banish true poverty.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@ Anonymous (July 30 9:01pm)
I'm not sure what your discussion of the role of the government and the increase problem of dependency on government programs adds to this discussion.
What the Fathers of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Church's Magisterium are talking about IS NOT government hand-outs. We are here concerned with INDIVIDUALS giving money, food, clothing, etc. to other INDIVIDUALS.

As far as the definition of terms...I think it is abundantly clear from the article that the "poor" are those who lack "the basic material necessities of life".
As far as the "rich" and "excess wealth"...see the Magisterial quotes which refer to that which is left over "when what necessity demands has been supplied and one's standing fairly provided for", or "a person's superfluous income".

Nothing in this article has made an attack on Capitalism...why do you feel a need to defend it? Are you implicitly claiming that something in the magisterial teaching would cause problems for Capitalism?

Finally, as to your use of the (in)famous passage of Scripture "The poor you will always have with you" (which is from John 12:8, by the way), please see the interpretation offered in the Catechism (CCC 2449): In the second half of the verse, "...but you do not always have me", the Lord "does not soften the vehemence of former oracles against 'buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals...,' but invites us to recognize his own presence in the poor who are his brethren."

Anonymous said...

Another relevent point is the OT practice of 'gleaning'. The laws of Moses forbade stripping your own fields of the last bits of a crop, but left those crops missed on the first pass of the harvesters to be gleaned by the poor.

Diffal said...

Why doesn't Caritatis in Veritate get a mention?

Anonymous said...

Does Caritatis in Veritate cover this subject and what does it say?

Anonymous said...

I feel it's important to include the "role of the government" in this discussion. As I was reading this essay, I experienced a growing horror at recognizing quotes and statements that I have seen used to justify the secular government's role in developing and enforcing "social justice" among its citizens.

Your earlier explanation describing the need for an individual to practice and exhibit prudence is on the mark. Secular governments, by their nature, tend to discount the ability of the average person (or even the necessity or desirability of that person) to have or use prudence. Prudence requires communion with G_D to identify what is prudent in each individual's own personal situation. As such, secular governments cannot depend on an individual's prudence to be pointed in the direction the state wishes to go; ergo the need for the state to define and direct corporate social justice that everyone MUST support. This relieves the individual of the need to develop and use prudence.

We must therefore struggle not only within ourselves to develop prudence and generosity, we must struggle against a state that desires to use our own teachings and beliefs against us to support its own morals and ethics, separate from those of God's.


Anonymous said...

"2. According to the article all persons hoarding more than what they needed (plus a little for the future) are in danger of committing a mortal sin. That would include most of the people I know who are middle class." You are correct, but that does not invalidate the point. If looked at objectively, the average middle-class American, whether they are Christian or not, is living a life 100 times more sinful than all the Egyptian Pharaohs put together. Just because our society lives a certain way does not make that way correct.

Anonymous said...

Muzhik, thank you for your insight. I couldn't agree more. Let's not forget the enemies of religion have infiltrated the universities teaching the youth socialist/communist views. It's my opinion Biden and Pelosi and other non practicing Catholics were shaped in the universities. I wouldn't be surprised if they have also infiltrated the Catholic Church.


Anonymous said...

What doctrine are you trying to support? Will you be the first in line to give everything above what you need? Everyone should have an "equal share" is pure socialism at its worst. Russia failed and so will every government and peoples fail who promotes the "everyone deserves the same" doctrine. . The first century church tried this approach (Acts 4:34-38) but it didn't last long. Giving a fish to a person instead of teaching him to fish creates a person who will not fish. Paul in Thessalonians 3:10 said "In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat." The doctrine proposed is contrary to the love that Christ gave us. We do because we want to, not because we have too. God does not demand, he offers. He does not usurp free will, even if a soul is lost. We give Him our will because we believe it is in line with the truth He teaches. We strive for the truth because of grace and not because of command. Thomas Aquinas is one of the most taken out of context tools used by others who want what you have. There are people who need help and we must help them, but there are many who are lazy and unwilling to share the burdens. I think I'll stick with Paul when dealing with the unwilling.

splinda said...

What if someone works say 60 hour or more work weeks building up a business and eventually is able to hire employees. In addition, this businessperson is then able to give to various charities, including a church of his/her choosing. This person has become rich, but you say he/she is stealing from the poor when they employ others and support them thru different charities? Social justice is also known as socialism, which has always failed whenever it has been tried around the world. I'm with Anonymous - St. Paul got it right.

Anonymous said...

Trying to live according to one's faith is a struggle against our fallen inclinations but it is necessary to struggle. The thing to keep in mind in order to grow in generosity is to remember to love our neighbors as ourselves, bring Christ to them and serve Christ in them; just like the Virgin Mary when she visited Saint Elisabeth who in her old age was with child and in need of help.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous and Anonymous and Anonymous,
Please give some indication of a "tag" or "ID" so that I can respond properly.
Thank you to Anonymous (Rosa), Anonymous (isydel), Anonymous (Muzhik), for providing some means of identification.

To the other "anonymouses": I will respond, when you give some ID so that I can respond properly.
In the future, I will feel free to delete any comments that are from purely Anonymous authors--those who neglect to give any indication of ID or "tag".

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Muzhik, I think you are basically correct. Over-involvement on the part of the government will often lead to under-involvement of the people.
It is a principle of Catholic Social Doctrine that the government should not intervene in the redistribution of wealth unless the gravest of circumstances necessitate this.

@Splinda, who is with one of the random "anonymouses" said, "Social justice is also known as socialism"...that is a false statement. Social justice is not socialism. Socialism is contrary to the Catholic faith, it places society above the individual. "Social justice" refers to equitable dealings between individuals in a given society.

I'm glad you are with St. Paul, nearly every letter concludes with an exhortation to give to the collection for the poor in Jerusalem.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

From 2 Cor 8:
"You are well acquainted with the favor shown you by our Lord Jesus Christ: how for your sake he made himself poor though he was rich, so that you might become rich by his poverty. I am about to give you some advice on this matter of rich and poor. ... The relief of others ought not to impoverish you; there should be a certain equality. Your plenty at the present time should supply their need so that their surplus may one day supply your need, with equality as a result."

To those who have referred to 2 Thess 3:10 "Who will not work, let him not eat." I respond: Are you prepared to apply this saying to the mentally ill, to the dying, the sick, the orphan, the elderly, the addict? Will you starve the child? Will you starve the old man who relies upon Medicare? Will you starve the lunatic? How about the poor woman who, as a young girl became addicted to drugs...does she deserve to die?
You who quote St. Paul in this way (saying, "I am with St. Paul") make me feel sick.
This is no less than an ABUSE of Sacred Scripture, contrary to the SOUND DOCTRINE of the Fathers of the Church and the later Magisterium.
Stop your tongue! Read the Church Fathers and St. Thomas, read the Magisterium and especially the Compendium of Social Doctrine.
Even more, pray to God for a more generous heart.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous (Aug 4, 4:14am)
You wrote: "Will you be the first in line to give everything above what you need?"

My response: Don't ever insinuate that either I or any reader of this blog is insincere or pharisaical (commanding for others what he does not live himself).
In the future, I will delete the comment immediately.

Many who write for this blog and who read this blog are far more committed to their beliefs than you give them credit for.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to share with you what the Q and A experts on EWTN have said:

We are obliged to support the local Catholic parish in accord with our means; for those who are destitute or have some particularly heavy bills that are not a result of excessively lavish living, they may even be excused from such an obligation--though even a small offering from those who have little is pleasing to God.
Fr. John Echert

....Catholics are required by a Church precept to support the work of the Church. Those who want to be generous can certainly give 10%. It is just not required by the moral or ecclesiastical law.
Colin B. Donovan, STL

According to can. 222 §1, in the Code of Canon Law, "The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for the works of the apostolate and of charity, and for the decent support of ministers." No minimum percentage of income has been set. It is left to the conscience of individuals,
David Gregson


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Anonymous - isydel (Aug 22, 4:19am),

As I have already explained to you: the %10 is given in support of the Church. The Tithe IS NOT alms!

All the things you cited from EWTN are very good...but they HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THE ARTICLE! Everything you are talking about deals with the obligation "to assist with the needs of the Church".

What we are talking about here is the obligation which the rich have to give to the poor. All their excess luxury must be given to the poor, so long as there are poor to give to. This is pretty clear from Paul VI (cited at the end of the article).

Obviously, "excess wealth" and "extra luxury" are not clearly defined. That is up to the individual conscience of the rich person. Clearly, neither the government nor even the Church can make specific definitions.

What I am trying to do with this and other articles is to form the conscience so that we can make better decisions.

So, thank you for informing us what the experts from EWTN Q and A have said. But the comments you have posted do not refer to what our question is.

By the way: If these men are "experts", so too are the authors of this blog -- for we too have the STL degrees which they have. (I do bow however to Fr. John Echert, how is a shining lamp in our dark time)

Nick said...

I would like to add two texts from Sacred Scripture in support of the thesis:

James 2:15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

1 John 3:17 If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

[in a comment mistakenly deleted by the blogger website] Nick wrote:

"I would like to add two texts from Sacred Scripture in support of the thesis:

James 2:15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

1 John 3:17 If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?"

Nick said...

I would like to add a side note: In the event a comment is not posted, thought it should be, it is likely that it was caught in the Comment Spam Filter of your blog and thus needs to be manually released by the blog admin.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Nick, thanks for the tip ... this was actually a system wide problem on blogger -- all blogs at were down for almost 24 hours ... and the comments from that period were lost (as well as the posts).

Peace! +

IrishEddieOHara said...

I am stunned at how many here appear to be trying to find loopholes in what the Fathers have said. Comments like "who difines a little something for the future?"

Let me give you an easy hint: Living in a $70 million dollar house with a yacht and four cars outside does not qualify for proper use of one's money or saving for the future. It qualifies as greed and mortal sin.


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