I have been known to make extreme statements for effect in the classroom. Most recently, while discussing Thomas Aquinas’s monumental Summa Theologica, I told my students that it is not possible to be a good capitalist and a good Christian at the same time.
My class of 18 second-semester freshmen initially seemed less than thrilled to spend yet another precious 100 minutes of their lives with a dead white guy’s words, especially one who is both a philosopher and a theologian, for God’s sake. But when I lobbed Aquinas’s 800-year-old question at them — “Is it lawful to steal through stress of need?” — the seminar turned out to be one of the liveliest I have had all semester, indeed one of the liveliest in recent memory. Wedged into the middle of several articles on various law-related topics, Aquinas asks this very practical and contemporary-sounding question and his answer caused my young students, most at least marginally Catholic and more-than-marginally budding capitalists, to learn something they should have learned from watching Sesame Street: some things just don’t go together.
Summa Theologica 2.2, Question 66, Article 7 is framed within the parameters of Aquinas’ understanding of eternal law, natural law, and human law. “Eternal law” is the Divine rational governance of the universe as a cosmic community, while “Human law” is our human version of the same activity, the project of applying rational governance to our activities as individuals and communities. “Natural law” serves as a bridge between eternal and human law; it is the imprint of the eternal Law in the nature of things. In Aquinas’ own words, “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.”
At its best, human law is an objective, enforceable expression of what we know, from the natural law embedded in our natures, to be right and wrong. But, of course, things are never that simple.
Which brings us back to the question, “Is it lawful to steal through stress of need?” If he had been writing several centuries later, Aquinas would have illustrated his discussion with Victor Hugo’s story of Jean Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables. Valjean steals food to feed his starving niece and nephew, is arrested for theft and sentenced to twenty years in prison according to the applicable law. He escapes from prison and, through years of complications is pursued by an obsessively dedicated policeman, Javert. Using Aquinas’ categories of law, the conflict between Javert and Valjean reflects the tension that can arise between human law and natural law. Which one of them has “right” on his side? Valjean or Javert? After listing some preliminary objections, Aquinas is very clear about “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need.”
“In cases of need,” he writes, “all things are common property, so there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.” Valjean’s taking of food owned by another to save his family members trumps property rights. Javert’s insistence that the letter of the law against theft be inexorably applied is misdirected energy.
This in itself made my students uncomfortable; Aquinas’ explanation of his position made some of them downright pissed. “Whatever certain persons have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” If you have more than you need, that extra literally does not belong to you. And in case you missed that, Aquinas quotes none other than Saint Ambrose, one of the most influential ecclesial figures in history: “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.”
“That sounds like communism!” several of my students complained believing, as many in our capitalist world believe, that such an accusation signifies the effective and immediate end of the conversation. “Not really,” I responded, “but you know who it does remind me of? The early Christian communities in the Book of Acts.” These communities were so dedicated to the principle of common ownership of goods and distribution of those goods according to need that people were reportedly struck dead for claiming to be dedicated to the principle and lying about it.
If Aquinas (who I like to refer to as the “Big Guy”) had been in attendance at my seminar, the ensuing conversation might have gone something like this:
Student 1: My property belongs to me! I worked for it and no one has a right to it other than me!
Aquinas, a.k.a. the “Big Guy”: I agree—to a point. “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.” The purpose of property ownership is to facilitate your responsibility to ensure that those in need are taken care of.
Student 2: But I worked hard for what I own! No one has the right to tell me what to do with it!
BG: You’re assuming that you are more important than others, that the purpose of labor is your own enrichment and benefit rather than the community’s.
Student 3: I’m more than happy to consider giving of my surplus to those in need—I’m not heartless, and I usually get a tax deduction when I do. But I’m not obligated to do it.
BG: According to the natural law, you are.
Student 4: But what if the person in need is lazy? Or a drug addict? Or just a loser? What if she doesn’t deserve my help?
BG: None of that matters. Why the person is in need is irrelevant. She is in need. You have the capacity to help her. End of story.
Student 4: This is ridiculous! It’s naive, unrealistic, idealistic, and will never work. Where did you ever get such a dumb idea?
BG: I know of a guy who gave an important talk once that’s all about this. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Check it out.
In one very brief article, the Big Guy challenges our most basic capitalist assumptions—that my property belongs to me, that I may give of my surplus to those in need if I choose but am not obligated to do so, that before I help a person in need I want to know why that person is in need, and so on.
But of course Aquinas isn’t making a case for capitalism. He’s making a case for living out the directives of the gospel, directives given so often and so clearly that they can’t be missed. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, befriend the friendless, house the homeless—when you do this to the least of these, you have done it to me. I am the last person to claim that I effectively live this out—but I’ve at least become convinced that the way to deal with incompatible beliefs is not to pretend that they fit together.