Monday, July 27, 2009

Snippets from St. Thomas and his Commentators

After a long hiatus, a very interesting set of statements from St. Thomas Aquinas concerning property, the rich and the poor, and natural law:

The Lord requires us to give to the poor not only the tenth part, but all of our superfluous wealth.

- St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, quoted in St. Robert Bellarmine's work "The Art of Dying Well," trans. John Dalton, p. 26

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.

St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, II-IIae, Question 66, article 7: "Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?" (emphasis mine)

In these two texts, St. Thomas does not address the role of government in the distribution of wealth, so one could argue, from these texts alone, that St. Thomas is speaking only of moral, not legal obligation, and that therefore this has no bearing on the role of government. This would be further enforced by St. Thomas' own distinction between what is legally due and what is morally due.

However, the greatest of Thomistic commentators, Cardinal Cajetan, glosses St. Thomas' discussion of covetousness in these words:

Now what a ruler can do in virtue of his office, so that justice may be served in the matter of riches, is to take from someone who is unwilling to dispense from what is superfluous for life or state, and to distribute it to the poor. In this way he just takes away the dispensation power of the rich man to whom the wealth has been entrusted because he is not worthy. For according to the teaching of the saints, the riches that are superfluous do not belong to the rich man as his own but rather to the one appointed by God as dispenser, so that he can have the merit of a good dispensation.

- Cardinal Cajetan, "Commentary on the Summa Theologica," vol. 6, II-II, 118.3, quoted in

There is a substantial corpus of works from the 13th - 16th centuries, written by Catholic scholars (many of them Thomists) on the nature and role of money and property, the right to property, and the problem of the poor. Would that these works were made more widely available!

Anyway, there is room for questioning the general (neo-) conservative position on the role of government vis-a-vis private property, viz., that the redistribution of wealth is nothing short of socialism and therefore intrinsically opprobrious. Is this position indeed Catholic? Is it Christian?

I invite your thoughts and comments.