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.


  1. Good post Travis.

    And a thought provoking quote from St Thomas. I will be thinking about this for a few days, there are many angles, so to speak.

    One thought:

    In agricultural terms -- if a farmer has 10 bushels of apples that have not been sold and will not be sold before they rot, and if he knew of someone starving, is he not under some obligation to give something to the hungry man, instead of just letting the apples perish.

    Most everyone would say, yes. The 10 bushels are his superabundance. But his superabundance is not what he harvests and has left over after eating enough to satisy his own hunger and that of his family. What he has left over is what he can use to get grain, shelter, etc. That is abundance -- but not the superabundance Aquinas was referring. I think.

    Modern day economics is very complicated but the principle is still the same. And Americans are still the generous people on Earth.

  2. Very nice distinction between abundance and superabundance. I think that's quite right: abundance is a supply of some good of which you have too much for your own use, but which constitutes your primary means of acquiring other necessities, or basic comforts, of life. Superabundance would be something beyond this.

    To go out on a limb, I think Thomas, by using the term "superabundanter," might have intended to indicate that for some people, their state in life not only legitimates but even necessitates an abundance of goods (I'm thinking of St. Francis de Sales here also), so that Thomas means to say that whatever is SUPERabundant, i.e., whatever is above and beyond the requisite goods, RELATIVE TO one's state in life, belongs to the poor.

  3. True that redistribution of wealth, all else being equal, is superior to the previous status quo of higher poverty.

    Certainly, from a quantitative perspective, there's no argument. The problem is that the qualitative effects from forced acquisition of property go unrecognized.

    Under what context is forced redistribution not a disincentive for entrepreneurs?

    It cannot be a Catholic one for the wealthier would have already given their excess in charity; the voluntary nature of those exchanges being, I suspect, even more meritorious.

    Even in the case of a good Catholic ruler and a lukewarm society, income redistribution has enough of a deleterious effect on the economy that it should be used sparingly, if at all e.g. the Jubilee (although The other 98% of the time the ruler best spends his efforts trying to form a more charitable people).

    Again, these deleterious effects are mainly qualitative. The psychological effects on the entrepreneur who creates conditions not only for the alleviation of poverty in the form of available wealth and goods but incentivizes the indolent to work, are difficult to measure. However, there are a number of case studies backed with quantitative data that support the idea that a laissez-faire policy is better in the long run.

    China saw its poverty rate drop from over 50% to less than 10% in forty years thanks to the introduction of free-markets in the 60s. It was only when India moved from its planned economy capitalist one that it finally experienced large reductions in poverty.

    While income inequality also increased (this tends to be the metric used by redistributists), it's important to appreciate that economic growth is an unequal affair and that ultimately, "a rising tide lifts all boats"

    Those lost years of Catholic commentaries I think, represent a rapid evolution in understanding of economics that culminated in Catholic free-market advocacy which survives in a dissipated way in the current Austrian School. Even though the Thomistic Salamancan school of economic thought never gaineed much traction in Catholic academia, they were, in my humble opinion, right.

  4. All rights take their being and definition from their corresponding duties. I have a right to teach and discipline my children because I have a duty to ensure that they are formed into healthy adults. If I neglect my children, if I neglect my duties toward them, then I lose that right (the moral ability to act), and that right falls to a secondarily competent body that has also has a duty to ensure my child's welfare: that is, the state.

    Thomas makes the case that a man has a right to his property, but that right is itself grounded in moral obligations, or duties (such as feeding himself, his family, and the poor). He then says that in virtue of owning more than is natural, the wealthy man loses his natural right to that property which is in excess, as he has neglected his moral obligations in the disposal of that wealth. The right to that property morally defaults into the hands of those in need, or those entrusted with the well being of civil society (the state).

    Whether the state decides to exercise its right over excess wealth (through taxation) or not, then, is a prudential decision, not a moral one. It might be true that, from the economist's point of view, heavy redistribution slows the growth of wealth for all, even the poor. Or it might be that, in some cases, taxation and spending can help the most vulnerable among us.

    Thomas doesn't get into specifics; he speaks about moral truths. When the government taxes what is in excess (here defined by Cajetan as more than what is necessary in ensuring the survival of your family and the government), the government does so with just authority, so no one can make the claim that kind of taxation is immoral, only imprudent.

    TC: 'relative to one's state in life' could mean anything. Paris Hilton lives in a neighborhood where owning one Ferrari for each day of the week is the norm; does that mean it's not superabundance?

    Wouldn't it be safer to play Cajetan's definition as strictly as possible and say that everything we own that is 'superfluous' for supporting our families and the government belongs to the poor, and the state has the just right tax it? Christ did hold the pecuniary species (in His case, a Roman coin) and said 'Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar'.

  5. Traumerei,

    Well said. I'm as ignorant as a door when it comes to the quantitative/concrete side of economics. I trust Thomas, and Cajetan following him, are, as Matt said, making claims that are general moral principles rather than claims that are general economic principles, supported by concrete data. Fitting the two together for the betterment of the society in question is the difficult task of the rulers of society.


    I agree with what most of what you say. As for the rest, I'm undecided. I'm in agreement that the government's taxation of excess wealth is not intrinsically immoral. But it could be immoral in some situations, which leaves me hesitant to agree with you that it's merely a question of prudence. Unless, of course, by "prudence" you mean the traditional understanding thereof, in which case every "prudential" decision is a moral one.

    As for "relative to one's state in life," it does indeed have wide boundaries. It's not a question of "what is the norm"; as you pointed out, "the norm" for some classes of society is certainly superabundant and profligate and disgusting. But I don't agree that we should just take Cajetan's definition as strictly as possible, since the traditional understanding (from Clement of Alexandria to St. Francis de Sales) is that the fact that there are various levels/classes of society is not, in itself, something needing correction but rather something in the nature of things. If this is the case, then "relative to one's state in life" does have meaning and importance for the question at hand. In other words, it's not a principle of Catholic social teaching that the ideal society here below is one in which all distinctions of class are removed and all share equally in temporal goods. Rather, some are called/chosen to be in the upper classes, others in the lower classes, and to different classes there apply different moral precepts: the upper classes are called to practice liberality/generosity toward the poor (but are not required to make themselves poor), while the poor are called to practice patience and long-suffering (and are not required to make themselves rich).

    I don't think Christ's statement about rendering to Caesar proves Cajetan's point. It may call us to render our taxes to the government, but it hardly is a statement supporting government taxation of all wealth beyond what is strictly necessary.

  6. @Matt

    "All rights take their being and definition from their corresponding duties."

    Interesting. Where is this idea from and what would the corresponding duty for the right to life be?

    I'm going to have to disagree with the idea that the State has the right to seize children if it deems parents unworthy. Parents uniquely will have to render an account for their stewardship and salvation of their children, not the state.

    It's unimaginable that abused children are better raised in government run foster care programs versus non-state run structures, e.g. extended family, Godparents and non-governmental charities.

    As regards property, the right to it is absolute. Though one may be morally obliged to dispose of it (though even by the dictates of prudence this is not always clear), his failure to do so does not transfer the duty (and by your line of reasoning, the corresponding rights) to the state.

    Taxation, then, represents a kind of necessary injustice. "Give what is due to Caesar" is best thought of such that secular authority is tolerated and justly obeyed (Romans 13), but only because it provides protection of private property and consequently of that social order. As such, the State has no right to taxation of wealth, excess or otherwise, except to provide for national defense - and even that is not absolute.

    Inasmuch as the State taxes beyond God's mandate to basic societal order, it is both immoral and imprudent, for such taxes are a de facto redistribution of wealth. As such, not only for the free-market theoretician but for all society, any and all redistribution slows growth of wealth for all. Taxes, even if only on the rich, can only increase poverty.

    Now taxation and spending can and do help the poor and disadvantaged but cannot and do not offset the bad effects from violating the right of private property.

    Here are some books that I've found illuminating when it comes to the historical development of Scholastic thought regarding economics.

  7. Traumerei,

    I am of the opinion that Matt is right -- all rights flow from prior duties/responsibilities. As Dr. Fleming (Chronicles, Rockford Institute) said to me, the right to life (if we can call it such) exists because the mother has the duty to preserve, protect, and nourish her child. Or you could say there is a right to life because all of us have the duty to accept new life as God gives it. There's lots of ways to run it . . .

    I do believe the Church's social teaching allows for governments to step in and remove children from parents' care when the parents are GRAVELY failing their basic duties toward children: abuse, grave neglect, etc. HOW this should be done is a prudential decision: perhaps the state should in some situations turn the children over to nearest of kin, perhaps there is no nearest of kin (or none in a situation to take care of them) so that the state has to look to other options. But this is something the state can do, in grave situations.

    Given the quotes I included in my blogpost, to which these comments we're writing are appended, I don't think we can say that the right to property is absolute. (I don't think even John Locke would agree with that.) Now, for sure, Thomas doesn't use the terms "right to property" in these passages (nor anywhere in his corpus, that I'm aware of), but I don't think one can agree with what Thomas says in these passages and simultaneously hold that the right to property is absolute. There's certainly a tradition in the Middle Ages for rejecting the absolute nature of the right to property, and it seems to me Thomas is placing himself squarely within that tradition.

    I cannot agree that taxation is a necessary injustice, because this thesis flows from a modern liberal political philosophy that is fundamentally flawed, i.e., that of Locke et al. Taxation, I think, can be a "necessary injustice" only if government is a necessary evil. Proof: if government is something good, then its existence is good, and for its existence it needs the material support of the community it serves, in which case taxation is indispensable (except perhaps for communities that are very small as well as self-governed). On this line of thought, taxation is not a necessary injustice but rather something flowing (perhaps remotely) from the natural necessity for political society. On the other hand, taxation would be a necessary injustice if (1) the right to property were absolute, and (2) government itself were a necessary evil. My point is, I reject both of these premises, for the reasons given.

    I think you are, in several of your points, assuming that redistribution of wealth is intrinsically immoral. Isn't that the question at hand, though, in light of the comments from St. Thomas and Cajetan? Can't it be something good and right in certain circumstances, as Cajetan says?

  8. And should a mother die, what right to life has her child? Dr. Fleming's response cannot be right. There may be many ways to run it, but what is the right way?

    In theory, yes, governments can do good and help abused children. In practice, such interventions introduce the fatal precedent that asserts that the state, ultimately, knows better than parents. This idea that "government knows better" than the family leads to travesties like public education. We can both say abusus non tollit usum but we have to ask, "Who has ultimate temporal authority over children, the family or the state?"

    The state might have the ability to coerce through overwhelming force, but such use is a usurpation. When the state intervenes in a case of grievous abuse, it is not on account of the authority of the state but rather of the law that such an intervention is justified. The law and the state are separable.

    True that the quotes do not back me up and I'm in a extremely uncomfortable position of opposing St. Thomas and Cajetan were it not for the various realizations of the late Scholastics as documented in the books I suggested. Although traditionally associated with "Enlightenment" thinkers like Locke and Hobbes, the anti-statist thesis that interference with the free-market in the form of taxation is unjust stems from a proper understanding of the role of the free-market.

    Now I did not say that government is per se unjust, but that taxation is unjust. In any case, the proof seems lacking because it allows for the absurd situation of complete taxation and socialization (if government is good, then more taxation gives a better government). Taxation can be a natural necessity, but it acts against the free market and therefore against the common good. I'm in favor of taxation as far as it concerns our legal obligations e.g. entitlements for those at or near retirement, the national debt etc., but once those are met it should be abolished.

    You are correct in your summary of my position i.e. the forced redistribution of wealth is intrinsically immoral (in a similar way to theft) - even in light of those comments.

  9. Traumerai,

    The right to life is, I believe, primarily based on the duty of the parents (particularly the mother) and secondarily on the general duty, which is why we give the parents the last word on what happens to their kids medically, but they are not given the right to kill them.

    I am curious, Matt, what the strength of "moral necessity" is vis-a-vis the role of the legislator? Because charitable action and tithing is a moral necessity for Christians, but it is not forced upon us by the government; it is rather demanded of us personally by the Church and our nature that we cultivate the necessary habit of giving. So do you see the government as necessarily or prudently the agent of the "morally necessary" redistribution, or ought it to be the people who do so through charitable agency and tithing?

  10. Tsunami, the idea that the right to life is based on parental duty is absurd. As I pointed out, if the parents ceased to exist then by your reasoning so would the right to life of the orphan.

    There is no duty that forms the basis for the right to life. Indeed it is the other way around i.e. the right to life is the basis for our duties to preserve life.