“When a person is in extreme necessity he has the right to supply himself with what he needs out the riches of others”  (The Church in the Modern World, 69).  We hear the word “looting” used to describe much of the activity in the streets of  Port-au-Prince. Undoubtedly there is some criminal intent  (several thousand prisoners are on the loose). But  should we not also speak of the “right to supply himself,”  or  as a footnote to the Vatican document says, “in extreme necessity all goods are common, that is, they are to be shared.” 

            The footnote refers then to the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas,  II-II Question 66, article 7.  There St. Thomas asks whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?   He answers “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.   And  “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…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.”   

             One example of this was on the streets of Cologne, Germany  during the Second World War.  Cardinal Frings preached in a New Year Eve sermon  that in God’s eyes, there is no real harm in stealing a bit of coal. His message got around, and in short order, the word “fringsen” was created  meaning to “steal coal” to survive the winter cold.

            On the world-wide scale might we not say that faced with extreme need, the people of Haiti  have the right to food, medicines, water  from the “haves.”  Thank God, people and nations are responding with generosity.

 

Comments

Brian Thompson | 1/23/2010 - 1:30pm
I would describe the taking of necessities in time of crisis, scrounging or would not comment on it at all. Looting, to my mind is hoarding and snatching up anything of value one can find in a disaster for lack of law enforcement. The latter is probably sinful, the former I agree with St Thomas.
People taking food in an impoverished place like Hati = scrounging to survive.
People (usually in more developed countries) who break shop windows or invade homes during natural disasters and civil unrest and make off with TVs and jewelry etc. are looters.
Beth Cioffoletti | 1/23/2010 - 12:56pm
Just a note on those thousands of prisoners on the loose ...
 
It is a well known fact that many of the detainees of the National Prison in Haiti were poor Haitians from poor neighborhoods who were summarily rounded up into preventive or indefinite detention during the 2004 Bush/Bicentennial coup d'etat without ever being charged, tried or convicted of any crime. As of 2008, it is reported that there were 8,204 prisoners in Haiti and of this only 1,764 have been convicted of a crime. Of the 8,204, 3900 were warehoused at the National Penitentiary.
The majority awaiting charge and a hearing, some suffering five years of prolonged detention, without ever having been charged, tried or convicted of any crime. These prison population statistics come from the 2008 US State Department Human Rights Report on Haiti.
 
It is reported that when the earthquake hit, the wall of the National Penitentiary collapse on these men, most of whom have suffered tremendous injustice of indefinite incarceration without charge, and whose wives, children, mothers and families lost valuable time they could have had with their love one but for their unjust and illegal incarceration. Their"escape" was when concrete fell on their heads!
There is NO EVIDENCE that these men are either criminals or committing crimes right now.