“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.