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Stealing is a crime, but is it always a sin? Christian teaching over many centuries has said that to steal to meet an essential need is not in fact a sin, and that the real sin lies in the human systems and values that create such need.
Ron Hogg, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Durham, recently said “Shoplifting is up 35 per cent year on year and an awful lot of people are stealing to live.” He attributed this to welfare reform and benefit cuts. His concerns echoed other reports from around the UK. In 2012, Chief Superintendent Jason Harwin of South Yorkshire Police spoke of ‘desperation thefts’, saying "What we are seeing is a small number of individuals - particularly young mums - who are committing crimes to feed their children. These are individuals that have had no dealings with the police in their lives and this is the first offence they've ever committed."
In some quarters such views find little sympathy. Rebecca Coulson, the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham, responded to Mr Hogg’s remarks in a piece for Conservative Home website. Ms. Coulson wrote "we mustn’t make excuses for criminal behaviour. Apologism of this kind is incendiary, offensive, and exploitative. It’s dangerous to sink into blame culture: we’re all guilty of it, but when law- enforcers use it to condone criminality, we risk chaos."
But what does Christian teaching say on this issue? Whilst most people will be aware that the seventh commandment says "Thou shalt not steal", many may find broader teachings quite surprising.
In the Summa Theologica St. Thomas Aquinas stated, "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."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in the chapter on the seventh commandment, states: "There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods. This is the case in obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing…) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others."
Interestingly, the Catechism goes on to define as theft several practices which are simply accepted features of our modern economy.
"Even if it does not contradict the provisions of civil law, any form of unjustly taking and keeping the property of others is against the seventh commandment: thus, deliberate retention of goods lent or of objects lost; business fraud; paying unjust wages; forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another.
"The following are also morally illicit: speculation in which one contrives to manipulate the price of goods artificially, in order to gain an advantage to the detriment of others; corruption in which one influences the judgement of those who must make decisions according to law; appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of cheques and invoices; excessive expenses and waste."
This approach springs from a fundamental belief, expressed in the Catechism, in the "universal destination of goods’, a belief that ‘The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race."
As all are equal in the eyes of God, all people are entitled, simply by virtue of their humanity, to what they need to survive, whatever human laws may say. As St Thomas Aquinas explains, "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 succouring the poor. For this reason Ambrose says,… '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.'"
Saint Ambrose, writing in the fourth century, was so clear about this ‘universal destination of goods’, that he said: "It is not from your own possessions that you are bestowing aims on the poor, you are but restoring to them what is theirs by right. For what was given to everyone for the use of all, you have taken for your exclusive use. The earth belongs not to the rich, but to everyone. Thus, far from giving lavishly, you are but paying part of your debt."
And in an example that nobody could fail to understand, he said: “If you have two shirts in your closet, one belongs to you and the other to the man with no shirt.”
One could say then, that according to Christian teaching, the mother who steals to feed her children may be committing a crime, but she is not committing a sin. The sin lies in the systems and structures that allow others to accumulate great wealth, whilst placing her in such desperate need.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeadenTweet