“It is not a sin to steal food if you are starving.” That is what the Mercy Sisters at my grammar school told us some 50 years ago. It’s funny what one remembers. Of course, this lesson was reinforced for me every time I rode my bike over to a most delicious donut shop in the area.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) issued their Manifesto of the Communist Party early in 1848. After distinguishing private property from common use of property, they wrote: “The theory of the Communist Party may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”
During Advent of that the same year, Bishop and Baron Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (1811-1877) of Germany preached six Social Sermons on the Mount. “The false doctrine that property confers strict rights is a perpetual sin against nature,” von Ketteler said. Using St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) as his guide, von Ketteler said that only God has “full and genuine property rights.” Thus when using property, people have “the duty to bow to the God-given order of things.” Catholicism indeed “protects property” but it must be destined toward “the sake of the general welfare.”
The conflation of property use with an exclusive claim on it, von Ketteler said, is an error of capitalism—or of what we today call neo-conservative capitalism (or neo-liberal capitalism in Europe and South America). He also astutely pointed out, that “the false doctrine of communism” makes the same mistake about property.
Just as Marx, Engels and others in the mid-1800s were constructing a communist response to the industrial economy, so too von Ketteler and several lay leaders developed a Catholic theological and action response to what they called the social question. In May 1891 (125 years ago) Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903), drawing upon von Ketteler, issued his encyclical On the Conditions of Labor. It is considered the first in a line of papal documents about modern society and the economy that continues with Pope Francis. Catholic social doctrine and action is of course more sophisticated than the adage: It is no sin to steal a donut when starving. But the principle behind the adage, the principle of the universal destination of goods, underpins all of Catholic social thought. In 1979 while in Puebla, Mexico Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) put it this way: “There is a social mortgage on all private property.”
The 1848 Social Sermons on the Mount and the 1891 On the Conditions of Labor encyclical name other principles that, if taken seriously and applied with creativity, would make for a society and economy more humane than those tried under the communist regimes and certainly better than what neo-conservative capitalism now offers. Some of those principles will be discussed in a future blog.
To this day my favorites remain the plain donut, sometimes called old fashioned, and the French cruller donut.
Droel edits a print newsletter on faith and work. Get it for free by writing him c/o NCL, PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629