Theft in case of necessity

In case of serious necessity (dying of hunger for instance), does one sin if one steals to avoid this necessity (by picking someone else’s food for instance)

In Nº 2408 of the Universal Catechism of the Catholic Church we can read:


“The seventh Commandment forbids theft, what does the usurpation of somebody else's goods (against the reasonable will of its owner) mean? There is no theft if the permission can be presumed (if we can suppose that the owner would allow us to dispose of the goods which are taken by us), or the refusal is contrary to reason and to the universal destination of the goods (if the owner could not deny it with solid arguments, or if his refusal was opposed to the destination that God has given to material goods in order to help the needs of every man). That is the case of urgent and evident want, where the only way to remedy the essential and immediate need (food, housing, dress…) is to dispose and use somebody else goods(cf. GS, 69. 1) (our italics).


Therefore, in case of urgent and evident want, whoever takes the goods without consent of its owner, does not sin.


Such a doctrine is quite old in the Church: Saint Thomas of Aquinas already says in the Theological Suma (2-2 q.66 a.7) in the article entitled “Whether it is allowed to man to steal in state of want”:

“On the other hand, in case of want, everything is common property; therefore it is no sin to take the goods of somebody else, because need makes that such thing is common property.”


The reason being that God has made the things of this world for every man, in order that everyone can meet his needs. Although the right to property is a true right, it yields to this previous right of every man to remedy his needs, therefore, in case of serious need, all the things are common property, pertaining also to the needy person who, by (apparently) “stealing”, he is only taking his own, that what God has created for him, not committing therefore any sin and not stealing, to use an accurate language.


Saint Thomas explains it as follows in his answer to the 7th article:


“That what is a human right cannot abolish a natural right or a divine right. However, according to the natural order introduced by God, lower goods are arranged to satisfy the needs of men. Therefore, its division and appropriation, which proceeds from human right, cannot avoid that the need of man is covered with the same things.


That’s why superfluous goods owned by some people are due, by natural right, to the support of poor people; that’s why Saint Ambrose – and  the “Decret” also remarks it- says: “Of hungry men is the bread you have; of naked people, the clothes you have in stock; and the money that you hide under the earth is the redemption and liberation of unfortunate people”.


Yet, as there are a lot of indigents and one cannot help all of them with the same goods,   the distribution of your own goods in order to help those who are in want is left to your free will.Nevertheless, if the need is so evident and urgent that it is clear that the imminent need has to be covered with whatever one has, or if the person is threatened with a danger and he cannot be helped in an other way, it is then allowed to help this need with the goods of somebody else, taking them away in openly or in a hidden way. And that is not theft nor plundering.


We must say that the Catholic tradition admits the right to property as a natural right, at the same time that conceives it burdened by its social function in such a way that all that is surplus to the suitable satisfaction of the owner’s needs, needless goods, pertains in justice to needy people, who have a natural right to them, even if it may not have a lawful efficiency  according to the positive laws in force.


This belongs to natural right, which precedes the right to property and which every man has, in order to satisfy the essential needs (God has made the goods of this world for every man). Therefore, he does not fall into sin who, harassed by need, dying of hunger or living in the open in the hard winter, for instance, picks up food which is not his own or lodges in an empty house which is not his own. He is exercising the right to look after his life, a right that precedes the right of property, to which the latter is subordinated.


[As well, the father who disposes of somebody else’s goods in order to cover the serious needs of his children doesn’t sin, if these needs are urgent and he disposes of no other ways to cover them.-Saint Thomas (Theological Suma 2-2. q. 66, art. 7 and 3) says: In the case of such need, one can also clandestinely take goods of somebody else in order to help an indigent person.)]