Front Page Titles (by Subject) QUESTION LXVI.: OF THEFT AND ROBBERY. - Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2)
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QUESTION LXVI.: OF THEFT AND ROBBERY. - St. Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas, vol. 2 (Summa Theologica - Secunda Secundae Pt.2) 
Aquinas Ethicus: or, the Moral Teaching of St. Thomas. A Translation of the Principal Portions of the Second part of the Summa Theologica, with Notes by Joseph Rickaby, S.J. (London: Burns and Oates, 1892).
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OF THEFT AND ROBBERY.
Article I.—Is the possession of exterior things natural to man?
R. An exterior thing may be considered in two ways; in one way in respect of its nature, which is not subject to human control, but only to the control of God, whose slightest command all things obey: in another way as regards the use of the thing; and in this way man has natural dominion over exterior things, because by reason and will he can use exterior things to his own profit, as things made for him; for the less perfect is ever for the more perfect. This natural dominion over other creatures attaches to man in virtue of his reason, whereby he is the image of God, as appears from the account of creation: “Let us make man to our image and likeness, and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea,” &c.1
Article II.—Is it lawful for any one to possess anything as his own?
R. Two things are competent to man regarding any exterior good. The one is the power of managing and dispensing it; and so far as that goes, it is lawful for a man to have property of his own. It is also necessary to human life for three reasons: first, because every one is more careful to look after a thing that is his own private concern than after what is common to all or many: since every one avoids labour, and leaves to another to do the duty that belongs to a number of persons in common, as happens where there are many persons to wait on you. The same appears in another way, because human affairs are handled in more orderly fashion, where every individual has his own care of something to look to: whereas there would be confusion if every one indiscriminately took the management of anything he pleased. Thirdly, because a peaceful state of society is thus better ensured, every one being contented with his own lot. Hence we see that disputes arise not uncommonly among those who have any possession in joint stock.
Another thing within the reach of man regarding exterior goods is the use of them. In that respect a man ought not to hold exterior goods as exclusively his own, but as common possessions, so as readily to share them with others in their need. Hence the Apostle says: “Charge the rich of this world to give easily, to communicate to others.”1
§ 1. Community of goods is set down as a point of natural law, not as though it were a dictate of natural law that all things should be possessed in common, and that there should be no private property: but because the marking off of separate possessions is not done according to natural law, but rather according to human convention, which belongs to positive law. Hence private property is not against natural law, but is an institution supplementary to natural law invented by human reason.1
§ 2. He who coming first to a public spectacle should prepare the way for others, would not act unlawfully; but it is then that a person acts unlawfully, when he prevents others from seeing. In like manner a rich man does not act unlawfully, if he seizes possession beforehand of a thing that was common to start with,2 and then shares it with others: but he does sin if he keeps out everybody else without distinction from using the thing.
Article III.—Does the essence of theft consist in the secret taking of the property of another?
R. To the notion of theft three elements concur. The first is contrariety to justice, the virtue that gives to every one his own: hence the description applies to theft, that it is a seizing upon what is another’s. The second element belongs to theft as distinguished from sins committed on the person, like murder and adultery; and thus it applies to theft to say that it is about an article of property: for it is not exactly theft to take that which is another’s, not as property, but as either part of the person, as a limb; or a personal connection, as daughter or wife. The third distinguishing feature that completes the notion of theft, is that the seizure of what is another’s is made secretly. Thus the proper essence of theft is a secret taking of another’s property.
§ 3. Whoever takes by stealth his own property from another, in whose hands it is unjustly detained, sins, not for any annoyance he gives the holder—hence he is not bound to any restitution or compensation; but he sins against general justice, usurping the office of judge in his own cause, in disregard of the due course of law. And therefore he is bound to make satisfaction to God, and to appease any scandal of his neighbours that may have arisen from his proceeding.1
Article VI.—Is theft a mortal sin?
R. A mortal sin is what is contrary to charity, the spiritual life of the soul. Now charity consists principally in the love of God; secondarily, in the love of our neighbour, the office of which love is to wish and do good to our neighbour. But by theft a man injures his neighbour in his property; and if all men promiscuously were to steal, human society would be lost. Hence theft is a mortal sin, as being contrary to charity.
§ 2. The punishments of the present life are rather medicinal than retributive: for retribution is reserved to the judgment of God, which falls upon sinners according to truth. And therefore in the judicial procedure of the present life the punishment of death is not inflicted for every mortal sin, but only for those that do irreparable mischief, or are marked by circumstances of horrible atrocity. And therefore for theft, which does not do irreparable mischief, the punishment of death is not inflicted in our present courts of law, unless the theft be aggravated by some grave circumstance, as in sacrilege, peculation, and kidnapping.
§ 3. A small quantity counts as nothing. And therefore a man does not reckon himself aggrieved in very small things; and he who takes such things may presume that it is not against the will of the owner. And thus far forth the pilfering of such very small things may be excused from mortal sin.1
Article VII.—Is it lawful to steal on the plea of necessity?
R. The institutions of human law cannot derogate from natural law or divine law. But according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained to the end that out of them the needs of men may be relieved. And therefore the division and appropriation of goods, that proceeds from human law, cannot come in the way of a man’s need being relieved out of such goods. And therefore the things that some men have in superabundance, are claimed by natural law for the support of the poor. Hence Ambrose says: “It is the bread of the hungry that you hold back: the clothing of the naked that you keep in store: the ransom and deliverance of the unfortunate is contained in the money that you bury in the earth.” But because there are many sufferers in need, and all cannot be relieved out of the same goods, there is entrusted to the discretion of every proprietor the disbursement of his own substance, that out of it he may relieve the needy. If however a need be so plain and pressing, that clearly the urgent necessity has to be relieved from whatever comes to hand, as when danger is threatening a person and there is no other means of succouring him, then the man may lawfully relieve his distress out of the property of another, taking it either openly or secretly; nor does this proceeding properly bear the stamp of either theft or robbery.1
§ 2. To use the property of another, taking it secretly, in a case of extreme need, cannot properly speaking be characterized as theft, because what one takes for the support of his life is made his by such necessity.
Article VIII.—Can robbery be committed without sin?
R. Robbery involves a certain amount of violence and constraint, whereby a man’s own is taken away from him contrary to justice. But in human society no one has the right of coercion otherwise than by public authority; and therefore whoever, being a private person, and not using public authority, forcibly takes away anything from another, acts unlawfully, and commits robbery, as highwaymen do. To rulers public authority is entrusted to the end that they may be guardians of justice; and therefore it is not lawful for them to use force and coercion except according to the tenor of justice, either fighting against foreign enemies, or against citizens, punishing evil-doers;1 and what is taken away by such use of force cannot be said to be carried off by robbery, seeing there is no violation of justice.
§ 3. If rulers exact from their subjects what is due in justice for the maintenance of the common weal, that is not robbery, even though force be used over it: but if they extort anything by use of force against justice, it is robbery like the doings of highwaymen. Hence Augustine says: “Justice apart, what are kingdoms but organized brigandage?”
Article IX.—Is theft a more grievous sin than robbery?
R. Robbery is a more grievous sin than theft, because violence is more directly opposed to the will than ignorance. There is also another reason: because by robbery not only is loss inflicted on another in his property, but there is also something of personal insult or injury enacted.
[1 ]Genesis i. 26.
[1 ]1 Timothy vi. 17, 18.
[1 ]See Ethics and Natural Law, pp. 280, 281, n. 4. For St. Thomas’s concept of natural law see I-II. q. 94. art. 2. Here he seems almost to take it in the sense of the Roman lawyer, whom he quotes, II-II. q. 57. art. 3: “that law which is common to all animals.” Cf. I-II. q. 94. art. 5. § 3.
[2 ]Understand, negatively common, like the diamonds in the earth at Johannisberg, Ethics and Natural Law, p. 280. St. Thomas, however, is not thinking of diamonds, but of waste land, that is no man’s land, and not, as the commons are or were in England, the property of a specified community (Trl.)
[1 ]This doctrine puts some restraint on the working of the principle, res clamat domino, at least in a civilized community, where “due course of law” is open—and inexpensive. (Trl.)
[1 ]It is excused from all sin, if the thing is literally of no value: and from mortal sin, but not from venial, on the ground of parvity of matter, if the value is very small. (Trl.)
[1 ]What St. Thomas contemplates is the case of starving people seizing upon the primary necessaries of life to stave off instant death. He is eminently not thinking of a clerk, when he is “hard up,” taking his employer’s money. When the clerk accepted his situation, he virtually contracted with his employer to do nothing of the kind. For the supposed communism of this article, see Ethics and Natural Law, p. 281, n. 5. (Trl.)
[1 ]War and punishment however are not in the same category. See Ethics and Natural Law, pp. 351—353. (Trl.)