Emma Goldman, Surprisingly, Sounds Just Like St. Thomas here

“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.” (ST II-II, 66, 7) – St. Thomas Aquinas

The right to property is not absolute.  Human need trumps it because human beings are more important than things.
A smart Catholic says, “How about that.  Emma Goldman figured out a Catholic truth here.”
A stupid Catholic says, “Eek! Catholic Social Teaching sounds like Emma Goldman and *she* was a radical leftist!  Catholic social teaching is radical leftism!”
It’s the difference between, on the one hand, navigating by listening to the Church and evaluating human wisdom in light of it and, on the other hand, navigating by tribal affiliations and shibboleths.  Thomas did the former and so was able to mine the work of pagans like Aristotle and Muslims like Averroes for all sorts of good stuff.  The Reactionaries of his time did the latter and so condemned him for being ritually impure and tainted by his associations with pagans and Muslim thinkers.
Guess who won that argument?


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  • Dave G.

    That only goes to show that people usually aren’t wrong about everything.

  • KZ

    But that’s the “on the contrary” part, no? In the “I answer that” he writes “each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need” and that taking property is justified if “the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy)”. How does that correspond to that Emma Goldman quote? Is that what she means? Certainly, she and TA sound alike, but most likely don’t mean the same thing.

  • Whether KZ knows it or not, I think the point that he was getting at is that the right to property is distinct from the use of that property. Fr. Barron has an excellent explanation of this in an mp3 file on the WordOnFire site. Emma’s quote advocates theft from those who sin by refusing to give from their abundance, which is still theft, even if culpability is somewhat diminished. Aquinas, on the other hand, directs the one with abundance to not sin by withholding. There is a seriously big difference there.

    Even for a greedy person, what that person gains by the work of his hands he has appropriated to himself. Any act of theft is an offense against his person, and there is no excuse for that. Again, diminished culpability according to the duress of the thief, but no excuse. That’s Catholic theology.

    • Where does there exist in Scripture or the teaching of the Church a warrant to steal?

      • ivan_the_mad

        CotCC 2408: The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner. 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.

        • Thanks, ivan! I was trying to recall that passage all morning.

          • ivan_the_mad

            You’re welcome! I am pleased to have been of service.

        • I have no disagreement with that language, much less the teaching, but the questions are two: When is refusal contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods? And who makes that judgement?

          You have basically answered the first question with your “obvious and urgent…” statement. I would agree, but I would also highlight that the word “obvious” implies an answer to the second question. The matter of who should be irrelevant according to the most apparent obviousness; only an idiot or a sociopath would fail to see the need and it’s urgency.

          Without gainsaying any of that, I would add: although truly awful as are such circumstances, they are rare in a country such as the United States. (They do happen, but that’s not my point). Strictly as a warning against swinging too far in the other direction, this is not a justification for governmental forms such as socialism and communism. This is primarily true because, in addition to the criteria agreed upon earlier, it is only proper to take as much as is needed. And Emma’s words have none of the nuance that exists in the Church’s tradition.

          • Dan C

            “Even for a greedy person, what that person gains by the work of his hands he has appropriated to himself. ”

            Two points: one echoing Mr. Garrett’s point below. The wealthy are unlikely to have done such by their own hands. Many have appropriated such on the backs of others and (as was noted in the Dirty Wars) manipulated power and militaries and government to assure that anything questionably obtained or obtained unfairly or unjustly on the backs of others. One can examine the relationship of oil drilling in Africa to examine whether one “justly” obtains a wealth.

            Secondly, here you use unmodified language. Then interpret the CCC in the most limiting ways possible-freezing or starving, etc. CCC is clearly not proposing anything so extreme and lives likely closer to Emma Goldman than you do.

            • I’m glad that someone advocating charity is being so charitable towards me, pretending that I have said things that I did not. Why present rational arguments to someone not exemplifying rational thought? To be charitable, I guess: you said “unlikely,” and that’s just the point–some people become extremely wealthy by totally legitimate means without exploiting anyone. The guy who independently wrote code that he sold for millions earned every penny. And I believe that it would be wrong of me, in my literal poverty, to take the sandwich out of his hand when I could walk another 30 seconds to a soup kitchen. Sure, it might be wrong of him to refuse my request for his food, but that doesn’t change the fact that I would be stealing when I have recourse to another source.

              • Dan C

                The blogging medium is one that permits Vox Nova to be likened to the “Debate Club at Auschwitz” and those who advocate for welfare to be considered as promoting the vice of envy and are even to be considered thieves (see Joe Carter on this point) for “confiscatory” policies. This is a medium that is “direct” is abrupt. (See the Archbolds or Donald McClarey discuss Pope Francis.)

                You attended to the really rare event- someone who invented something all by himself without any assistance at al from the community? Without an education at a university? Sure, we’ll even pretend that. The independent who built that himself. I would suggest that is rarer than the homeless and the starving. Or those unjustly deprived of the ability to gain decent work.

                I am unsure where the rationale thought or clear probabilities are absent. It is just not proper libertarian thought, which is an economic philosophy out of line with the Church.

                • Dan, I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, I’m just saying this as it is: I do not understand what you were trying to communicate.

              • chezami

                Dude. You asked, in a “When did you stop beating your wife?” tone where Scripture authorized stealing? You entire question was framed with the presumption that the entry was an apologia for stealing. If you don’t like it to have your false dilemmas challenged, then don’t pose them.

                • First, you replied to my reply to Dan. Second, I didn’t think that you were advocating theft. I was critical of taking Emma’s words as being noteworthy in a positive way. And I don’t recall posing a false dilemma. It seems that my critical approach for the issue led some to falsely assume a particular motive or intention, and then my words were interpreted through that lens rather than being taken at face value.

          • Dan C

            “Without gainsaying any of that, I would add: although truly awful as are such circumstances, they are rare in a country such as the United States. ”

            Rare would be desirable. For the highly traumatized individual with drug addiction, this is a routine struggle. The consequences is the exchange of sex for food, shelter, drugs on a daily basis. So, yes, this is common, but not a Jean Valjean story. But hungry and starving nonetheless. Just the 21st century leper.

            Be wary of creating apologetics for wealth. The Gospel does not. Luke is quite clear over and over: Woe to the rich. There was no room for praising wealth in Luke’s Gospel. He has a similar treatment in the Acts. The early Christian community had certain demands on wealth, which, at the time of that early Church, was clearly not a bond that Peter loosened, no matter what has passed in subsequent centuries.

            • linda daily

              Excellent comment, Dan. I wonder if those who believe that there is no or little “starving and freezing” in the US ever put down their books and step outside. Maybe not caricatures of the “noble poor” but they’ll find our brothers and sisters struggling with mental illness, addiction, disabilities, and many frail elderly. I work for protective services for the elderly and disabled through a Catholic nonprofit – believe me, people starve and freeze in the US. I often experience a disconnect between what I hear on Sunday morning (generally more political rhetoric than Christian discipleship) with what I witness in my daily work – Christ present on the street.

              • Dan C


                I maintain that the focus on “family” only provides opportunity for someone to judge the poor as “moral degenerates.” One of the largest mass migrations of humanity occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s as massive numbers of folks moved 10-30 miles from city cores to suburbs, abandoning communities wholesale. That the remaining amenities collapsed was not due to massive government welfare programs, but the loss of talent and wealth from a community. Community and economic justice are the core sticking points of the degradation of the West. Not people who like to have a lot of sex. That has been the case for humanity forever.

      • chezami

        There doesn’t. Your problem is with you definition of stealing. The hoarder who holds on to goods he does not need while people who do need them starve or freeze is the real thief. Possession is not 9/10s of the divine law.

        • Mark, you’re smart, and I respect you. So, I say this with sincerity, don’t be sloppy. I offered no definition of stealing, of theft. I would guess that you inferred one from my disagreement, but… You are right about the starving and freezing, but, as I pointed out in my reply to ivan, Emma’s words communicate nothing of the concept of dire straits. It is not that I think that the starving person who takes a sandwich out of my hand is truly stealing. My issue is with the broad brush stroke that is Emma’s quote. My issue is that it communicates no terms.

          • Do all such quotes have to communicate terms and be as specific as possible? If I were to say “killing is wrong,” would you then criticize me for not adding qualifications for just war, self-defense, licit use of the death penalty, killing humans v. non-humans, and so on? I interpreted Goldman’s quote as a summing up, or shorthand, of her views, not the full and complete expression of them.

            • thomas

              She was an atheist and an anarchist…which means she doesn’t know what the hell she is talking about. The fact that one of her statements kinda sounds like St. Thomas…who cares. Lets see some Catholic saint memes.

              • chezami

                This is a Catholic saint thread. It’s about the fact that Thomas could find truth in the work of pagans and Muslims because he thought like a Catholic, while tribalized modern Catholics like you regard that attempt as a waste of time and look for “Catholic saint memes” keep themselves safely insulated in the Bubble. Thanks for demonstrating a complete lack of comprehension.

                • thomas

                  So looking for saint memes means I’m a tribalized modern catholic? Lol. You get a warm fuzzy feeling in being a broadminded liberal catholic don’t you? So broadminded that your brains have fallen out. I know Shea…why don’t tell us why we need atheist anarchist saints? Like I said…a broken clock was right twice a day…who cares.

                  • chezami

                    And it’s official. You’re too dumb to comment here if you seriously think I’m a liberal Catholic. Bye!

              • Yes, I know who she was. That does not mean she could not be right about anything at all. Catholics aren’t the only people in the world with something true to say.

              • She was an atheist and an anarchist…which means she doesn’t know what the hell she is talking about.

                I deny this premise.

        • thomas

          Thank God there’s not a whole lot of starving or freezing going on in our country…but BO is working hard to fix that. There is no revolution coming from the people that will fix anything…as a matter of fact it would play into the ruling class’s hand for that to take place. God’s revolution is coming through the Blessed Mother, that is it and that is all. All those who put their hope in human progress feel free to dislike this comment 😀

        • thomas

          Holding on to goods that one doesn’t need is pretty much what we all do in the U.S. isn’t it? And there are other ” real thieves”…like the people who steal because want have something that someone else has or to feed a drug habit…that’s the cause of the vast majority of theft in Amerca. The epidemic of poverty in this country is poverty of spirit but it pretty much goes ignored because it might take people out of their comfort zones. Its much more comfy to talk about the material poor…I mean who’s gonna get mad at us for talking about that?? Even communists claim they love the poor.

  • Hezekiah Garrett

    Who’s amassing great wealth with the work of their hands? Id be more ashamed of torturing the language.

  • Here is my attempt (open to critique) at a fuller summary of the Universal Destination of Goods:

    We need not ask for work: work is a right because it is a duty. We are bound in justice to support ourselves, our families, and our neighbors through our labor.

    We do need to ask for just compensation for our work. Since the industrial revolution, this increasingly happens through “getting a job,” but this is a historical anomaly, and is often structurally unjust.

    If we cannot work, or cannot justly provide for ourselves through our work, then we may support ourselves through begging. This is no dishonor; rather it is an acknowledgement of God’s providence through our neighbors.

    If we cannot support ourselves even through begging, while food and other necessities are available but being withheld from us, then we may take what we need to survive even from those who desire to withhold it from us; because the goods of this world belong to all before they belong to each.

    There is no injustice in having more than we need, so long as we do not withhold from others what they need; because the goods of this world belong to all before they belong to each. That said, the goods that I have gained through my labor belong to me for my sustenance; I do not owe them to anyone else, until I have used them for my own sustenance; thereafter, I owe them first to my family, then to my neighbors in need, then to those in need who are more distant. If there are none in need, then I am free to do what I like with them within the other bounds of justice.

    That’s not likely to fit neatly onto a meme-graphic, but I think it’s accurate and complete.

  • thomas

    The problem arises when one thinks he “needs” someone else’s big screen tv or car. The take the bread attitude might apply to third world countries but sure doesn’t apply in the U.S. where the “poor” have cell phone and xboxes. St. Thomas would think the poor in the U.S. were rich if he were around now. Although BO is trying his best to make us a country where one would have to steal bread so it might just happen.

    • linda daily

      Thomas, Have you spent time talking with a person who is poor in your area? There are many misconceptions about poverty in the US and how it impacts individuals and families. I’d suggest volunteering in a Church sponsored men’s shelter and hear their stories.

  • thomas

    I’m trying to remember about a situation where Mother Teresa took the bread. God will provide.

    • Guest

      God’s providence generally works through human actions.

  • Robert R