“It is not a sin to steal food if you are starving.” That is what the Mercy Sisters at my New York 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.”
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.”
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