Question concerning Stealing; Can it ever be justified to steal something to feed starving family?

Question from D. Lopez on 03-15-2001:
Fr. Torraco, when asked if it would be moral to steal to feed a starving family who had noone to help them, you wrote (I paraphrase) that it would be immoral not to. I am wondering how you square that with what John Paul II wrote in Veritatis Splendor 79 – 83 about intrinsically evil acts and his affirmation that one may not do evil in order that good may come from it.
In this encyclical, the Holy Father quotes St. Thomas: “it often happens that man acts with a good intention, but without spiritual gain, because he lacks a good will. Let us say that someone robs in order to feed the poor: in this case, even though the intention is good, the uprightness of the will is lacking. Consequently, no evil done with a good intention can be excused.” and Romans 3:8 “There are those who say: And why not do evil that good may come? Their condemnation is just.”
For what it’s worth, what you say ‘feels right’ to me; but I don’t like taking my ‘feelings’ as divine Truth. I am just having a really hard time trying to come to terms with the Holy Father’s words and the Catechism’s teachings, and the possibility of extreme situations, such as stealing to feed the poor, lying to hide the Jews in your attic from the Nazis, and so on. I mean, if ‘property isn’t absolute’ in the stealing scenario, is truth also not absolute in the N*** scenario? Is ANYTHING absolute except for Love? Is each ethical situation such that there IS an absolute moral good but what is the good in each situation depends on that which furthers Love?
OR is it so that that which is called intrinsically evil by the Church (lying, stealing, murdering, etc.) truly ALWAYS sinful but that it’s sometimes to our moral benefit to sin?
OR are we expected to tell the truth about the Jews hiding in our attic and never, under any circumstances, do that which is intrinsically evil?
And please, Father, any references you can provide from official doctrine, encyclicals, letters, etc., would be MOST appreciated. Thank you very much.
Answer by Fr.Stephen F. Torraco on 03-15-2001:
If a person is starving to death, and NO ONE is willing to help him, the starving person’s act of taking the loaf of bread IS NOT STEALING. He is taking what rightfully belongs to him. Pope John Paul II’s statement about intrinsically evil acts has to do with the OBJECT or WHATNESS of the act (which is one of the three “sources” of the act, as described in Part 3 of the Catechism). Another name for this object or whatness is the moral species as distinct from the physical species of the act. An action can admit of different physical species (for example, killing can either be an act of self-defense, which is morally justifiable, or an act of murder, which is not morally justifiable.) Killing would be the physical species. Self-defense and murder would be moral species. For an act to be good, the moral species must be good or at least neutral. In the case of the starving person who takes a loaf of bread (physical species) when NO ONE IS WILLING TO HELP HIM, the moral species of his act is SELF-PRESERVATION, which is morally good. Moreover, the loaf of bread that he takes (and this “taking” does not have the moral species of stealing) is rightfully his, since there is no such thing, morally, as the absolute ownership of things. The people who were unwilling to help that starving person were, by their omission, STEALING the loaf of bread from him. In other words, their omission had the moral species of stealing, which is morally wrong.

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  1. Based on your answer, Father, it seems that there are a LOT of billionaires who are stealing what rightfully belongs to others when the amass huge amounts of money to themselves and will not life a finger to feed the poor.

  2. The example uses starving to death. What about where you are just going hungry? Is it still the same? Meaning if someone goes without food for a day or two days? Is it then justifiable to steal?

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