Years ago, a Catholic priest said God did not consider it sinful to steal food for a starving family. Could you explain why?
First the CliffsNotes version: This is basically a question of a hierarchy of rights: we have a right to private property (as the person who owns the food stolen has a legitimate claim to it). But more fundamentally, we have a right to have our basic needs met by the goods of creation (this is the fundamental purpose God has given to those goods). Whenever these two rights are in conflict, the right to have our basic needs met trumps. Or, thought of another way, God has given us goods to meet the needs of all (they are common goods in this way); as long as our human private property laws respect this (everyone has their needs met), they are legitimate; when people’s needs aren’t being met, private property dissolves and the goods become common property—so the person isn’t really stealing, they’re claiming what is legitimately theirs, because God has given us goods to meet the needs of all.
For over-achievers (you rock!):
To answer this question, we first have to set the stage by answering a few other questions; for starters, what do we mean by stealing? The Catechism talks about stealing in the context of the seventh commandment (“You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15)); there it defines stealing as “unjustly taking or keeping the goods of one’s neighbor and wronging him in any way with respect to his goods” (CCC 2401). Elsewhere it states that theft is “usurping another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner,” and then goes on to say something very interesting: “There is no theft if consent can be presumed or if refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods” (CCC 2408, emphasis added).
We’ve now touched on the heart of this question: really, it’s all about private property and the universal destination of goods. So, what are these? Let’s start with the universal destination of goods. In Genesis, when God creates the Earth, He gives man dominion of it, offering it in part to serve man’s needs (such as for food). Thus, the goods of creation are given to humanity—all of humanity—to serve our needs. As Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes states, “God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples.” This is what we mean by the universal destination of goods: the goods of creation have been destined by God to serve the needs of all humanity. This is decreed by God to be the case; it is how God has set up the universe.
Now, let’s consider private property (meaning the claim to ownership of some good) by returning to Genesis: fundamentally, everything belongs to God, since He made it from nothing—“He made us, we belong to Him” (Psalm 100:3). Yet God makes us stewards of this creation, giving us dominion over it, and in this sense, we are owners (stewards) of creation—we can use it for our own needs. But beyond this general sense of human beings being able to own parts of creation, we as humans have set up a system of private ownership, whereby I can “own” something, like a piece of land, or my house, or the food at my table. This form of ownership—with all the buying and selling, giving and receiving it entails—is a human system, but it is still legitimate. In fact, John XXIII in Mater et Magistra will state, “private ownership of property, including that of productive goods, is a natural right which the State cannot suppress,” and Aquinas even describes it as something necessary for human living (his reasons are rather curious; I’ve included them as an appendix below). This private ownership is functional, it is meant to help us live better lives, to have access to what we need.
With private property in mind, let’s go back to stealing, along with your question. When someone steals, they take someone else’s private property and claim it as their own. For instance, if someone steals a car, they take a good that was legitimately claimed by another (i.e. there are human laws that specify that they have acquired it and are its owners) and claim it as their own. But how about a trickier example, akin to what you’re proposing: if someone who is hungry steals a loaf of bread from a baker, they have taken the baker’s property (the bread) without the consent of the baker and claimed it as their own—it appears they’ve stolen the bread. And stealing is always a sin (it’s against the seventh commandment!!!). So isn’t this action a sin?
The crux of the problem comes in how these two principles—private property and the universal destination of goods—interact. The Catechism is very clear in the hierarchy between these two: “The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.” So, the universal destination of goods has precedence over the right to private property. Why? Recall what the fundamental purpose of these goods of creation is: to meet the needs of humanity. This is why God has given them to us; this is the Divine intent for them. Therefore, these goods fundamentally belong to those who need them! If our human private ownership aligns with this, it is legitimate; when it does not align with it, our private ownership is no longer valid, because the human law is subordinate to the divine law (after all, God truly owns these goods—we are only stewards of them). This led some of the early Church Fathers to make some pretty radical statements about the “belongings” of the rich actually belonging to the poor, such as St. Ambrose stating, “It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom.” Ambrose’s basic logic is this: God has given bread, cloaks, and money for those who need them; the rich have a super-abundance, whereas the poor are in need; therefore, God has given these things for the poor (the needy) by divine law, whereas the rich hold it by human law.
This could be taken too far, with anyone who has a need claiming they can take what they need from others; therefore we should generally respect the systems we have devised as human beings for distributing these goods of creation among ourselves while still respecting private property. Yet there are extreme situations of need where these systems just don’t work, and where the only way to meet the need is to take what somebody else claims as their own. In these extreme cases there is an old maxim: “In cases of need all things are common property.” These are situations where our human systems (private property) have failed to meet the purpose of creation given by God, and may in fact be getting in the way; therefore, they must give way.
This may seem a little theoretical, so let’s put some flesh on it with an example: let’s go back to the bread situation. The baker claims ownership of the bread, and this is a legitimate claim: he has purchased the raw materials (flour, water, yeast, etc.) and has put in his own efforts to produce bread. Yet a starving person who cannot meet their need for hunger has a legitimate claim to this good as well, because God has given the goods the baker depends on (the raw materials, his own intelligence and capacity for making bread, etc.) to meet the needs of all humanity. Because of the extreme need, the good is no longer the baker’s alone, because the divine purpose for the good (the needs of all) takes precedence—the bread, in that sense, is common property. Recall what we said about stealing: it means taking somebody else’s property. But in this case of need, the bread is the property of the needy, of all people. Therefore, it is not technically speaking stealing, because the starving person is taking what is legitimately theirs—God has given it to them to meet their needs, and no human laws of ownership can get in the way of this feeding.
Appendix 1: Why Aquinas thinks private property is necessary for human living.
Aquinas lists three reasons why private property is necessary: (1) because if we didn’t own anything as our own, we would become lazy in maintaining and reaping fruit from what belonged to everyone in common; (2) society runs better when each person only has to worry about their own things rather than when everyone has to worry about everything (which would be very messy); and (3) everyone is more peaceful when they are content with what they have.
 Gaudium et Spes, 69.
 Summa Theologica (ST) II-II, Q 66, Art 7, respondio.
 Genesis 1:26-29; ST II-II, Q 66, Art 1, respondio.
 Mater et Magistra, 19; ST II-II, Q 66, Art 2, respondio and ad 1.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), 2403.
 Ambrose, Decretals; as quoted in ST II-II, Q 66, Art 7, respondio.
 ST II-II, Q 66, Article 7, sed contra.
 See also CCC 2408 and Gaudium et Spes, 69.
 ST II-II, Q 66, Art 2, respondio.