Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval scholar whose ideas became the semi-official philosophy of the Roman Catholic church, wrote that whatever we have in "superabundance" - that is, above and beyond what will reasonably satisfy our own needs and those of our family, for the present and the foreseeable future - "is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance." In support of this view, he quoted Ambrose, one of the four original "Great Doctors" or teachers of the Church. He also cited the Decretum Gratiani, a twelfth-century compilation of canon law that contains the powerful statement, "The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry: the clothing you shut away, to the naked: and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless."This is a challenging passage. I recall feeling shocked when I read something very similar in one of John Wesley's sermons many years ago. The idea that we owe our surplus wealth to the poor is something that offends American sensibilities. (And I hasten to add that this is not a uniquely American problem. America is simply what I am most familiar with.) It offends those who believe they can pass their responsibility toward the poor off to the government. It also offends those who believe that they have a right to the the consumerist lifestyle of the "American dream".
Note that "owed" and "belongs." For these Christians, sharing our surplus wealth with the poor is not a matter of charity, but of our duty and their rights. Aquinas even went so far as to say: "It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another's property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need." (Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save, p.20)
I'll be posting more about Singer's book as I make my way through it. From what I've read so far he is making a compelling case that it is not only possible to give real relief to those 1.4 billion people in extreme poverty but that we are morally compelled to do so.