Stockpiling can lead to barren grocery store shelves, leaving individuals and families with unfulfilled needs. James Ramos/CNS
Stockpiling can lead to barren grocery store shelves, leaving individuals and families with unfulfilled needs. James Ramos/CNS
" We must always keep those in need before us, and be willing to share with those from our excess. " Father Christopher Colavito
A lack of toilet paper. Select quantities of meat. Ravaged grocery store shelves.

This is what has been facing shoppers since mid-March, when coronavirus concerns became a reality across the United States.  

“I think everyone has had the experience of panic over the last few weeks … of coronavirus pandemic living, stay-at-home orders and social distancing,” said Father Patrick McPartland, pastor in St. Catharine Parish, Holmdel. “For many of us, life is turned upside down.”

In an effort to be prepared or reduce the risks of contagion, it is not unreasonable to purchase more than normal, especially if it appears that basic goods will no longer be available. However, priests of the Diocese say, it’s important to remember Catholic teaching when it comes to looking out for oneself and others.

“We must always keep those in need before us, and be willing to share with those from our excess,” said Father Christopher Colavito, parochial vicar of St. John Neumann Parish, Mount Laurel, and St. Isaac Jogues Parish, Marlton. “We should not put ourselves or families in immediate danger, but do what we can to help others when we have the ability to do so.”

Father McPartland agreed, adding, “One of the things that is helpful in life is to step back and reflect on things that happened, how we felt and what our values are, to better know how to handle similar situations in the future.”

Biblically Based Response

With no definitive end to stay-at-home and social-distancing orders, Father McPartland said guidance on social responsibility can be found in Scripture. He quoted from the First Reading on Divine Mercy Sunday: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” (Acts 2:42-47)

“Remember, this is the very early Church, right after the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The disciples were concerned to make sure each person had enough,” Father McPartland said. “So, what does this mean to us today? This principle of sharing our possessions so everyone has their basic needs met is basic Catholic theology on how to live the command ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Mark 12:31). This principle is very helpful to reflect on during this pandemic.”

Both Father McPartland and Father Colavito pointed to Catholic social teaching and the principles of sharing goods that can be found in the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” published in 2004. Among them are the principles of: Common Good, Universal Destination of Goods, and Solidarity.

The Principle of the Common Good (par. 164-170) envisions society as a team, working together at the service of each other and away from selfishness. In the Universal Destination of Goods (par. 171-184), it is learned that “each person must have access to the level of well-being necessary for his full development.” This is a very ecological view that the goods that come from the earth are to be distributed among the people, “without excluding or favoring anyone,” Father McPartland said.

He was quick to point out that this principle recognizes the right to private property. “In fact, it is good to use our gifts and talents and hard work to be successful,” he said. “The wealth we amass as a result, should not only serve our needs and the needs of our family, but it should also be used to benefit others for the common good.”

The Principle of Solidarity  (par. 192-197) recognizes the interdependence of people. “We are not independent islands – even though it may seem like that as we stay at home. Rather, we are all connected and live in a community,” Father McPartland said. “We are invited to commit ourselves to the common good with focus, determination and perseverance. The common good should be a priority in how we make decisions and run our lives.”

From Storage to Service

Concerning the stockpiling of foods, Father Colavito asked, “What is hoarding, but the accumulation of goods beyond a person(’s) immediate needs? This may or may not be conditional, meaning a person does it often or because of a current or anticipated situation.”

“The word hoarding has a generally negative perception,” he said. “It brings to mind garages filled to the brim with specific products, or generally not meant to be used by the one who has accumulated it, rather to be sold. 

“Therefore, hoarding in general, I would argue, is not usually perceived as something a person does simply for themselves. If we understand it in this case, this type of hoarding – particularly of base good needs like food, sanitation, health items – would be sinful because the intention is not to help others in times of need.”

He went on to give a personal example, sharing that when the shutdown began, he went out for what he called “major shopping.” 

“In my mind, I absolutely knew I was going to buy in excess of what I needed for the week coming, because I truly thought there was a possibility that all stores would be locked down completely in the near future. So I bought what I thought I would need for the next few weeks, in bulk,” Father Colavito said. He ended up buying 30 rolls of toilet paper.

“I honestly laughed at myself when I saw how much toilet paper I now had – a mountain of toilet paper for me alone that would last over a year!” he said.

Two weeks later, however, his sister-in-law put out a call for toilet paper and paper towels, both of which he gladly shared. 

“While I may have overstocked at the time – giving in to the situation and overprotecting myself – because I was not honestly hoarding or looking to financially benefit off of others’ needs – I was able to fulfill a need for my family members.”

Intention is one of the most important aspects in determining the morality of an action, Father Colavito said.

“My intention of providing for myself for the long term allowed me to provide for those in need,” he said. Reflecting on his toilet paper example, when his family called, “I could have said that I don't have any at all [or that] I don't have any to spare. Both would have been lies; both would have been sins,” he said. “Instead I gave up what was legally mine – rightfully mine in some eyes – to others who were not me, but in need. That is what we are called to do as Christians.”

Weighing Risks and Benefits

Father McPartland, whose background includes being a chaplain in the U.S. Navy and time at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., acknowledged that the principles may seem simple in theory.

“Now you may ask, ‘All this sounds nice, Father, but I still have to care for my family!’ That’s true. In fact, the principles I mention include that,” he said. “In the Navy, I learned that there are always risks. Therefore, the Navy employs a Risk Mitigation Strategy that measures the impact and likelihood of each risk, and then adds safety measures to reduce the risk to the lowest possible level. We can do the same thing … reduce the amount of times going to the store, reduce the time in store, wear a mask and maybe gloves, practice social distancing.”

“The principles of social teaching help us to decide whether we dump the whole shelf of flour into our shopping cart or leave some for the next person,” he said. “We can decide what is a reasonable amount of time between visits. Even though we might want to say, ‘I will get enough chicken to last me three months,’ maybe we can think of the common good and share.”

Sure, he added, this is a time of uncertainty, but “God promises to never leave us and to be with us until the end of time.” (Matthew 28:20)

“I would take all this reflection, principles and strategizing along with the rest – the emotions: the fear, the anxiety, the stress of not getting a haircut for weeks – and bring this all to the man upstairs.”