JMC : The Catholic Religion / by Charles Coppens, S.J.

The Seventh and Tenth Commandments.

324. The seventh commandment is, "Thou shalt not steal"; the tenth, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods". These two commandments regulate the rights of men to the goods of fortune, the seventh forbidding the violation of these rights in deed, the tenth in desire for whatever it is wrong to do, it is also wrong to desire to do.

They inculcate the virtue of justice; and therefore they cannot be clearly explained without considering first the nature and the requirements of this virtue. A virtue is a good habit, that is an abiding disposition inclining a person to do what is right. All the moral virtues are reducible to four heads, which are called the cardinal virtues. Of these prudence perfects the intellect, justice the will; temperance regulates the concupiscence, and fortitude the irascible passions.

Justice inclines the will to give every one his due. It is distinguished into three species: (a) Distributive justice disposes rulers to distribute equally to their subjects the advantages and the burdens of the community; (b) Legal justice disposes rulers and subjects to perform all the duties which the common good of society requires. (c) Commutative justice disposes one to give to every private person what is strictly due to him, so that there be an equality between what is given and what is received. This last kind is most distinctively called "justice". It was personified by the ancient poets as a blindfolded goddess, holding in her hands a pair of scales, to indicate that this virtue requires exact balancing of what a man gives and what he receives; the blindfolding signified the impartiality exercised by Justice, since no one could find favor in her sight.

Commutative justice, then, disposes the will always to observe this exact balance or equality in matters of fortune. By these we mean all material goods which men can appropriate to themselves, and all other things on which a money value can properly be set. Thus material goods include: (a) Immovable goods, such as lands, lakes, etc. (b) Movable goods, such as articles of food and clothing, tools, furniture, etc. (c) Bodily and mental labor by which such goods can be procured; all things in a word on which men in their mutual intercourse set a value that can be estimated in money.

325. But how does it come that material goods belong to some men rather than to others, that men justly call them their own? Primarily all goods belong to God, who made them. He can do with them What He pleases, give them to a man and take them away when He chooses. But He has made them for the use of men, and He said to our first parents: "Till the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth" (Gen. I, 28). Any man at first might take any of these goods; and so it is still to-day with wild fowl and fish, and any thing that is yet in its primitive condition, belonging to no person in particular. This primitive source of ownership is called first occupancy.

The only requisite appointed by reason to acquire ownership of unappropriated goods is taking possession of them; the result is ownership. And what is owned by any one is called his property: he has the right to use it, to destroy it, or to do with it what he pleases, and therefore to exclude others from the use of it.

When we say a man has a right to a thing, we mean that good order requires that he shall have that thing, and therefore that God wills him to have it, and wills all others to let him have it. "A right" then is defined as "an inviolable moral power belonging to one person, which all other persons are obliged to respect". This however does not mean that a man can ever be the absolute owner of any object, so that he can dispose of it just as he likes; but he must dispose of it according to God's will, when this is manifested to him by reason or by revelation. Man is an owner in justice relatively to other men; but he is not independent of God in the use he is to make of his goods or even of his own faculties. In fact the rich are intended by the Lord to be the almoners of the poor; and they shall give to God an account of their stewardship. St. Thomas writes: "The temporal goods that God bestows on a man are his as to the ownership; but as to the use they are not to be his exclusively, but also should benefit others, who can be maintained out of them, from what is superfluous to the owner. Therefore Basil says: 'It is the bread of the hungry that you withhold, the naked man's coat that you keep in store, the shoe of the barefoot that is mouldering iu your house, the money of the needy that you have buried in the earth'.

"There is a time when one sins mortally in omitting to give alms: on the part of the receiver when there is an apparent, evident, and urgent need, and no appearance of any one at hand to relieve it; on the part of the giver, when he has superfluities, which are not necessary to him in his present state, according to a probable estimate" (Aquin. Eth. I, p. 386).

326. The right of private ownership in material things is necessary in human society; and as a fact we find it established from the earliest ages of mankind. For Abel "offered of the firstlings of his flock" (Gen. IV, 4); he therefore owned a flock; while Cain was a husbandman, and owned his field. This right is founded in the very nature of man. For when God gives a person a right to his life, He thereby gives him also a right to appropriate to himself whatever material things are necessary to support his life and are not yet appropriated by another; and since a man is to provide for his future support, and that of his children and dependants, he can lawfully accumulate property for that purpose. All tribes of men, even the least civilized, acknowledge this right by a dictate of common sense, and constantly reduce it to practice; even every child does so when it catches a wild bird or fish. Once we have become possessed of an object, we may improve it further by our labor, which thus becomes a second source of ownership. Thus by first occupancy of land, and by labor spent in exploring, fencing, draining, and cultivating it, nearly all land is become the property of individual men or of bodies of men. And this state of things is much for the better; for if the land were nobody's, no one would care to improve it. No nation that held all its land in common has ever been able greatly to develop its resources. True, private ownership in land, like every good thing, may be abused; such abuses should be stopped, but the right should not be abolished.

327. The right of ownership in material things is protected by the commandment which says: "Thou shalt not steal". To steal is unlawfully to take or retain the property of another without his consent. It may be done in a variety of ways: by secret theft or open robbery, by cheating in buying or selling, by defrauding the laborer of his hire, by furnishing poor labor for good wages, by not paying one's debts, by keeping found articles without trying to find their owners, etc. The evil always consists in the violation of another's right to his property, thus disturbing the balance of justice (n. 324). This disturbance may occur even though the wrong-doer is not benefited by his injustice, namely when he injures or destroys another's property. Thus doing damage is a kind of stealing, and is forbidden by this commandment.

328. Injustice is not removed by mere repentance, but it also requires restitution; for the equality disturbed must be restored. The rules for restitution are

1. If the stolen article still exists, it must be restored to its owner; for his right to it continues: res clamat ad dominum, "property cries for its owner", is the received maxim. On the same principle, if you bought a stolen article in good faith, you are obliged to return it to the owner when you discover him.

2. If a thief cannot restore the article which he has stolen, he must pay its price or in other ways compensate the owner for his loss; and he must do so as soon as possible, the obligation continuing till it is fulfilled.

3. Whoever deliberately injures another's property, is bound to make up for the damage done.

4. If the person to whom restitution is due cannot be found, the thief is not allowed to retain the stolen article, nor to be in any way enriched by his theft; as the axiom puts it : nemini fraus sua patrocinari debet, "no one should be benefited by his injustice", he must then make such disposal of the stolen article or its price, as he can reasonably judge its owner would approve; for instance, he could give it to the poor.

5. Restitution is also due for losses caused to any one by killing, wounding, or disabling him from work by depriving another in an unjust way of lucrative employment, etc.

6. If he who has personally done the wrong is unable or unwilling to repair it, those who have co-operated in the injustice are obliged to do so. Such co-operation consists in commanding or advising the unjust act, in giving one leave to do it, in praising or sheltering the thief, or in knowingly doing any thing that contributes to the evil effect; also by sharing in the spoils, one assumes the duty of restitution.

329. When serious injury is deliberately done, the sin is mortal. One who frequently takes small sums with the intention of accumulating a large sum of stolen money, commits a mortal sin. So too, if many persons combine to inflict a great injury, each consents to a grievous wrong. How great must an injury be that it may be called serious? That depends on various considerations. In practice, the following rule is laid down by a distinguished moralist: In this country, to take a quarter of a dollar from a poor beggar, a dollar from a common laborer, two dollars from a mechanic, three from a moderately rich man, or five from even the richest, would be considered a grievous wrong (Sabetti, Theol. Mor. n. 404).

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