The biblical precept of the Seventh Commandment, like the Sixth, is a short imperative, You shall not steal. It is the same in both versions of the Decalogue. The Tenth Commandment, as already seen, is that part of the Ten Commandments which forbids coveting what belongs to someone else, whether his house, servant, ox, donkey, or anything else. Deuteronomy distinguishes between coveting your neighbors wife, and setting your heart on other possessions, including the neighbors field (Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19).
Like the Sixth and Ninth Commandments, the Seventh and Tenth not only forbid actually taking another persons property, but even internally desiring to appropriate it. The reason for both prohibitions is obvious. Before God, sin consists in the will acting contrary to the will of God. There would be no stealing with the hands if there had not first been stealing with the heart.
Christ repeated the Seventh Commandment not to steal (Mark 10:19). He also repeated the frequent Old Testament prohibition of fraud. But once again He elevated the Mosaic Law far above what it had been before God became man to teach human beings how to reach heaven. The Church has built on the gospel and developed a profound morality of ownership and poverty that has literally changed the face of the earth.
Control of Covetousness
If there is one thing that Christ brought out plainly it is that human society has inequality. Some people have more of this worlds goods than others.
If we look more closely at the reason for this inequality, we find it is due to various causes.
God simply gives some people more than others.
Some people are more enterprising and energetic than others.
There is injustice among human beings. Depriving others of what they deserve, preventing them from obtaining even what they need, exploiting the work and talents of others, and outright stealing are all notorious forms of injustice that have become part of world history.
There is such a thing as recognizing inequality and not allowing it to dominate our thoughts. Otherwise, what others have can become the source of envy. Envy in turn can change covetousness into greed, and greed then leads to all kinds of sin.
The secret of keeping the Seventh Commandment is to observe the Tenth. Either we master our minds from comparing what others have and what we lack, or our hands will seek to appropriate other peoples possessions.
Poverty of Detachment
Time and again Christ preached the need for internal detachment from material possessions. His conversation with a man who felt he was being cheated is typical:
A man in the crowd said to Him, Master tell my brother to give me a share of our inheritance. My friend, He replied, who appointed me your judge or the arbitor of your claims? Then He said to them, Watch and be on your guard against avarice of any kind, for a mans life is not made secure by what he owns even when he has more than he needs (Luke 12:13-15).
Internal poverty of detachment, as proclaimed by Christ, goes beyond the avoidance of covetousness taught in the Decalogue. Detachment means not only not coveting what belongs to someone else: It means not coveting any earthly possession, period. In Christs language we are not to set our hearts on any temporal goods, no matter how lawfully acquired. Our hearts should be set on the treasures of heaven, where neither moth consumes nor thieves can break in and steal.
Detachment is to be practiced by all who call themselves Christian, the rich and the poor alike. Those who are rich are to be detached by not being proud, and by sharing their possessions with those who are poor. Those who are poor are to be detached by not envying or worse still, hating those who are rich.
Christs focus in treating of earthly wealth was on eternity. He kept telling His followers to set their sights on the Horizon beyond this life, and not to allow preoccupation with material things to blind them to the true riches of the spirit. The body will die, but the soul lives on. It is sheer wisdom to accumulate the spiritual treasures of grace and virtue that have lasting value beyond the limitations of space and time.
The Savior spoke of money. He did not deny its use in this world. He even told the disciples: Use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into the tents of eternity. But He immediately qualified. Money has to be used, yet in such a way that it does not become our master. You cannot be the slave of both God and money (Luke 16:9-13).
This is the central theme of Christs message about material goods. We must keep our hearts from being enslaved by any creature. We must be enslaved only to the Creator.
Stealing and Restitution
There are several words that mean almost the same thing, but they are somewhat different.
Theft is the most general term for taking what belongs to someone else, without the owners consent.
Stealing is theft but implies that something is taken secretly and not only without the owners permission, but without his knowledge.
Robbery is also theft, but violence or intimidation is used to force the owner to give up what he possesses.
Burglary is again theft but committed in such a way that the thief breaks in on the owners premises or property with the intention to steal.
Larceny is theft in which someones property is removed from the place where it belongs in order to be appropriated by the thief.
Other terms are also used, and the laws of all nations are filled with a variety of terms for unlawfully taking someone elses property. Evidently the Seventh Commandment is frequently broken by many people.
What is less clear is that property cries out for its owner. What has been stolen never really becomes owned by the thief. It belongs to its original possessor, no matter how much or how little the stolen object may be, and no matter how long a time may have elapsed since the thieving took place.
Always implied is that the owner wants back what was taken; that the stolen object is precious to him; and that he is reasonable in his unwillingness to give up the ownership of what justly belongs to him.
Restitution, therefore, of the stolen goods is an obligation that follows naturally on stealing. The seriousness of restitution depends on the value of what was stolen; on the desire of the owner to have his property restored; and on the practical difficulty or even possibility of restoring the stolen material.
So important is restitution, that the willingness to restore what was stolen, or its equivalent, is a condition for having the sin of theft forgiven by God.
Cheating and Gambling
There are numerous forms of cheating. In general, to cheat is to deceive by trickery or fraud to gain something a person wants. People can cheat to obtain academic credit or a degree in school, or employment, or recognition, or social standing. For our purpose, cheating is a form of stealing to obtain something of material value like property or money. The means used are always some kind of fraud.
Cheating is always sinful, in fact twice over; once for using deceit to obtain something and once again for depriving another person or even others of what belongs to them. As with stealing, cheating calls for restitution.
In a class by itself is gambling, which the Catholic Church does not consider sinful by itself. To gamble is to stake money or some other valuable on chance, or a future event that is unknown or uncertain to those who take part.
Gambling was commonly practiced in pagan Rome. On Calvary after the soldiers had crucified Christ they decided to gamble on who would get the Saviors seamless garment: Lets throw dice, they said to one another, to decide who is to have it. In this way the words of Scripture were fulfilled, They cast lots for my clothes. This is exactly what the soldiers did (John 19:24).
But then we hear that after Christs ascension Peter told the other ten apostles they should choose someone who had known the Savior to replace the traitor Judas. There were two leading candidates. So they drew lots for them and as the lot fell to Matthias, he was listed as one of the twelve apostles. It was assumed that having asked God to show us which of these two you have chosen, the choice of Matthias by lot was really by divine inspiration (Acts 1:25-26).
Yet gambling and wagering can be even seriously sinful. When the gamblers resources are exposed to such loss as to gravely harm his dependents or himself, when gambling involves dishonesty, or weakens human society it is contrary to the will of God. Experience shows that gambling can become an addiction, in which case a person should simply give up gambling altogether.
One of the features of the modern world is its gradual lessening of space and time as a result of the communications revolution. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council was the first general council of the Catholic Church in modern times. One of the strongest imperatives of Vatican II is the duty to practice social justice.
Broadly defined, social justice is the virtue that enables us to cooperate with other people in developing a society whose laws and institutions better serve the common good.
Each person must, of course, do his own part in the practice of this virtue. But the very nature of society requires that individuals work together with others through organized bodies. Otherwise the good achieved will be minimal, and the presence of alien forces may neutralize even the most zealous efforts to practice the works of mercy.
Three passages from three modern popes point up the serious, even desperate need for social justice to be practiced according to the norms of Catholic Christianity.
The rise of Communism is a warning to Christians to work for a more just distribution of the material possessions of the earth.
Then only will the economic and social order be soundly established
when it offers to all
all those goods which the wealth and resources of nature, technical science, and the corporate organization of social affairs can give (Pius XI, Encyclical on Atheistic Communism 52).
There is a right to private ownership that stems from the natural law. And Marxism, which denies this right, is a philosophy that ignores the spontaneous desire of every person to possess and acquire something as ones own. But this natural desire may not deny or minimize the social and public character of ownership.
Private property does not give anyone an absolute and unconditional right [of ownership]. No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others are lacking the necessities of life (Paul VI, Encyclical Populorum progressio, 22-24).
One more aspect of social justice is crucial. Whatever else Christ did, He elevated the virtue of altruism from the practice of justice to the highest form of charity.
Whereas justice respects the rights of others and does not enrich oneself by depriving another, charity deprives oneself to enrich another. Where justice asks: what may I not take away from another? charity asks: What does another person need that I can give?
So many social reformers urge that justice be practiced, but they forget that justice alone is not enough. In fact, in the name of justice the worst kind of injustice can be done.
Very often programs which start from the idea of justice . . . in practice suffer from distortions, although they appeal to the idea of justice. Nevertheless experience shows that other negative forces have gained the upper hand over justice. Such are spite, hatred and even cruelty . . . The experience of the past and of our own time shows that justice alone is not enough. It can even lead to the destruction of itself, if that deeper power which is love, is not allowed to shape human life (John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptor hominis, 12).
St. Pauls praise of charity was not romantic poetry when he wrote that: Love is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish (I Corinthians 13:4-5). Justice by itself can be very impatient and unkind, jealous, boastful and conceited, rude and profoundly selfish. This is not surprising once we realize that God had to become man to teach us the difference between not stealing, which is justice, and giving, which is love.
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
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