THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT : "Thou shalt not steal"

Importance Of Instruction On This Commandment

In the early ages of the Church, it was customary to impress on the minds of hearers the nature and force of this Commandment. This we learn from the reproof uttered by the Apostle against some who were most earnest in deterring others from vices, in which they themselves were found freely to indulge: Thou, therefore, that teachest another, teachest not thyself: thou that preachest that men should not steal, stealest. The salutary effect of such instructions was not only to correct a vice then very prevalent, but also to repress quarrels, litigation and other evils which generally grow out of theft. Since in these our days men are unhappily addicted to the same vices, with their consequent misfortunes and evils, the pastor, following the example of the holy Fathers and Doctors, should strongly insist on this point and explain with diligent care the force and meaning of this Commandment.

This Commandment A Proof Of The Love Of God Towards Us And A Claim On Our Gratitude

In the first place the pastor should exercise care and industry in declaring the infinite love of God for man. Not satisfied with having fenced round, so to say, our lives, our persons and our reputation, by means of the two Commandments, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not commit adultery, God defends and places a guard over our property and possessions, by adding the prohibition, Thou shalt not steal. These words can have no other meaning than that which we indicated above when speaking of the other Commandments. They declare that God forbids our worldly goods, which are placed under His protection, to be taken away or injured by anyone.

Our gratitude to God, the author of this law, should be in proportion to the greatness of the benefit the law confers upon us. Now since the truest test of gratitude and the best means of returning thanks, consists not only in lending a willing ear to His precepts, but also in obeying them, the faithful are to be animated and encouraged to an observance of this Commandment.

Two Parts Of This Commandment

Like the preceding Commandments, this one also is divided into two parts. The first, which prohibits theft, is mentioned expressly; while the spirit and force of the second, which en­ forces kindliness and liberality towards our neighbour, are implied in the first part.

Negative Part of this Commandment

Stealing Forbidden

We shall begin with the prohibitory part of the Commandment, Thou shalt not steal. It is to be observed, that by the word steal is understood not only the taking away of anything from its rightful owner, privately and without his consent, but also the possession of that which belongs to another, contrary to the will, although not without the knowledge, of the true owner; else we are prepared to say that He who prohibits theft does not also prohibit robbery, which is accomplished by violence and injustice, whereas, according to St. Paul, extortioners shall not possess the kingdom of God, and their very company and ways should be shunned, as the same Apostle writes.

Theft And Robbery Forbidden

But though robbery is a greater sin than theft, inasmuch as it not only deprives another of his property, but also offers violence and insult to him; yet it cannot be a matter of surprise that the divine prohibition is expressed under the milder word, steal, instead of rob. There was good reason for this, since theft is more general and of wider extent than robbery, a crime which only they can commit who are superior to their neighbour in brute force and power. Furthermore, it is obvious that when lesser crimes are forbidden, greater enormities of the same sort are also prohibited.

Various Names Given To Stealing

The unjust possession and use of what belongs to another are expressed by different names, according to the diversity of the objects taken without the consent and knowledge of the owners To take any private property from a private individual is called theft; from the public, peculation. To enslave a freeman, or appropriate the slave of another is called man­stealing. To steal anything sacred is called sacrilege ­­ a crime most enormous and sinful, yet so common in our days that what piety and wisdom had set aside for the necessary expenses of divine worship, for the support of the ministers of religion, and the use of the poor is employed in satisfying individual avarice and the worst passions.

Desire Of Stealing Forbidden

But, besides actual theft, that is, the outward commission, the will and desire are also forbidden by the law of God. The law is spiritual and concerns the soul, the source of our thoughts and designs. From the heart, says our Lord in St. Matthew, come forth evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies.

Gravity Of The Sin Of Stealing

The grievousness of the sin of theft is sufficiently seen by the light of natural reason alone, for it is a violation of justice which gives to every man his own. The distribution and allotment of property, fixed from the beginning by the law of nations and confirmed by human and divine laws, must be considered as inviolable, and each one must be allowed secure possession of what justly belongs to him, unless we wish the overthrow of human society. Hence these words of the Apostle: Neither thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall possess the kingdom of God.

The long train of evils which this sin entails are a proof at once of its mischievousness and enormity. It gives rise to hasty and rash judgments, engenders hatred, originates enmities, and sometimes subjects the innocent to cruel condemnation.

What shall we say of the necessity imposed by God on all of satisfying for the injury done? Without restitution, says St. Augustine, the sin is not forgiven. The difficulty of making such restitution, on the part of those who have been in the habit of enriching themselves with their neighbour's property, we may learn not only from personal observation and reflection, but also from the testimony of the Prophet Habacuc: Woe to him that heapeth together what is not his own. How long also doth he load himself with thick clay? The possession of other men's property he calls thick clay, because it is difficult to emerge and extricate one's self from (ill­gotten goods).

The Chief Kinds Of Stealing

There are so many kinds of stealing that it is most difficult to enumerate them all; but since the others can be reduced to theft and robbery, it will be sufficient to speak of these two. To inspire the faithful with a detestation of such grievous crimes and to deter them from their commission, the pastor should use all care and diligence. Now let us consider these two kinds of stealing.

Various Forms Of Theft

They are guilty of theft who buy stolen goods, or retain the property of others, whether found, seized, or pilfered. If you have found, and not restored, says St. Augustine, you have stolen. If the true owner cannot, however, be discovered, whatever is found should go to the poor. If the finder refuse to make restitution, he gives evident proof that, were it in his power, he would make no scruple of stealing all that he could lay his hands on.

Those who, in buying or selling, have recourse to fraud and lying, involve themselves in the same guilt. The Lord will avenge their trickery. Those who sell bad and adulterated goods as real and genuine, or who defraud the purchasers by weight, measure, number, or rule, are guilty of a species of theft still more criminal and unjust. It is written in Deuteronomy: Thou shalt not have divers weights in thy bag. Do not any unjust thing, says Leviticus, in judgment, in rule, in weight or in measure. Let the balance be just, and the weights equal, the bushel just, and the sextary equal. And elsewhere it is written: Divers weights are an abomination before the Lord; a deceitful balance is not good.

It is, also, a downright theft, when labourers and artisans exact full wages from those to whom they have not given just and due labor. Again, dishonest servants and agents are no better than thieves, nay they are more detestable than other thieves; against these everything may be locked, while against a pilfering servant nothing in a house can be secure by bolt or lock.

They, also, who obtain money under pretence of poverty, or by deceitful words, may be said to steal, and their guilt is aggravated since they add falsehood to theft.

Persons charged with offices of public or private trust, who altogether neglect, or but indifferently perform their duties, while they enjoy the salary and emoluments of such offices, are also to be reckoned in the number of thieves.

To enumerate the various other modes of theft, invented by the ingenuity of avarice, which is versed in all the arts of making money, would be a tedious and, as already said, a most difficult task.

Various Forms Of Robbery

The pastor, therefore, should next come to treat of robbery, which is the second general division of these crimes. First, he should admonish the Christian people to bear in mind the teaching of the Apostle: They that will become rich fall into temptation, and the snare of the devil; and never to forget the rule: All things whatsoever you will that men do to you, do you also to them; and always to bear in mind the words of Tobias: See thou never do to another what thou wouldst hate to have done to thee by another.

Robbery is more comprehensive than theft. Those who pay not the labourer his hire are guilty of robbery, and are exhorted to repentance by St. James in these words: Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries, which shall come upon you. He adds the reason for their repentance: Behold the hire of the labourers, who have reaped down your fields, which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth: and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. This sort of robbery is strongly condemned in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Malachy, and Tobias.

Among those who are guilty of robbery are also included persons who do not pay, or who turn to other uses or appropriate to themselves, customs, taxes, tithes and such revenues, which are owed to the Church or civil authorities.

To this class also belong usurers, the most cruel and relentless of extortioners, who by their exorbitant rates of interest, plunder and destroy the poor. Whatever is received above the capital and principal, be it money, or anything else that may be purchased or estimated by money, is usury; for it is written in Ezechiel: He hath not lent upon usury, nor taken an increase; and in Luke our Lord says: Lend, hoping for nothing thereby. Even among the pagans usury was always considered a most grievous and odious crime. Hence the question, "What is usury ?" was answered: "What is murder?" And, indeed, he who lends at usury sells the same thing twice, or sells that which has no real existence.

Corrupt judges, whose decisions are venal, and who, bought over by money or other bribes, decide against the just claims of the poor and needy, also commit robbery.

Those who defraud their creditors, who deny their just debts, and also those who purchase goods on their own, or on another's credit, with a promise to pay for them at a certain time, and do not keep their word, are guilty of the same crime of robbery. And it is an aggravation of their guilt that, in consequence of their want of punctuality and their fraud, prices are raised to the great injury of the public. To such persons seem to apply the words of David: The sinner shall borrow, and not pay again.

But what shall we say of those rich men who exact with rigour what they lend to the poor, even though the latter are not able to pay them, and who, disregarding God's law, take as security even the necessary clothing of the unfortunate debtors ? For God says: If thou take of thy neighbour a garment in pledge, thou shalt give it him again before sunset, for that same is the only thing wherewith he is covered, the clothing of his body, neither hath he any other to sleep in: if he cry to me I will hear him, because I am compassionate. Their rigorous exaction is justly termed rapacity, and therefore robbery.

Among those whom the holy Fathers pronounced guilty of robbery are persons who, in times of scarcity, hoard up their corn, thus culpably rendering supplies scarcer and dearer. This holds good with regard to all necessaries of life and sustenance. These are they against whom Solomon utters this execration: He that hideth up corn, shall be cursed among the people. Such persons the pastor should warn of their guilt, and should reprove with more than ordinary freedom; he should explain to them at length the punishments which await such sins.

So much for what the seventh Commandment forbids.

Positive Part of this Commandment

Restitution Enjoined

We now come to the positive part of this Commandment, in which the first thing to be considered is satisfaction or restitution; for without restitution the sin is not forgiven.

Who Are Held To Restitution

But as the law of making restitution to the injured party is binding not only on the person who commits theft, but also on all who cooperate in the sin, it is necessary to explain who are indispensably bound to this satisfaction or restitution. There are several classes (who are thus bound).

The first consists of those who order others to steal, and who are not only the authors and accomplices of theft, but also the most criminal among thieves.

Another class embraces those, who, when they cannot command others to commit theft persuade and encourage it. These, since they are like the first class in intention, though unlike them in power, are equally guilty of theft.

A third class is composed of those who consent to the theft committed by others.

The fourth class is that of those who are accomplices in, and derive gain from theft; if that can be called gain, which, unless they repent, consigns them to everlasting torments. Of them David says: If thou didst see a thief, thou didst run with him.

The fifth class of thieves are those who, having it in their power to prohibit theft, so far from opposing or preventing it, fully and freely suffer and sanction its commission.

The sixth class is constituted of those who are well aware that the theft was committed, and when it was committed; and yet, far from mentioning it, pretend they know nothing about it.

The last class comprises all who assist in the accomplishment of theft, who guard, defend, receive or harbour thieves.

All these are bound to make restitution to those from whom anything has been stolen, and are to be earnestly exhorted to the discharge of so necessary a duty.

Neither are those who approve and commend thefts entirely innocent of this crime. Children also who steal from their parents, and wives who steal from their husbands are not guiltless of theft.

Almsdeeds Enjoined

This Commandment also implies an obligation to sympathise with the poor and needy, and to relieve their difficulties and distresses by our means and good offices. Concerning this subject, which cannot be insisted on too often or too strongly, the pastor will find abundant matter to enrich his discourses in the works of St. Cyprian, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and other eminent writers on almsdeeds.

Inducements To Practice Almsgiving

The pastor, therefore, should encourage the faithful to be willing and anxious to assist those who have to depend on charity, and should make them realise the great necessity of giving alms and of being really and practically liberal to the poor, by reminding them that on the last day God will condemn and consign to eternal fires those who have omitted and neglected the duty of almsgiving, while on the contrary He will praise and introduce into His heavenly country those who have exercised mercy towards the poor. These two sentences have been already pronounced by the lips of Christ the Lord: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you; and: Depart front me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.

Priests should also cite those texts which are calculated to persuade (to the performance of this important duty): Give and it shall be given to you. They should dwell on the promise of God, the richest and most abundant that can be conceived: There is no man who hath left house, or brethren, etc., that shall not receive an hundred times as much now in this time and in the world to come life everlasting; and he should add these words of our Lord: Make unto yourselves friends of the mammon of iniquity, that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.

Ways Of Giving Alms

They should also explain the parts of this necessary duty, so that whoever is unable to give may at least lend to the poor what they need to sustain life, according to the command of Christ our Lord: Lend, hoping for nothing thereby. The happiness of doing this is thus expressed by holy David: Acceptable is the man that showeth mercy and lendeth.

But if we are not able to give to those who must depend on the charity of others for their sustenance, it is an act of Christian piety, as well as a means of avoiding idleness, to procure by our labor and industry what is necessary for the relief of the poor. To this the Apostle exhorts all by his own example. For yourselves, he says to the Thessalonians, know how you ought to imitate us; and again, writing to the same people: Use your endeavour to be quiet, and that you do your own business, and work with your own, hands, as we commanded you; and to the Ephesians: He that stole, let him steal no more; but rather let him labour working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have something to give to him that suffereth need.'

Frugality Is Enjoined

We should also practice frugality and draw sparingly on the kindness of others, that we may not be burden or a trouble to them. The exercise of considerateness is conspicuous in all the Apostles, but preeminently so in St. Paul. Writing to the Thessalonians he says: You remember, brethren, our labour and toil; working night and day lest we should be chargeable to any of you, we preached amongst you the gospel of God. And in another place the same Apostle says: In labour and in toil, we worked night and day, lest we should be burdensome to any of you.

Sanction Of This Commandment

The Punishment Of Its Violation

To inspire the faithful with an abhorrence of all infamous sins against this Commandment, the pastor should have recourse to the Prophets and the other inspired writers, to show the detestation in which God holds the crimes of theft and robbery, and the awful threats which He denounces against their perpetrators. Hear this, exclaims the Prophet Amos, you that crush the poor, and make the needy of the land to fail, saying: "When will the month be over, and we shall sell our wares, and the sabbath, and we shall open the corn; that we may lessen the measure, and increase the sickle, and may convey in deceitful balances? Many passages of the same kind may be found in Jeremias, Proverbs,' and Ecclesiasticus. Indeed it cannot be doubted that such crimes are the seeds from which have sprung in great part the evils which in our times oppress society.

The Reward Of Observing This Commandment

That Christians may accustom themselves to those acts of generosity and kindness towards the poor and the needy which are inculcated by the second part of this Commandment, the pastor should place before them those ample rewards which God promises in this life and in the next to the beneficent and the bountiful.

Excuses for Stealing Refuted

As there are not wanting those who would even excuse their thefts, these are to be admonished that God will accept no excuse for sin; and that their excuses, far from extenuating, serve only greatly to aggravate their guilt.

The Plea Of Rank And Position

How insufferable the vanity of those men of exalted rank who excuse themselves by alleging that they act not from cupidity or avarice, but stoop to take what belongs to others only from a desire to maintain the grandeur of their families and of their ancestors, whose repute and dignity must fall, if not upheld by the possession of another man's property. Of this harmful error they are to be disabused; and they are to be convinced that the only means to preserve and augment their wealth and to enhance the glory of their ancestors is to obey the will of God and observe His Commandments. Once His will and Commandments are contemned, the stability of property, no matter how securely settled, is overturned; kings are dethroned, and hurled from the highest stations of honour; while the humblest individuals, men too, towards whom they cherished the most implacable hatred, are sometimes called by God to occupy their place.

It is incredible to what degree the divine wrath is kindled against such offenders, and this we know from the testimony of Isaias, who records these words of God: Thy princes are faithless, companions of thieves; they all love bribes, they run after rewards. Therefore, saith the Lord, the God of Hosts, the mighty one of Israel: Ah! I will comfort myself over my adversaries; and I will be revenged of my enemies; and I will turn my hand to thee, and I will clean purge away thy dross.

The Plea Of Greater Ease And Elegance

Some there are, who plead in justification of such conduct, not the ambition of maintaining splendour and glory, but a desire of acquiring the means of living in greater ease and elegance. These are to be refuted, and should be shown how impious are the words and conduct of those who prefer their own ease to the will and the glory of God whom, by neglecting His Commandments, we offend extremely. And yet what real advantage can there be in theft? Of how many very serious evils is it not the source? Confusion and repentance, says Ecclesiasticus, is upon a thief. But even though no disadvantage overtake the thief, he offers an insult to the divine name, opposes the most holy will of God, and contemns His salutary precepts. From hence result all error, all dishonesty, all impiety.

The Plea Of The Other's Wealth

But do we not sometimes hear the thief contend that he is not guilty of sin, because he steals from the rich and the wealthy, who, in his mind, not only suffer no injury, but do not even feel the loss? Such an excuse is as wretched as it is baneful.

The Plea Of Force Of Habit

Others imagine that they should be excused, because they have contracted such a habit of stealing as not to be able easily to refrain from such desires and practices. If such persons listen not to the admonition of the Apostle: He that stole, let him now steal no more, let them recollect that one day, whether they like it or not, they will become accustomed to an eternity of torments.

The Plea Of Favourable Opportunity

Some excuse themselves by saying that the opportunity presented itself. The proverb is well known: Those who are not thieves are made so by opportunity. Such persons are to be disabused of their wicked idea by reminding them that it is our duty to resist every evil propensity. If we yield instant obedience to every inordinate impulse, what measure, what limits will there be to crime and disorder? Such an excuse, therefore,­ is of the lowest character, or rather is an avowal of a complete want of restraint and justice. To say that you do not commit sin, because you have no opportunity of sinning, is almost to acknowledge that you are always prepared to sin when opportunity offers.

The Plea Of Revenge

There are some who say that they steal in order to gratify revenge, having themselves suffered the same injury from others. To such offenders it should be answered first of all that no one is allowed to return injury for injury; next that no person can be a judge in his own cause; and finally that still less can it be lawful to punish one man for the wrong done you by another.

The Plea Of Financial Embarrassment

Finally, some find a sufficient justification of theft in their own embarrassments, alleging that they are overwhelmed with debt, which they cannot pay off otherwise than by theft. Such persons should be given to understand that no debt presses more heavily upon all men than that which we mention each day in these words of the Lord's Prayer: Forgive us our debts. Hence it is the height of folly to be willing to increase our debt to God by new sin, in order to be able to pay our debts to men. It is much better to be consigned to prison than to be cast into the eternal torments of hell; it is by far a greater evil to be condemned by the judgment of God, than by that of man. Hence it becomes our duty to have recourse to the assistance and mercy of God from whom we can obtain whatever we need.

There are also other excuses, which, however, the judicious and zealous pastor will not find it difficult to meet, so that thus he may one day be blessed with a people who are followers of good works.