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
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
Pocket Catholic Catechism