The Seventh Commandment: Theft
Thou shalt not steal. – Exodus 20:15
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, number 2401, says, “The seventh commandment forbids unjustly taking or keeping the goods of one’s neighbor and wronging him in any way with respect to his goods. It commands justice and charity in the care of earthly goods and the fruits of men’s labor. For the sake of the common good, it requires respect for the universal destination of goods and respect for the right to private property. Christian life strives to order this world’s goods to God and to fraternal charity.”
There are many detailed consequences of the prohibition of theft in the seventh commandment, as there are with each of the commandments. One breaks this commandment by unjustly taking something that belongs to someone else, which is what we normally mean by theft or robbery. Another way that someone can steal from another is by unjustly withholding something that belongs to someone else, for example, if your neighbor loans you their lawnmower and you refuse to return it. One indirectly breaks the commandment against stealing by unjustly damaging or destroying someone’s property, for example by slashing their car tire, because this deprives them of the use of their property.
In each of these cases, and there may be others that I didn’t think of, I was careful to say “unjustly taking,” “unjustly withholding,” and “unjustly damaging.” That it is unjust is part of the definition, because we can think of instances where someone can be justified in doing each of those things. For example, you are justified in taking the property of another person if the court orders them to give it to you in a trial or lawsuit. You are justified in withholding someone’s property if you have good reason to believe they will use it to commit a crime. You are justified in damaging someone’s property if you have to do so to help them, as firefighters do when they use the jaws of life to cut out someone trapped in their car.
We have to think carefully about moral issues like this, because we’re very good at fooling ourselves to excuse our sins. I might say that it’s not actually theft for me to scam you out of your money, because you gave it to me and I didn’t take it, but reasonable people would conclude that tricking someone out of their money is a type of taking it and is, therefore, theft. I can also excuse my sin of theft by saying that you don’t have a right to your property, maybe because I don’t believe in the right to private property at all or because I think you don’t deserve something that you have. Since we can find reasons to justify these types of actions, we have to be honest with ourselves about our motivations. Why am I really doing this?
How can I fight against temptations to sins of stealing, greed, and theft? The three things that help us fight these temptations are prayer, avoiding the near occasion of sin, and acts of generosity. Prayer is the first and best defense against sin and temptation. Prayer is an act of humility in admitting our struggles and weaknesses and asking for God’s help. Prayer opens us to grace which God uses to help us grow in holiness. Prayer teaches us to reflect on God and the mysteries of God and on ourselves and our motivations, so that we can grow in the likeness of Christ. We can also fight this temptation by avoiding the near occasion of it. The near occasion means the situation or circumstances where we’re able to commit the sin. If I avoid the near occasion then it will be harder for me to fall into the sin and less likely that I’ll be tempted to it in the first place. Finally, we can practice generosity. If greed is the primary motivation for stealing, then we need to strengthen the virtue that is opposed to greed, which is generosity. When I feal tempted to steal, then I should commit and act of generosity instead. As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 28, “He that stole, let him now 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.”
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Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.