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What’s mine, is God’s. And What’s Yours is God’s. A presentation on the 7th Commandment

May 31, 2012

Some one stole my iPhone today, so I thought, maybe it would be good to post on the the 7th Commandment: You shall not steal!

At first glance this commandment seems pretty simple and straight-forward: “Don’t take anything that doesn’t belong to you without permission.” True enough, the seventh commandment does call us to respect the rights of others in regard to their personal property. This understanding alone, however, is incomplete.

The seventh commandment has very far reaching implications by calling upon everyone to act with justice in regards to the goods of this world. For example, take note of the following quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church and see how wide ranging the sins against the seventh Commandment are:

The seventh commandment forbids theft, that is, [unjustly taking or keeping] another’s property against the reasonable will of the owner…deliberate retention of goods lent or of objects lost; business fraud; paying unjust wages; forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another… appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise; work poorly done; tax evasion; forgery of checks and invoices; excessive expenses and waste. Willfully damaging private or public property is also contrary to the moral law and requires reparation. (Catechism 2408-2409)

And, while the seventh commandment clearly involves questions of the rights to personal property, it has extensive social justice implications as well, since the unjust distribution of goods amounts to a form of theft. In order to understand the social justice implications of this commandment it is necessary to consider some principles regarding creation and our stewardship of it. Then we go on to principles regrading the respect for the goods of others.

I. The universal destination of goods – This principle of the universal destination of goods is described by the Catechism in the following way:

This means that the goods of creation are destined for the whole human race…In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself. The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (Catechism 2402, 2404).

Stewards – God who is the giver of every good gift, generously gives us the whole of creation. But we are the stewards, not the owners of creation. A steward is expected manage the properties under his care according to the true owner’s instructions and manifest wishes. In countless passages of the Old Testament as well as the New, God commands a generous stewardship of his creation. We are not to hoard things or be selfish. We are to share the goods we have received with others. This is particularly true for those who have strong influence in the economy or who have received special business-related skills:

Goods of production – material or immaterial – such as land, factories, practical or artistic skills, oblige their possessors to employ them in ways that will benefit the greatest number. (Catechism 2405)

Reiteration – Thus the catechism while acknowledging the right to private property justly acquired, nevertheless emphasizes that such property rights must be understood in the light of the universality of God’s gifts to the whole of mankind:

The right to private property, acquired by work or received from others by inheritance or gift, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. (Catechism 2403).

II. The principle of moderation A second principle in the possession and use of goods is moderation. Greed is the insatiable desire for more and it leads some to hoard the goods of this earth or to squander them for selfish purposes. The Catechism teaches that:  those who hold goods for use and consumption should use them with moderation, reserving the better part for guests, for the sick and the poor. (Catechism 2405).

Greed not only leads to an unjust distribution of goods, it also frequently leads to harmful effects through pollution and to the dissipation of resources. In addition, moderation is not only a virtue for the present time, it also regards the future.

The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity.[cf Gen 1:28-31] Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation. (Catechism 2415)

III. Injustice is a form of theft It is evident then, according to the Catechism, that to willfully neglect either the principle of moderation or the principle of the “universal destination of goods” amounts to a form of theft. This is because it neglects the just distribution of goods which God gave for all.

Thus, the Catechism upholds the need for justice and charity in the care and use of earthly goods. Care and concern for the poor should be considered an integral part of the justice and charity to which we are called.

The seventh commandant also provides an important basis for the social doctrine of the Church. This is an important body of Church moral teaching regarding economic and social matters and how they relate to the fundamental rights of the human person. There is simply not enough room in this context to consider all these moral teachings in detail but they are found collected here: Compendium of Social Doctrine

IV. Avoiding extremes The heart of these teachings however is always to emphasize the rights and the dignity of the human person. This dignity must never be undermined by collectivist systems, or  by considerations that are purely economic or where profit is the only norm and end of economic activity. In all her pronouncements the Church has steered a middle course which has found much to critique in both communism and capitalism as well as other ideologies and economic theories:

The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modem times with “communism” or “socialism.” She has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of “capitalism,” individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor. Regulating the economy solely by centralized planning perverts the basis of social bonds; regulating it solely by the law of the marketplace fails social justice, for there are many human needs which cannot be satisfied by the market. Reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended. (Catechism 2425).

There are other matters spoken of in the Catechism relating to the social doctrine of the Church that flow from the seventh commandment. To intentionally neglect them amounts also to a form of theft: Failing to pay a just wage, Failing to perform a just day’s work for a just day’s wage, Engaging in unfair or unjustly discriminatory hiring practices, And subordinating basic human rights to production schedules or market forces.

V. The duty to work The Catechism in its consideration of the seventh commandment also admonishes every Christian regarding the duty of work:

Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another.[cf Gen 1:28] Hence work is a duty: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.”(2 Thess 3:10) Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him. It can also be redemptive. (Catechism 2427)

Clearly “work” here refers to more than a wage paying job. Work includes all the ways in which we are expected to contribute to household and community tasks. It must be recalled that God expects us to put our gifts which we have received from him at the service of one another.

The unreasonable refusal to work is a form of theft since it robs the human community of necessary human resources, deprives it of gifts God has given, and all the while still draws on the fruits of others’ labors. This reflection clearly presupposes that one is able to work in some fashion and not prevented from contributing to the human family due to illness of some other serious reason.

VI. Respect for the goods of others – Our work is not only a blessing for the community, it is also a blessing for the individual and his or her family. For this reason, the seventh commandment also protects and honors the fruits of our labor.

Everyone should be able to draw from work the means of providing for his life and that of his family, and of serving the human community..The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. (Catechism 2402, 2428).

Hence the personal or private property of individuals that is justly attained is to be respected by others. It is not to be used by others without the explicit permission of the one to whom it belongs. If it is damaged intentionally or by accident, reparation must be made.

By respecting the property of others we honor their freedom and dignity. We also acknowledge respect the duties of others when we respect their property for it is out of the fruits of their labors that they must support their family and meet their obligations to the community. In this way respect for private property is also related to the common good.

VII. Respect for the intellectual and artistic works of others – Individuals not only have tangible goods like houses and cars (and, might I add, iPhones), but many have also created works of art, written books, performed and recorded music, patented ideas and so forth. To use or take these goods against the reasonable will of the owner or creator, is usually a form of theft. Today many are quite casual in the way they share recorded music and other creative products. Often the artist, author, patent and or copyright owner is not compensated. Again, other things being equal, this is theft.

It is true that there are norms for something known as fair use, and it is not always possible, especially in the “wild west” of the Internet, to find the owner of photo or creative work. There are also many things that exist in what is usually called the “public domain,” and things like this may be used freely.

It is not always easy to know what exactly is proprietary and what is public domain, or how much use of a volume of work is “fair use” and what is going to far. As the Internet grows and matures, some of these answers are getting clearer, and when one comes to know that something is proprietary, one ought not use the art, music or other matter without permission and remuneration.

Further, copying and sharing music or professional movies is almost never allowed, and ought not be done. If one uses an brief excerpt, (often considered fair use) they should refer the viewer or listener to the whole work and identify the artist or author in hope that others might buy the complete work. Most artists and authors actually appreciate a little publicity, but no one appreciates outright theft.

VIII. The call to respect our neighbors’ goods is ultimately a call to respect our neighbor. In this way the seventh commandment, like all the others, is a solemn reaffirmation of the dignity of the human person. By setting forth our responsibilities with regard to this world’s goods God calls us to honor our neighbor, he also reminds us of the nobility of our call to be stewards of his creation.

Thus, the seventh commandment is a rich treasury of moral reflection for us. So, whoever took my iPhone, I hope they’ll read this and repent. I’d like it back! But preparing this reflection, I see that I too have much to ponder, for the 7th Commandment reminds me I am a steward and will be held to account for how I use the goods of this earth for the benefit not only of myself, but also of others.

Comments (29)

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  1. kc says:

    Thank you so much for this well-researched and informative article. It is just what I needed to hear tonight after having a conversation with a relative of mine about one of her elderly acquiantences, who I will call “Jane.” Until recently, Jane was a millionaire who lived in a mansion and owned many other properties. Although she supposedly donated “a lot” of money to the church over the years, Jane was very miserly when it came to her own children (and very unloving), in violation of Catechism 2402, 2404, which you described above. Now Jane apparently lives in a nursing home for the poor, run by Catholic nuns for FREE. My relative felt so sorry for the woman, but I was aghast about the injustice. As far as I am concerned, Jane, who lived like the Queen of Sheba for her entire life, only to squander away all her money towards the end, is a thief. She is stealing a spot in this nursing home that could be going to someone like my grandma, who sacraficed everything for family, working hard in a factory to support her children, never keeping a cent for herself. I am so disgusted by rich people like Jane who take take take and never give. It’s no wonder why their children don’t speak to them (my grandma has family who adore her and will always be there for her care). God bless the nuns for their infinite compassion and ability to see the humanity in even the ugliest of creatures like Jane. They are really something.

  2. BHG says:

    There is another theft to be mindful of: unjust taxation. Theft by the state is also theft.

  3. Nick says:

    Moral question:

    Most teenagers and kids online pirate content: games, music, etc. They use roms to make video games (“romhacks”), they stream and upload movies for free viewing, and the same goes for music and other content. Just as an example, YouTube has thousands of videos of romhacks, movies and shows, and music (sometimes with lyrics too).

    I consider online (and offline or real-life) piracy a sin, but, would love to hear the Church’s voice on the matter.

    • Nick says:

      Also, to clarify on copyright issues:

      Roms are illegal, because it infringes on the company’s rights. Not sure if it’s grounded in the Moral Law, though.

      • Bender says:

        The issue of copyright raises a rather interesting question —

        Just exactly how moral is it for the USCCB to assert a copyright in the Bible???

        • Yes, well don’t get me started on the whole NAB thing. I know many Bishops who themselves are also very frustrated. Of course the copyright is on the translation, not the Greek and Hebrew text. That said, the Protestants are happy to have their translations out there and being used by every one, and stingy Catholic bureaucrats withhold Catholic scripture texts and liturgical texts from wider use. It is a miracle that we finally got the breviary on line. For this blog I almost never use a Catholic translation of Scripture since the restrictions are so tight. Thus I use the NIV which has a wide reprint permission. Over at Biblos.com there are almost 70 translations available and only one is Catholic, the Douay which copyright I assume lapsed.

    • Well, as I say in the article, this is an emerging area so the Church’s voice is probably only going to include general norms. There are many technical distinctions. For example, I only understand about 1/3 of what you wrote. I don’t know what a romhack is, let alone have the capacity to morally analyze it. I suspect that it is an ability to overcome read-only memory, which sounds like theft. But again, I don’t know all the distinctions in these matters.

      • Nick says:

        I welcome the Church’s norms, especially if they’re general. I don’t wanna think of the Church as an indoctrinator who has to tell me everything. 🙂

  4. Jane says:

    The is also theft in terms of unjust taxation. Theft by the state is also theft. It is one thing, for example, to tax for purposes of defense, roads,police, firemen, even schools, welfare and health care (as long as subsidiarity is also respected). Taxation for purposes of such things as subsidizing state approved art or morally repugnant services, though, may be more theft than just use of goods. A principle not always considered in discussion of our civic duties and debates about what ought be done by government. In general, people have a better shot at the just direction of their own goods than the state does–bad as we are at it!

    • Yes, do you have a number or percentage that goes too far? I don’t disagree that our tax code has gotten way out of line, with half not paying any income tax and others (at least theoretically) paying a lot. I say theoretically since I have spoken with not a few wealthy people who are able to avoid the rates with the help of accountants and various sleights of hand (legal but very technical). Perhaps this explains why many who are wealthy still remain politically liberal, in the end it doesn’t cost them as much as some think. I’m not sure about any of this, what’s legal, what’s fair. As a lover of simplicity I’d personally love to scrap the income tax and replace it with a national sales tax. Then, what you pay is tied to consumption and everyone is part of the system. But again, I am no economist, just a lover of simplicity.

      • Jane says:

        My point is not so much percentage, though there is certainly a point at which the percentage itself becomes unjust and I think we might be there. When I started working, my father in law paid over half of his income in taxes every year; even today taxpaying folks work four months just to pay off their taxes. High income people work longer. Right now the government collects so much money because it has so many projects, not under its proper purview and not appropriate when you look at principles of subsidiarity and the ultimate destination of goods. Is it appropriate to tax anyone–which means taking money under force of law and arms if need be–that is what taxing is–to pay for Mapplethorpe exhibits or local, pork barrel museums or mohair subsidies or for that matter even mandatory, government schools given how badly government schools serve the people? I suspect if we trimmed back the federal outlay to things properly done only at that level, the tax rate would be just fine and the local management of local issues, and resulting competition for things like schools, would result in not only better services but stronger community in the religious as well as the civic sense. And just for the record–I am in the top 2% of incomes ($100,000 gets you into the top 10% by the way) and what I pay in taxes is outlandish, not minimal. Trust me, it costs me a bundle in taxes every year; please don’t fall victim to the idea that the rich don’t pay taxes. They do as long as they working for a living and earning income rather than dividends, investments and such (the law taxes income not wealth). It breaks my heart to see so much money go wasted by the government when I would prefer to direct it to the Catholic charities I already support. And yes, sales tax works for me too. Sadly, this is all commentary as the current system is too established to change absent a complete economic meltdown (which just might be coming our way). By the way, the other problem I have with the government taking over so much of what used to be charitable responsibility is that it separates us as people–it is our personal duty to see to the care of the poor. We can discharge it in community but it seems–and studies show–that the more government “help” there is (often counter productive) the less charitable people are. In part because they have less discretionary income but also in part because they feel no personal need to take care of the problem.

  5. Eva Marie says:

    You should borrow another iPhone and open the “Find iPhone” app and get yours back. If that fails you can at least send a “erase my iPhone” request to your stolen phone so that the thief won’t be able to access your data.

    I’ve tracked my friends iPhone this way across Chicago before and gotten it back.

    • Yes, I did these things. Who ever took knew to shut it down and thus the app could not find the phone. I did send a disable signal and also had Verizon place the phone on a stolen list so it can’t be resold. Etc…. but many thieves are ingenious (in a wicked way) and get around all this.

  6. David says:

    I am sorry about your I-phone but am grateful for your disputation on the 7th. commandment. In all of my years, I have never encountered a situation, problem, question, anything I can recall, that has not already been addressed by our Blessed Church, its Fathers, Leaders, and Founder. Thank you for the catechesis.

  7. Will says:

    Good post Msgr, sorry to hear about your iPhone.

  8. RichardC says:

    Monsignor, I am also sorry to hear that your phone was stolen. I can’t tell from this article if I am allowed to listen to music on youtube or not.

    • Yeah, I would be scrupulous, not all music played there is stolen. Different artists have different rules. If a musician doesn’t want his music played even as a background for a video he can inform Yotube and they have some algorithm to block the song. Other artists ask You tube to give a link to iTunes. Still others ask only that some reference be given by way of credit. When I use music I can’t always check with the artist or label. So I may use it and then give credit. If Youtube has instructions not to allow use, it wipes out the audio and I have my answer. I am less certain about entire movies being available on YouTube. I am surprised that is allowed at all. A clip is one thing, but the whole movie is another. I would not personally watch a whole movie on you tube unless I was sure it was licensed somehow.

      • RichardC says:

        Monsignor, your reply actually inspires me to be less scrupulous about listening to music on youtube because of the deleting algorithm you mention. Almost all of the songs I listen to have the artist and song title clearly labeled, so if the artist/record label didn’t want it on youtube, it would surely be removed–at the same time that it is being uploaded. Monsignor, any comment on watching entire movies over 60 years-old? Can we be confident that they are in the public domain and watch them?

        Resting Rabbit (Arvo Pärt – Spiegel Im Spiegel) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1pVFIoUEdA

  9. RichardC says:

    Also, suppose I like to go to Barnes and Nobles on Sunday afternoons and read about ten pages of a book. Suppose these ten page snippets end up in entire books being read. Should I thank the people who work at Barnes and Nobles for letting me read entire books that way?

    • Shame, shame, shame….

      • RichardC says:

        God willing, I on Monday, I am going to go to Barnes and Nobles and buy the books I read and have them sent to my sister as a gift. I can’t make up for everything I’ve read there, but they get my business when I buy books and book related stuff in general, so I my relationship with Barnes and Nobles isn’t completely one-sided.

  10. Noble Peacy says:

    Thanks for your reply soulsizzle. I have just been playing around with it, and it turns out that the elements were causing the problem. I have no idea why this is happening, as html elements are an in-built feature of wordpress. Perhaps it’s my host that’s causing the problem… Great tutorial anyway. It’s the only decent alternative example I have been able to find. Keep up the good work,nonshatter x

  11. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    I doubt the person who took your iPhone is someone who reads your blogs. Foregive us our trespasses as we foregive those who trespass against us, and lead us not intomtemptation, but deliver us from evil, amen.

  12. tz says:

    I’m not sure you “own” your iPhone in any ordinary sense of the word. Have you read all 55 pages of the EULA you had to agree to to do anything with it?

  13. jj says:

    You need your phone. I sure hope you got another one in a hurry! This upsets me so much. You must be living right (LOL)

  14. RichardC says:

    Timely reflection; hilarious video. I liked Columbo too.

  15. Cynthia BC says:

    As my daughter, one of her classmates, and I returned from a 5th-grade field trip downtown (chaperoning field trips surely is a penance worthy of at least three venial sins), the girls gazed with some dismay at all the graffitti within view of the Metro train.

    The graffitti visible from the Metro certainly is nothing new for me, and something with which I’ve long viewed with distaste. It’s recently occured to me, however, that vandalism is no less a violation of the 7th commandment than outright theft. Repairing the destruction caused by vandals – painting over graffitti, replacing slashed tires, cleaning up broken glass – sucks up victims’ time and money. From that perspective vandalism IS theft of a sort, directly from the victims as well as their insurers.

    Vandalism is wrong – it’s not “free speech,” it’s not brave, and it’s not funny. It can and should be treated as a crime, and for the sin that it is.

  16. Ellis Dewar says:

    As I have explained, this is a organization tool. It’s not really a miracle piece of equipment. It could easily turn into yet another expense if you don’t put the commitment into learning how to take advantage of it.