Monday, April 23, 2012

You Shall Not Steal

Fr. Marty Curtin is returning to St. Michael Friary tomorrow to resume our instruction on the Ten Commandments. We have finished half the Decalogue; now we turn to the commands forbidding adultery and theft.

Here is a preview of my presentation on the Seventh Commandment, as interpreted by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, to the postulants. Please excuse the rough quality of these notes.

The Seventh Commandment
(Part Three, Sect. Two, Chap. Two, Art. 7)

You shall not steal. Exodus 20:15; Deuteronomy 5:19; Matthew 19:18 (New American Bible Revised Edition)
Thesis: We are to share the goods of the earth and the work of human hands with justice and charity.


Article 7: The Seventh Commandment

I.                     The Universal Destination and the Private Ownership of Goods
II.                   Respect for Persons and Their Goods
A.    Respect for the goods of others
B.       Respect for the integrity of creation
III.                 The Social Doctrine of the Church
IV.                 Economic Activity and Social Justice
V.                   Justice and Solidarity Among Nations
VI.                 Love for the Poor


1. “The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race” (para. 2402).
The freedom and dignity of persons, and the need for material security, justify the right to private property. But this right is not absolute. It must be exercised faithfully with a respect for the common good. What we own we must use for the benefit of others. The state can and must regulate property rights to ensure the universal destination of goods.

2. Theft, the usurping of another person’s property against that person’s reasonable will, is forbidden.
Theft includes fraud, paying unjust wages, and price gouging; speculation and profiteering; tax evasion and forgery; waste and vandalism; violation of contracts; and above all slavery.
Reparation for the unjust taking and use of property ordinarily requires the restitution of stolen goods (cf. Luke 19:8).
The commandment “enjoins respect for the integrity of creation,” for the use of mineral, vegetable, and animal resources entails moral obligations to our neighbors and posterity.

3. The Church has authority to make pronouncements on economic and social matters when salvation and the rights of persons are at stake. 
The social doctrine of the Church is the fruit of more than a century of reflection on the development of modern industrial society. At its heart is a concern that social relationships be ordered in ways that accord with human dignity, and not determined solely by economic factors or profit maximization.

4. Men and women are to ensure that the fruits of God’s creation find their way to everyone in justice and charity. How to do this is the “social question.”
Humans participate in creation and redemption through their labor. Labor is inherently meaningful, for it enables us to provide for ourselves and others and to serve the community.
From economic life arise the rights and duties of businesses, unions, and the state. From the dignity of labor arise the right to employment, a just wage, union representation, and the strike.

5. Nations grown rich at the expense of poor countries have an obligation to support their development through direct aid and reform of institutions.

6. Christ will recognize his own by what they did for the poor (Matthew 25:31-36). Giving alms to the poor is a work of mercy and an act of justice.

Questions and Reflections

The Universal Destination and the Private Ownership of Goods; Respect for Persons and Their Goods

What hit me hardest? “Even if it does not contradict the provisions of civil law, any form of unjustly taking and keeping the property of others is against the seventh commandment” (para. 2409). The righteousness of Jesus’ disciples as economic actors must meet a higher bar than Caesar sets. The institutions in which they participate must be ordered in such a way as to make it easier for persons to make moral economic choices. Legislation and regulation provide a useful restraint, but in their absence, followers of Jesus are not excused from doing the right thing.

What was most challenging? For a Franciscan, who renounces private ownership of property, it is this statement: “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” (para. 2402). Francis of Assisi would disagree. The appropriation of property is the primordial cause of all violence and wars. How do Franciscans today square the Catechism with their pledge to live sine proprio? They may not necessarily repudiate private ownership of property but in their renunciation of it they have definitely decided there is a more perfect way to abundant economic life.

What would be most difficult to explain? The Catechism cites Gaudium et Spes: “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” (para. 2404). In the United States, many if not most people believe that ownership of private property accords the owner the privilege of exclusive use, an inviolable precept.

How does world need to hear what the Church is teaching?
The good of the whole takes priority over the good of the individual when the two are in conflict. In the United States there needs to be a cultural sea-change before the universal destination of goods regains its proper place in public discourse about economic life.

What situations need this as good news?
Wherever the rights of property trump the rights of persons. Wherever persons are treated like property. Wherever fundamental trust among individual parties or between institutions (public and private) and the people has been violated. In business and economics courses!

Social Doctrine; Economic Activity and Social Justice; Justice and Solidarity Among Nations

What hit me hardest? “The Church makes a moral judgment about social and economic matters, ‘when the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls requires it’ ” (para. 2420, quoting Gaudium et Spes). The Catechism continues: “the Church is concerned with the temporal aspects of the common good because they are ordered to the sovereign Good, our ultimate end.” That’s brilliant. This teaching reinforces my conviction that behind every social and economic crisis, there is a spiritual crisis.

What was most challenging? “Economic activity, conducted according to its own proper methods, is to be exercised within the limits of the moral order, in keeping with social justice so as to correspond to God’s plan for man” (para. 2426).  So many Christians lament the absence of God from our civic and social institutions, but nowhere is the banishment of God from our world more total than in the marketplace. And there is scarcely a peep about this. How are disciples of Jesus to make a compelling case for the role of religion in public life when they demur from making any moral claims on economic life?

What would be most difficult to explain? “It is not the role of the Pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life” (para. 2442). Ask political leaders who support the social doctrine of the Church, and they will tell you that they wish religious leaders would in fact take the same kind of direct action they apparently have no trouble mustering when it comes to defending life ethics through legal and legislative means.

How does world need to hear what the Church is teaching?
As a matter of life and death. The world needs to hear what the Church is teaching the way Dorothy Day expressed it in 1956: “We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists of conspiring to teach to do, but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.” Lives are at stake! Souls are at stake!

What situations need this as good news?
Labor disputes and employer-employee conflicts; debates among candidates for political office; public hearings on wage and hour bills and innumerable other legislative and regulatory items concerning economic policy; corporate boardrooms and shareholder meetings; plenaries of international political and economic authorities, governmental and non-governmental.

Love for the Poor

What hit me hardest? “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs” (St. John Chrysostom, quoted in para. 2446). In his eloquence Chrysostom mirrors the wisdom of the Talmud, which says that whoever withholds the wages of an employee is considered as if he took his life from him. One might say that the poor in our times are the victims of serial theft, ambushed, abused, and exploited by employer, neighbor, and public authorities.

What was most challenging? “[T]hose who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church” (para. 2448). Without faith that God in Jesus Christ took the misery of material poverty, unjust oppression, sickness, and death upon himself for the salvation of the world, this teaching makes no sense. The world ascribes fault to the poor themselves. The Church, on the other hand, acknowledges the sin that all people share: we have all sinned, we have all been sinned against, we all suffer. But the Church knows that some have been sinned against and suffer more than others. These are the poor. The Church, far from blaming the poor, shows them the compassion of Christ. Folly and weakness, says the world! The wisdom and power of God, says the Church … and the justice of God.

What would be most difficult to explain? Church members’ desire to help the needy “extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty (para. 2444). I do not fully understand what the Catechism means by cultural and religious poverty and would like further clarification.

How does world need to hear what the Church is teaching?
In the words of St. Rose of Lima, quoted in the Catechism: “When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus. We must not fail to help our neighbors, because in them we serve Jesus” (para. 2449).

What situations need this as good news?
Banks and businesses with budgets for philanthropy and charitable giving; suburban and affluent urban congregations grown complacent and distant from poor communities; city/town planners, public authorities, and citizens reviewing plans for economic development and renewal in their neighborhoods; families evaluating how to allot their limited resources; individuals blessed with disposable income wondering how to make a difference. Every place where the starving Lazarus begs at the gate.

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