Chapter 7 – Stealing and Coveting

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The Seventh Commandment:

You shall not steal. (Ex 20:15)
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. (CCC #2401)

It should be obvious to all of us that stealing is wrong.  Children often struggle with thinking they have a right to what they want when they want it.  For example, small children may suddenly take another child’s toy because they want it.  It’s hard for them to understand that the toy they so deeply desire at that moment is not theirs.  But as they grow, they become aware of the fact that they do not have a right to take what is not theirs.  Though the concept of stealing may not be fully understood as children, it is something that most people eventually can figure out without having to be told.  This reveals that the Commandment forbidding stealing is part of God’s natural law and makes sense to all who have common sense and human reason.

But this Commandment takes us even further than the simple notion that stealing is wrong.  It ultimately reveals to us that all of creation belongs to God and we are simply the stewards.  It ultimately reveals a respect for the poor and instills a desire to care for those in need.

We begin by looking at the purpose of material goods in God’s plan and move deeper from there.  By understanding the big picture of the material world, we will be more easily able to apply these principles to particular situations in life.

Is It Mine or Is It Yours?

Everything we have is God’s.  God is the giver of all good things and that even includes the gifts of the Earth.  Land, property, housing, personal belongings, etc., all properly belong to God.

With that said, God has given us a share in His riches.  This first and foremost applies to our life of grace and all good spiritual things.  But it also applies to material wealth.  God allows us to claim certain possessions as our own and calls us to respect the fact that He has given ownership of other possessions to others.

So the first thing to understand is that all we have is a gift and is ultimately from God.  Furthermore, we are privileged to be able to claim some goods as our own possessions.  We have a right to what we own only because of God’s goodness and His choice to allow us to share in His riches.  But this right to share in the riches of God is not absolute!  My possession of material things must always and everywhere be seen in the light of them being a gift from God to be used for the glory of God and the good of others.

This is a hard concept to understand at times but is essential.  It requires that we see the need for generosity in the same way that God is generous with us.  And, at times, we should even come to realize that what God gave me was given to me so that I could share it with others.  This is a very important concept to understand if we desire to continue to receive every good thing from God.

The Bottom Line

There are various ways that this Commandment is broken.  Below is a summary of the most obvious and common ways:

Theft:  Is theft simply the taking of something that does not belong to me against the will of the owner?  No, not really.  Theft must be more narrowly defined.  Theft is the taking of something that does not belong to me and that I do not have a right to take.

For example, say you are hiking through the forest in the winter and you get lost all day.  The sun is setting, it’s freezing out and you fear for your life.  You stumble upon a cabin in the woods and no one is there.  Do you have a right to break in, stay the night, get warm and even eat some of the food in the cupboard?  Is that theft?  No it’s not theft, and yes you do have a right to do so.  Of course, it would be morally upright of you to then try and replace those items when you are able.

What this example reveals is that the right to ownership of private property is not absolute.  This right does not supersede the well-being and safety of your own life or the life of another.  Taking what is not yours is only theft (and a sin) when doing so is unjustified and unreasonable.  Prudence must be the guide for this.

Selfishness:  Under the general heading of “selfishness,” there are many particular sins.  Here are some common ones covering a wide variety of actions:

  • Failure to be generous when generosity is demanded of us by God and human reason.
  • In business, manipulating the price of goods for selfish reasons.  This is especially sinful when it does harm to others.  This would especially apply to corporations or to anyone who has the power to do so.  
  • Exercising your influence or power over those in authority to make decisions to your personal benefit.  This is especially sinful when those decisions are harmful to others while they benefit you.
  • Misusing goods from your employer or another organization that do not belong to you.  
  • Wasteful use of time at work or work that is negligent or done poorly.
  • Tax fraud.
  • Forgery of bank accounts.
  • Wasteful spending or excessive and superfluous spending, especially on yourself.
  • Damaging public property intentionally and without a justified purpose.
  • The willful and unjustified breaking of a legitimate contract between persons or even with a corporation or government.
  • Cheating at games, especially when gambling is involved.  Gambling is not sinful in itself as long as it is done with moderation and does not involve excessive risk.  But excessive gambling or cheating so as to win a wager is sinful.
  • Buying and selling of persons (slavery) is not only a sin against human dignity but is also a form of theft in that persons are not possessions and should not be treated in this selfish way.

These are but a few examples of selfishness.  However, there are countless ways that excessive self-focus, greed, and a desire for more can lead to sinful actions that harm ourselves and do harm to others.  Selfishness is a form of stealing in that we take or refuse to give up something we do not have a right to.

Respect for Creation:  God gave us dominion over all of creation.  For that reason, we have a right to use the created world for our good.  This includes the use of animals, plants, minerals, and other natural resources.  However, this can also be abused.

Natural Resources: The resources of the Earth are meant for the common good of all people.  Therefore, if individuals, corporations, or even governments abuse the use of resources for selfish reasons, they are stealing from the common good.  There are numerous ways that abuse of the resources of the Earth can take place.  For example, the complete destruction of a rainforest for the purpose of certain individuals getting rich would be a form of stealing from nature and a sin against the common good for selfish reasons.  It would include any unreasonable and excessive use of natural goods that is destructive to this or future generations.

Animals: Animals are part of God’s creation and must be respected.  The intentional and irrational abuse of animals for the purpose of selfish pleasure is evil and a form of stealing in that it is an abuse of our “dominion” over creation.  However, it is within the reasonable limits of dominion over animals to use them for food, clothing or domestic chores.  It is also permitted to hunt animals for sport as long as this is done in humane ways.  Ideally, the animal will also then be used for food or clothing.  Sometimes it is also legitimate to eradicate animals for the common good or for their own good and survival as a species.  For example, if a certain breed of animal is overpopulated, it may be in the best interest of that species or in the best interest of the common good that the legitimate authority call for additional hunting or thinning of the herd.

It is proper to care for animals that are domesticated, such as by bringing them to a veterinarian.  However, the good health of an animal must not become excessive.  It would be wrong to spend excessive amounts of money on the health of an animal when that money could be spent on other needs of the common good which are of greater importance.  In other words, the good health of a domesticated animal is not the same as the good health of a human.  Furthermore, the euthanasia of ill or old animals is legitimate and, at times, required out of respect for the animal and the common good.

The Dignity of the Human Person and the Economy

The Sixth Commandment applies not only to individuals but also to various economic systems and systems of governance.  There is a rich tradition in our Church of what we call the “Social Doctrine” or “Social Teaching.”  Politics and economics are very important parts of human life, and the many systems of governance and modern economics raise important moral questions.  The development of our economic teachings is especially the fruit of the nineteenth century with the advent of technology, industry, mass production, new labor practices, etc.  The Church provides some basic guidelines and moral principles to follow.  These teachings fall under the Seventh Commandment in so far as they have to do with the use of resources, the exchange of money and human labor.  Below are some of those teachings:

Dignity of Work:  God gave humanity dominion over the created world (Gn 1:28).  However, as a result of Original Sin, the man was given the punishment of having to provide for himself and his family by the sweat of his brow (Gn 3:17–19).  Though this is an unfortunate result of Original Sin, it also becomes a source of redemption and dignity.  “Work” becomes a means of exercising dominion over creation and enables man to cooperate with God in His divine work of Creation.  

For this reason, work has dignity, and humanity discovers a certain dignity in proper work.  Through work, we are able to care for and provide for ourselves and our families.  This is not only a basic human right but also a basic human duty.  In fact, if one were to ignore work and fail to be productive in some way, this would be a violation of their basic dignity as a person and a violation of one’s basic duty in life.

All economic systems, work-related laws and private business practices must have as the primary focus the dignity of the person and their right to work so as to share in the dignity of God’s creative activity.  This is a hard sell for many modern business leaders but must always be the central guiding principle for all work-related activity and decisions.  Profit must not be the ultimate driving force; rather, the dignity of the person and the dignity of work must be the driving force.

Profit vs. Person: “Any system in which social relationships are determined entirely by economic factors is contrary to the nature of the human person and his acts” (CCC #2423).  This is a key principle that should be considered with any economic system.  If “profit” is the primary goal of an economic system, it is a problematic system.  Yes, this is a hard “pill” to swallow in our modern age and in many modern forms of businesses.  The reason for this is that when profit is the ultimate goal and end, the dignity of the person will inevitably take the back seat.  This is immoral.  Profit must obviously be considered as a goal since profit in a business is good for people working there.  But when decisions are made purely based on furthering profit, this leads to the lessening of the dignity of the individual and must be avoided even if it means less profit.  Practically speaking, those in authority have to make the best decision they can, keeping centrally in mind the dignity of the worker.  It is understood that good minds may disagree about what is best, overall, for the health of the business and, therefore, what is best for those who work there.  The duty of the Church is to simply keep the dignity of the person front and center so that the best practical decisions are made for the betterment of all.  It is also understandable that, at times, layoffs or reduction in pay may be what is best for the dignity of the people involved.  Though this may be painful at times to accept and decide upon, it is left up to the good prudential judgment of those in charge as long as they keep the general principles laid out here as the guiding factor of their decisions.

Production vs. Person: Basic human rights, both of the individual and groupings of people, must always be more important in making economic decisions than production.  People are not just a means to the end of making a product or making money.  The person must always be considered first.  Excessive burdens imposed on the worker so as to increase production should be avoided.  This is especially true when productivity at work affects the person’s family and spiritual life.  For example, requiring excessive hours to the detriment of the personal and family life of employees is immoral.

Capitalism vs. Person: But what about modern Capitalism?  Though there are many dangers within that system, it can be a system that respects the rights and dignity of the person while, at the same time, is quite productive.  Much could be said about this but, for our purposes here, suffice it to say that as long as the dignity of the person, the employee, the consumer, etc., is of central focus, this system can be good and morally upright.

Capitalism has been suggested to have one particular moral virtue that should be identified here.  Some have suggested that capitalism, with its basic “supply and demand” philosophy, has the potential to bring forth human ingenuity and creativity.  When a capitalistic system has as its goal the good of the consumer, creativity will be used to meet those needs and produce a profit.  This can be very good and healthy.  In this case, excessive governmental regulations could help to temper greed but could also hinder creativity.  Balance must be the goal so that human dignity is always respected and personal creativity is fostered.

Fair Wage: “A worker deserves his pay” (1 Timothy 5:18).  It can be a strong temptation for those who are business owners to pay an unjust wage if they can get away with it.  It can be reasoned that, if people are willing to work for a low wage, we can pay that wage.  But this is a slippery slope and could lead to immoral practices.  Remember, the key focus must be the worker not the profit.  Sure, profit is important so that the business can grow and more people can be employed.  But human prudence must enter in and temperance must be exercised in making decisions regarding the amount of pay.

The bottom line is that a worker must be paid a sufficient amount to care for himself and his family.  Care should also be taken that those in authority do not become excessively rich to the detriment of others.  Obtaining wealth is not immoral, but it can lead to many temptations.  Therefore, those in authority within businesses must consider everyone when setting a proper wage.

Reaching Out to the Poor

Jesus said that we will always have the poor with us (Jn 12:8).  Poverty is a result of the fallen human condition we find ourselves in.  There are many forms of poverty.  There are those who are spiritually poor, lacking the Gospel and grace.  There are those who suffer illness and other tragedies, through no fault of their own.  There are those who are born into poverty and, despite their best efforts, cannot escape it.  There are those who barely make it day-to-day but do have enough to survive.  And, of course, there are those who out of personal neglect and irresponsible living find themselves in dire need.

Assisting those in dire need is an essential duty of the Gospel.  Regardless of why someone is in dire need, we must help them when we find them in this state.  Therefore, on a local level especially, it is necessary that we make sure all people have their basic human needs met.  Food, shelter, clothing, etc., is a requirement of human dignity.

Some argue that caring for the poor is a way of enabling them to continue to live irresponsibly.  Perhaps this is true in some contexts.  But this is more their concern than ours.  Our duty is to reach out to those in need regardless of why they are in the state of need.  We ought not discriminate when we find someone in need.  Mercy means we love because a person is worthy of love and not because they have shown that they deserve it.  They deserve it simply because they are human.

With that said, it is in accord with human reason that we expect the poor to begin to take on responsibility for themselves and their families.  Therefore, tying assistance for the needy to systems which also foster personal responsibility is quite appropriate.  There will always be times when direct and immediate assistance is necessary and proper.  But there are also reasonable ways to offer assistance with the expectation of personal responsibility.  This, too, is an act of love.

The mission of the Church is not to define any one particular economic or political system so as to care for the needs of the poor.  Intelligent minds may disagree on the best approach.  It is the mission of the Church to simply keep the poor before the eyes of all, especially those in authority and with wealth, so that they can prudently fulfill their duty to help those in need in the proper way.

In the modern world, addressing poverty globally is a new concern.  In the past, global poverty was not as well known by all, and wealthy nations were not always in the practical position of offering mass relief and assistance when needed.  Caring for the poor was something done at home and within the local community.

Today, those with wealth are in a position to reach out to those in poverty in new and productive ways.  For example, international humanitarian organizations make it easier to do this across national borders.  Helping the poor, in these cases, is not so much just a matter of taking care of their temporary needs.  Rather, it’s a matter of assisting poorer countries with the proper education and means necessary to help them care for themselves and eradicate poverty.  Let’s reflect upon the duty of nations with regard to this Commandment.

International Considerations

Human communities are defined on various levels.  The most basic level is that of the family.  From there we can see the human family expanding to local communities, states, nations and, ultimately, the world.  Typically, each community holds something in common that unites them.  Language, culture, common experience, common commitment, laws, etc., are among those things which help bring unity and solidarity among peoples.

Especially today, in our global world of communication, we must strive to offer respect, support and concern for those of other nations and cultures.  Though we may have various differences, we must hold in common a basic respect and concern for every person and every grouping of persons.

Most importantly, as Christians, we have a duty to spread the Gospel globally.  We must do so with our words but also with our actions.  We must seek peace among nations, but peace is achieved especially through the Gospel and all that the Gospel calls us to.

This Commandment particularly calls us to a respect for the material resources of other nations.  We are called to seek the good and healthy economic development of nations, especially those nations that are poor and in dire need of development.  It is a moral obligation of the wealthy and productive nations to have concern for those nations that live in poverty or economic, political and social chaos.  There are many factors that contribute to the hardships of some nations.  It is not proper for the wealthy and productive nations to sit on the sidelines and watch others suffer.  Rather, various forms of direct aid must be given out of respect for the dignity of all.

At times, direct and immediate aid is necessary.  This duty flows from our calling of charity.  When tragedy, poverty, famine, or the like strike a foreign nation, those nations who are able to help do have a moral duty to do so.

Aid must go beyond the immediate relief of those in dire consequences.  Working with other nations to help them develop healthy economies so as to become productive and self-sustaining is essential.

Education is one of the most important ways that developed nations can assist with those in need.  Additionally, making sure that poor countries are not taken advantage of is a matter of basic respect for the dignity of all.  By sincerely caring for those in need, educating them, assisting with fair economic trade and the like will help ensure that everyone, and every nation, will have the ability to fulfill the dignity of work.

The responsibility of assisting nations is not first and foremost that of the pastors of the Church.  Pastors must preach the Gospel and reach out to the poor and those in need.  But the primary responsibility for economic development and the transformation of a society regarding work and productivity is that of the laity: laity as individuals but also laity within the political structures.  Those in authority must especially see it as their duty to help foster world-wide communion and assistance to the needy.

World peace is obtainable and must be our constant goal.  And the material, educational, and economic support we owe each nation should never be underestimated as a necessary means to achieve this important goal.

The Tenth Commandment:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female slave, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Ex 20:17)
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.  (Mt 6:21)
The tenth commandment unfolds and completes the ninth, which is concerned with concupiscence of the flesh. It forbids coveting the goods of another, as the root of theft, robbery, and fraud, which the seventh commandment forbids…The tenth commandment concerns the intentions of the heart; with the ninth, it summarizes all the precepts of the Law. (CCC #2534)

In addition to completing the Ninth Commandment on coveting, the Tenth Commandment also completes the Seventh Commandment regarding stealing.  The Seventh Commandment especially focuses upon the exterior actions regarding stealing, poverty, social justice, etc.  The Tenth Commandment goes beyond the exterior actions by seeking to purify even the intentions of the heart.  It is fair to say that those sins forbidden by the Tenth Commandment are the roots of those sins forbidden by the Seventh Commandment.  In other words, the interior coveting of material wealth (Tenth Commandment), leads to stealing and selfishness in various forms (Seventh Commandment).

The Root of the Problem: He Who Has Money Never Has Money Enough

When you are hungry, you desire food.  When you are tired, you desire sleep.  These are natural reactions to those things we lack and need.  We need food and sleep.  Therefore, we should naturally desire them.

The problem is that our desires can easily get out of control and far exceed that which is reasonable and proper.  Sometimes we get angry and desire revenge.  Or get our paycheck and desire much more.  If we let our desires control us, we can be certain that we will never be satisfied.  Disordered desires will never be satisfied with an abundance of food, alcohol, sex, money, revenge, etc.

This Commandment especially focuses in on one desire that is easily distorted—the desire for material wealth.  As one ancient Roman Catechism states, “He who has money never has money enough.”  What a profound truth to understand.  It simply means that a distorted desire for money is never actually satisfied with the obtainment of money.  It only leads to a stronger desire for more.

Think about it.  If someone longs for money, will they be satisfied once they gain a million dollars?  When they achieve the goal of being a millionaire, will they then sit back and say, “Now my life is complete!  I’m a millionaire, and I do not desire anything more!”  Will they be fully satisfied with that million dollars?  Or will they immediately start thinking about how they can turn that million into two, three, five or more?  If they are irrationally attached to the million they just obtained, you can be certain that they will not be satisfied with it.  They will be tempted to want more, and more and then some more.

So what’s the problem you say?  The problem is that if we constantly long for more and more money, we are fooling ourselves into thinking that more and more will satisfy us.  It’s foolishness to think this, and we are being foolish if we fall into this trap.  We need to get to the heart of the problem and deal with it in its roots.

So what’s the root of the problem?  The root of the problem is a disordered and extreme desire for “stuff.”  This disordered desire grows when it is fed with more of this or that, or when it sees this or that and cannot obtain it.  This desire is based on irrationality in that there is an irrational and erroneous conviction that this or that will satisfy the disordered desire.  The problem is that even if the disordered desire is fulfilled, it will quickly lose that instant satisfaction left only desiring more.

These disordered desires affect people in many practical ways.  Sometimes a desire for more will lead one to desire the misfortune of others or, at very least, lead one to take delight in the misfortune of others if the effect of that misfortune is their own financial gain.  Here are a few examples of this kind of disordered desire:

  • A farmer of corn who hopes every other farmer’s corn crop goes bad so that his corn will be able to be sold for more.
  • A physician who gets excited because of a serious disease.  This disease means more patients and more money.
  • A lawyer who gets excited at potential lawsuits because it means more money.
  • The real question is this:  Do you desire to make a profit from the misfortune of others?  If so, it reveals that your desires are truly disordered.

Envy is another danger in our disordered desires and is a fruit of this covetousness forbidden by the Tenth Commandment.  Envy is a form of sorrow at the success of others.  Coveting is more of the wanting of another’s goods, and envy adds to it discontentment, ill will, sorrow or even resentment toward another whom you covet.  So, for example, if someone close to you enters into a legitimate business endeavor and has great success, how does that make you feel? Are you excited for them?  Or do you discover a certain sorrow over their success wishing that their success was yours?  If you see that desire, then you can be certain that it’s the ugly sin of envy.

Getting in Order!

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 5:3).
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God (Mt 5:8).

Striving for and obtaining the Beatitudes bring about fulfillment of the Christian life.  It’s what we are made for.  The Beatitudes reveal the deepest truth of who we are and what life is all about.

The Tenth Commandment especially calls us to poverty and purity of heart.  The reward of these blessings is total fulfillment in God’s Kingdom.  They enable us to see God!

All of the Beatitudes enable us to abandon ourselves to the providence of God and embrace His law of charity.  First, we love God with our whole being, and from that love, we live a life of charity toward others.

The Beatitudes not only enable us to make the right choices, they also purify our desires.  This is so very important to understand!  When we begin to enter into the heights of perfection, we will begin to discover that even our desires are re-ordered by God.  We will want to see God.  We will long for God and desire Him above all else.  In this growing desire for God, we will begin to realize that our disordered desires start to fade away.  We will no longer desire earthly wealth in an irrational and distorted way.  Instead, all the desires of the Earth and the flesh will be put in perspective and purified.  In their place, the overriding longing of our hearts will be for God and holiness of life.  And this longing will become fulfilled in an ever-deepening way as we are freed of the many unhealthy attachments we have.

It’s important to realize that our desires are good and were created by God.  And when they are properly ordered, we reap abundant satisfaction and fulfillment in life through them.  When they are disordered, they enslave us and lure us into countless empty promises of happiness.  The choice is ours.

Next Chapter: Chapter 8 – The Truth Will Set You Free!

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