What Catholics Believe - Chapter Thirty One

The Seventh Commandment: Do Not Steal, Act Justly

Growing up, we all knew that stealing was wrong, and we understood exactly what stealing consisted of. If we went into a corner store for a candy bar, we didn’t steal it, we purchased it. If we saw money on our parents’ bureau, we did not take it without their permission. If we were preparing a term paper for school, we did not use someone else’s research or writing and pass it on as our own work. All these situations have clear choices of “right” and “wrong.”

When we consider the deep divide between the rich and poor in our world, “stealing” takes on other realities. The Church Fathers developed our theology of justice with special attention to the poor and the responsibility everyone has for their care. The Church Fathers often noted that when we share our goods with the poor, we are not giving them a gift. Rather, we are returning to them what actually belongs to them.

Toward the end of the 6th Century, Pope Saint Gregory the Great wrote, “Wrongly then, do those suppose themselves innocent who claim for their own private use the common gift of God; those who, by not sharing what they have received, are accomplices in the death of their neighbors, since they every day, in a certain way, kill as many as those who die of hunger whose subsidies they refuse to give. For, when we give necessities of any kind to the poor, we do not bestow our own, we give them back what is theirs; we pay a debt of justice than accomplish works of mercy.”

This is no indictment against being rich. Being rich or having riches has never been considered sinful in the Church’s teachings. Rather, how we relate to our possessions determines the path of holiness or paths in other directions. Another Church Father, Pope Saint Leo the Great (died 461) wrote these words, “Many wealthy people are disposed to use their abundance not to swell their own pride but to perform works of benevolence. They consider their greatest gain what they spend to alleviate the distress of others.”

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults encourages the practice of virtues in part to diminish the temptation to steal. They list “moderation in our possessions, justice in our treatment of others, respect for their human dignity, and solidarity with all peoples” (p. 419). Here is a way of living the virtue of moderation of possessions. Consider naming this virtue “dispossessing.” Periodically, take inventory of all your possessions and ask yourself what articles of clothing, furniture, and other possessions are truly necessary. Then “dispossess” of all other material goods by giving away those that still have value.

“Dispossessing” is a very difficult spiritual work. We possess many items having a significant sentimental value of family heritage. We possess many items we are convinced that we may one day need, even though, for the last several years, we had forgotten they were even in our possession! Have you ever wondered: “If families are getting smaller and houses getting bigger, why do we need so much acreage devoted to storage spaces?”

There are many stories regarding Dorothy Day (1897-1980), one of the founders of The Catholic Worker Movement. She established soup kitchens and faith discussion groups in the most abandoned neighborhoods of large American cities. One time, the Catholic Worker House in the Bowery of New York City was facing foreclosure. She and the staff prayed a nine-day novena fervently to God for financial rescue.

At the close of their prayer, a wealthy woman entered the Worker House, took off a diamond studded broach and placed it in Dorothy’s hands. She and the staff erupted in praise to God. Later that day, a homeless bag lady entered the Worker House for a bowl of soup. Dorothy placed the broach in her hands, telling her how beautiful it would look on her and off she went with it. Her staff was furious and challenged her decision. She responded to them, “What is your problem? Do you believe only the rich deserve to wear diamonds?” The Catholic Worker House did not close!

How do we apply this story to our own life? Consider, for example, if you receive three new sweaters for Christmas and you then decide to give away three other sweaters already in your bureau drawer. Fair enough. But what if you decided to give away three older sweaters and one of the newer gift sweaters? Or you do believe only you deserve to wear a new sweater? These are the “dispossessing” decisions that form and shape our hearts.

If we develop the virtue of dispossessing, we will find little desire for anyone else’s possessions and we will feel more satisfied with our own. Then everyone’s possessions are more secure. If you do develop a virtue of “dispossessing,” Catholic Charities Maine operates thrift stores raising money for their wonderful programs. For more information, please call 207.781.8555.

The Seventh Commandment: Part II

For many low-wage or part-time employees, wage theft is a constant reality. And the culprit, more often than not, is their employer.

An article published by journalist Seth Freed Wessler in 2013 states, “The U.S. Department of Labor found a couple years ago that 40 percent of fast food outposts in the country fail to consistently pay their employees a minimum wage or overtime. And a recent study from New York City found that 84 percent of fast food workers complained that their employers regularly force them to work off the books, work overtime without overtime pay, or pony up for their own gas for deliveries.”

The Catholic Church envisions the workplace as an opportunity for human flourishing. A Catholic spirituality of work teaches us that our daily labors are opportunities to develop every aspect of our humanity. A “human” workplace requires that the principles of justice, respect and responsibility flow in all directions: from employers to employees and vice versa.  Employees need to treat one another with justice and respect as well.

The Old Testament prophets raged against exploitation of the poor and vulnerable. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, proclaims, “Woe to him who builds his house on wrong, his terraces on injustice; who works his neighbor without pay and gives him no wages” (22:13).

In The New Testament, Jesus’ Parable of the Vineyard Workers (Matthew 20:1-16) highlights the landowner’s determination to pay all workers “the usual daily wage” regardless of how many hours they worked. While the parable is a teaching on God’s mercy essential for salvation, the workers are dependent on “the daily wage” as the minimal amount needed to care for their families’ basic needs.

The Letter of James makes this point dramatically, “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud, and the cries of your harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (5:4).

Violations of justice result in “theft” of one’s material possessions or one’s sense of dignity and well-being. While this article focuses on “wage theft,” other injustices rob the workplace of an environment needed to promote human flourishing. Employers and managers have an obligation to provide a workplace that is as safe as possible and free of undignified behavior. Sexual harassment, ridicule, or discrimination rob people of their dignity. False accusations rob people of their reputations and their inner peace. Everyone in the workplace has a right to their good reputation and a right to work in a safe and respectful environment.

In addition to wage theft, some employers take advantage of the “independent contractor” phase of business. This is especially true in construction and building trades.  Often legitimately, contractors will subcontract with plumbers, electricians, finished carpenters and others for a project. These subcontractors are paid a lump sum for their work and then pay their own workers from that money.

However, some companies will classify many of their own employees as “independent contractors.” Each is then paid a lump sum, and from that, must not only provide for his or her family but also pay taxes and expenses normally the responsibility of the employer. The result is inadequate income, robbing them of just pay.  Many workers do not report these practices, either unaware that they are illegal or because they are pressured into silence.

This particular practice not only robs employees of just wages but creates unfair competition as well.  For certain, vast numbers of honorable employers provide just wages and benefits to their workers, but those contractors exploiting their workers can offer cheaper prices for their work.

Pope Saint John Paul II directed that Catholic social teaching have its own catechism. It is the only section of moral theology to have its own catechism, expressing the centrality of these teachings in his papacy.

The Compendium of The Social Doctrine of the Church discusses these issues within its body of teachings, “Remuneration is the most important means for achieving justice in work relationships. The just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. They commit grave injustice who refuse to pay a just wage or who do not give it in due time and in proportion to the work done …Remuneration for labour is to be such that (workers) may be furnished the means to cultivate worthily (their) own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of dependents… The simple agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay to be received is not sufficient for the agreed-upon salary to qualify as a ‘just wage,’ because a just wage must not be below the level of subsistence of the worker” #302.