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What Catholics Believe - Chapter 31

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.

Father Michael Seavey
Pastor, Portland Peninsula & Island Parishes