Back in the days when Canada was being settled like the American frontier, a Catholic Indian made his confession to the black robe (Jesuit missionary) who ministered to the tribe. The Indian, named John Baptist at his baptism, accused himself of stealing two dollars from a wealthy man who had no religion. The priest told John he had to make restitution, so John set out immediately to return the money.
John approached the rich man at his home. He said, "Me rob you. Black robe tell me to give back money."
"What money?" asked the rich man.
"Two dollars me stole from you. John Baptist bad man," he replied.
"All right. Don't steal again, John. Good day," said the rich man.
"Good day not 'nough. Me want other thing," pleaded the Indian.
"What else do you want?" the wealthy man asked.
"Me want … what you call … yes, receipt," the Indian explained.
"A receipt?" exclaimed the rich man. "What do you want with a receipt? Did the black robe tell you to get a receipt?"
"No," the Indian responded. "Black robe tell me nothing."
"Then why do you want it? You stole from me, but you returned the money. Isn't that enough?" asked the victim.
The Indian then unloaded his concerns:
You old, me young. You die first, me die later. Me knock on door of Heaven. Great chief, St. Peter, open and say, "That you, John Baptist? What you want?" Me answer, "Me want go in house of Great Spirit." And he tell me, "But your sins?" Me say, "Black robe forgive them." And St. Peter say, "And what you stole from man of no religion, you pay back? Show receipt." Poor John Baptist in bad fix — no receipt. Have to gallop all over black pit below to find you. No religion, no Heaven.
John Baptist's comment about "no religion, no Heaven" is poignant, but that isn't the point. The topic of this article is what John went through to make right his sin against the Seventh Commandment.
We're now looking at the Seventh and Tenth Commandments today: "You shall not steal" (Exodus 20:15) and "You shall not covet your neighbor's goods" (Exodus 20:17), respectively.
We'll begin with the Seventh Commandment. God has given everyone the right to private ownership so we can enjoy the fruits of our labors, live with the dignity due our humanity and maintain a certain independence. Because of this natural right granted by God, the Seventh Commandment obliges us to respect the property of others, to keep our business agreements and to pay our just debts. This commandment forbids stealing, robbery, cheating, contracting debts beyond our means, unjustly damaging the property of others, accepting bribes and knowingly buying or receiving stolen goods.
Stealing is a grave sin if the thing stolen is of considerable value. However, stealing something of small value from a poor person can be a mortal sin too. But conspiring to steal small amounts over an extended period of time could be a mortal sin if the cumulative amount becomes sufficiently large.
Let's say the cashier at the supermarket gives you a dollar too much in change, and you then and there decide to keep it. That would be a venial sin. But if a dollar in a blind beggar's cup is stolen, then that could be a mortal sin if it's all the beggar has to sustain himself.
Likewise, if a bank teller manages to steal $5 from his till, then that would be a venial sin. But if he were to do this daily for an extended period of time, the amount could add up to an amount that could constitute a grave matter. When in doubt, ask your priest.
We're obliged to return stolen goods to the owner, whether we are the thief or not, whenever we are able. If the rightful owner is dead, the property must be restored to his heirs. If there are no heirs, the property must be given to the poor or some other charitable cause.
If a thief can't restore all he has stolen, he must restore all he can. If he has used what is stolen, he must repair the damage done by restoring the equivalent sum. If he can't restore anything, he must at least pray for the person he has wronged.
If poverty or some other circumstance prevents the thief from making restitution immediately, he must resolve to do so as soon as possible and must make an effort to fulfill his resolution.
Restitution may be made secretly, without letting the owner know restitution is being made. For instance, a money order may be sent with an alias. Or a priest, who is pledged to secrecy, may be entrusted with the property to be restored.
If we discover something we've purchased is stolen, we may not keep it; it must be returned to the rightful owner. It's also wrong to demand the owner reimburse us for the money we spent on the stolen item. The only person we can demand payment from is the person who sold it to us.
Then there is the concept known as "finders keepers, losers weepers." If we find an article of value, we must make a reasonable effort to find the owner. The more valuable the item, the greater our obligation to locate the owner. But if after all our earnest efforts, we're still unable to locate the owner, then we may keep what we've found.
Borrowing is probably the most common sin against the Seventh Commandment. It's sinful to keep whatever we have borrowed beyond the length of time established or agreed upon with the owner. If no time has been established or agreed upon, we may not keep the borrowed item beyond what common sense and our conscience tells us is reasonable.
If we unjustly damage the property of others — through carelessness, malice, incompetence, etc. — we're obliged to either repair the damage or pay the amount of the damage, so far as we're able.
Cheating is probably the second most common sin against the Seventh Commandment. Some forms of cheating are negligence in working, tax evasion, false advertising, fraudulent contracts, false insurance claims and copying in an examination. There are many more forms of cheating, but it's our responsibility to develop a well-formed conscience so we can immediately identify cheating and stealing.
One form of stealing I've noticed that's common among Catholics is parishioners who light candles at one of the side altars but don't bother paying for it. They seem to think their Sunday donation to the collection basket covers this. That simply isn't true. If the pastor has a collection box for candle money, then it's stealing not to pay for the candle you light. We might even throw in a couple of extra bucks for people who want to light a candle but can't afford it, which is a good practice if you have poor people in your parish.
Next week we'll finish our examination of the Seventh and Tenth Commandments.