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  A Christian Faith Magazine July 2004, Volume 9, Issue 12  
You Shall Not Steal
Fr. Paul N. Check
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Do we enjoy control over the goods of the earth? In the book of Genesis, God gives dominion over creation to Adam and Eve, but not absolute dominion. We exercise control over created things as servants of God, and God gives these created things to us for the perfection of our souls. But part of the terrible legacy of Original Sin is that we can use the goods of the earth in a selfish, sinful manner, i.e. in a way contrary to the good of our salvation.

Ten Commandments

The Seventh commandment regulates our use of material things according to the virtue of justice. Justice is the moral or cardinal virtue that consists in the constant and firm will or determination to give everyone his or her rightful due. "Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good." (CCC 1807) While the Seventh Commandment acknowledges and protects the natural right of private property; it first establishes that "the ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence with the task of making [that property] fruitful and communicating its benefits to others." (CCC 2404) In other words, the universal destination of goods, i.e. that the goods of creation are destined for the whole human race, always comes before the right of private property.

Specifically, what does the Seventh Commandment forbid? Clearly theft, defined as the taking of another's property against the reasonable will of the owner. Possession of stolen property is also a sin against justice. The virtue of justice requires the restitution of stolen goods to their owner, An apology alone is not sufficient. If it is impossible to return the stolen property (because, for example, it has been consumed or because the owner cannot be found), restitution must still be made, perhaps in the form of a donation in kind (similar value) to charity.

St Chrysostom

Other common violations of the Seventh Commandment include cheating on taxes, living beyond one's means, failure to pay debts, damaging someone else's property, not giving an employer an honest day's work, any dishonest business practice (including failing to pay a just wage). It is also a theft of another's property when material protected by copyright (computer software, videos, cassettes and compact discs, for example) is copied without permission.

The Seventh Commandment also leaves us with positive obligations to provide, not out of charity but out of justice, for the well being of others. St. John Chrysostom said, "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." The Catechism continues in this vein: "The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not be offered as a gift of charity." (CCC 2446)

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