“You shall not steal,” says Exodus 20:15. Once again, the Decalogue faces us with an injunction that seems like common sense (and is) but which is also fraught with all sorts of difficulties and distinctions. Consider, for instance, the fact that a Catholic writer like me has the obligation to never write an original thought in my life. Indeed, one of the few earthly perks of being a Catholic writer is that you get to plagiarize all the time and call it “being faithful to the Tradition”. The Catholic faith consists of a huge body of ideas that I did not invent and which I can neither add to nor subtract from. It is common, not esoteric. And so my task as a Catholic writer is to dip into this body of common revelation and ladle it out for people to contemplate. Yet that’s not theft. That’s fidelity.
This problem of distinguishing between what is common to all and what is specifically mine and yours is the puzzle that lies behind the commandment against stealing. If another Catholic writer were to write another essay on the seventh commandment, he could go on for thousands of words and even thousands of volumes and never trespass against the seventh commandment. But if he were to write:
“You shall not steal,” says Exodus 20:15. Once again, the Decalogue faces us with an injunction that seems like common sense (and is) but which is also fraught with all sorts of unexpected difficulties….”
…and continue on without mentioning that I wrote it first, that’s theft.
Certain things are rightly and properly ours. We learn (before we can read or write and often before we can form complex sentences) the basic rule of the universe against stealing. Some of that learning comes from slapped hands if we take something we shouldn’t. Some of it comes from a punch delivered by our brother or sister when we nab their cookies without permission. Natural law tends to be learned via natural consequences. Fairly quickly, we discover concepts like “rights” and the reality that you don’t have the right to my stuff and I don’t have the right to yours. To be sure, some highly educated leftist fools have sometimes attempted to describe all property as “theft” just as some devotees of private property have, with equal folly, attempted to describe all interest in the common good as “socialism” or “communism”. But we must not, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, listen to the over-wise or the over-foolish giants. For (as Lewis also notes) “Opposite evils, so far from balancing, aggravate each other.” The Tradition warns against both envy (the besetting sin of the poor) and greed (the besetting sin of the rich) and labors to help us keep our balance by recognizing what is properly ours and what is common.
One obstacle in applying this commandment justly is the fact that it is often tempting to simply assume that one’s own tribe is all that matters in considering it. White settlers who would never have considered claim jumping on other white settlers had no problem stealing land from Indians. That wasn’t stealing. That was Manifest Destiny. Only when Indians start to count as, well, fellow human beings, did Americans begin to think of the theft of their land as, you know, theft.
In a much smaller way, we see something similar happen with the faceless Others who inhabit the music industry. One $20 bill stolen from a stranger on the bus next to you is theft, but money stolen by downloading music that you haven’t paid for off the Internet is free for the taking. Indeed, for some people, “sharing” music without paying for it has somehow become a positive “right.” And the justification for that right is that the people we are stealing from have “enough money already.”
This brings us to one of the odd engines of theft in the human psyche: envy. The notion that fuels the sin of envy is that harming somebody else is tantamount to “justice”. For unlike jealousy, envy does not seek to better ourselves by keeping up with the Joneses, but to take the Joneses down a peg so that they are no better than us. It is the characteristic sin of a democratic culture as distinct from pride (the characteristic sin of an aristocracy). Our envy-driven culture of theft can be seen even in the strange way that people compete, not to be fraudulent winners, but fraudulent losers. It’s the source of fake Holocaust memoirs and cock-and-bull stories from phony victims such as A Million Little Pieces. In ages past, people pretended to be Anastasia, the heir to the throne of all the Russias, and robbed you blind by dazzling you with fake pretensions or aristocracy. Now they write I, Rigoberta Menchú and rob you blind with fake pretensions of victimhood.
This is not to say the Tradition sides with the rich against the poor. On the contrary, one of the remarkable things about the Church is how empathetic she is with the poor. Indeed, as St. John Chrysostom says, “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.” So there is room for Robin Hood in the Catholic tradition. Indeed, by the reckoning of the Catholic tradition, Jean Valjean never stole a loaf of bread in his life. He took what was rightfully his to feed his family. The Catholic tradition is notably easy on Lazarus and notably rough on the Rich Man, warning the latter, not the former, that much will be required of those to whom much is given. The man who hoards goods he does not need while his neighbor does without basic necessities is, in Catholic reckoning, the real thief.
But the Church is also acutely aware of the fact that just because you are a victim doesn’t mean you can’t be a jerk too. The average MP3 thief or phony Victim of the Week scam is not acting on some noble principle of helping the poor. He’s just stealing and scamming because he’s too much of a slob to pay for it or earn it.
The commandment against stealing is one of the areas where the Christian tradition requires us to think proportionally. Some people want to overlook small acts of theft and focus on things like Corporate Greed. Conversely, on the principle that a billion dollars is a statistic, but fifty bucks can be understood, others want to focus their ire on the small time thief or welfare queen while ignoring the massive raiding from the public coffers for the corporate fatcat’s golden parachute. The general rule of thumb is that we should probably pay most attention to opposing the thief for whom we feel the most empathy, especially the thief who may well be looking back at us in the mirror. The Rush Limbaugh type could do with a lot more concern for the corporations that irresponsibly urged people to take out disastrous loans (“Free toaster! Come and get it!”) while the Air America type could really stand to remember that nobody held a gun to the heads of the fools who took out the loans, and that said fools were often strongly motivated by the desire to get something for nothing.
On the other hand, while proportionality matters and stealing a CD is not the same as knocking over a 7-11 or robbing a Brinks armored car, it should also be noted that stealing can be the occasion of grave interior sin even when the thing stolen is quite trivial. Augustine, it will be recalled, had his first experience of his own capacity for radical, perverse sin in stealing a few pears as a kid. It’s the sort of incident that would not even be noticed by the sheriff of Dogpatch: just some boys being naughty. But Augustine discerned in it his first encounter with, and dark delight in, radical evil. I suspect that’s because theft is the most accessible of the grave sins mentioned in the commandments. Most of us will never murder anybody and adultery requires a certain state in life. But any idiot can steal and any idiot often does. It’s one of the things we can’t not know is wrong, but it’s one of the easiest grave sins to commit. The very fact that it is less grave than murder makes the choice for evil, paradoxically, sharper and more lacerating to the conscience than other sins which we are more successful at muffling under rationalization or avoiding due to difficulty or lack of opportunity.
The flip side of all this business of theft, of course, is generosity. It is, says our Lord, more blessed to give than to receive. The way to avoid the sin of stealing is to cultivate, not the habit of “not stealing” (there is no such animal just as there is no such thing as the habit of not smoking), but the habit of giving. Mind you, I speak here, not as a saint, but as a Catholic writer whose task is to ladle out the Tradition, including parts that I neither enjoy nor obey with notable distinction. The Tradition says what it says: “The Lord loveth a cheerful giver.” I hope in the Lord Jesus to one day be such a person, but till I am I continue to grudgingly give as I can and to do my duty of reporting what the Tradition says till I believe it enough to live it. Let us pray for one another (and ask the prayers of St. Dismas, the Good Thief) that even thieves might discover the generosity of Christ in us.