On Temporal Prosperity

Thou shalt not steal. . . .
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house . . .
nor his servant, nor his handmaid, nor his ox,
nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.
—Exodus 20:15, 17

Every one of the commandments is vital not only for the salvation of the individual but also for the wellbeing of society. None of them can be ignored or widely violated without disastrous results to the whole community. But these results are more immediate and more evident in the case of some commandments than in that of others. The two we consider now are so intimately bound up with the economic and social life of man that they simply govern business intercourse and effectively determine the measure of prosperity any nation shall be permitted to enjoy. They prescribe for all of us the practice of justice in our dealings with our fellowmen; and justice is the very keystone of the arch that bridges over the gulf separating ordered civilized existence from the conditions of prehistory.

Justitia stant magna imperia was a medieval proverb. Its application is wider: the whole social life of men rests upon the virtue of justice as a pyramid rests on its base. It is literally impossible to exaggerate its importance in the building up of any social structure whatsoever. I need not apologize, therefore, for dwelling upon the definition and analysis of the concept. Justice is often used in Scripture as the equivalent of righteousness or of the whole duty of man. Here we are envisaging the word in a somewhat narrower or more technical sense. We may define it as the moral virtue that impels us to give to all our fellow men whatever may be their due. Yet more strictly understood, it ordains respect for the rights of property that men possess. Now, that men possess certain such rights I here purpose to assume. That nobody has any strict right to any form of property is too silly a pretension for debate. The limitations of those rights may, indeed, raise all manner of perplexing problems; the existence of them is too deeply rooted in the nature of man, too clearly exemplified in his whole secular history for any reasonable denial.

Neither can I dwell on the various ways in which those rights arise. They are not conferred upon the individual by the state. How could they be? The individual is logically prior to the state. Man is an individual before he is a citizen. The state, rightly conceived, is nothing other than so many individuals organically united into a society that, as a moral entity, has for its sole function the securing of the fullest and most complete life in common of the units composing it. Perhaps one may say that half our modern political blundering is due to a forgetfulness of this fact. The state has been set up as something existing, as it were, in the air: distinct from, prior to, and dominating over the various individuals. It is divinized—literally deified—and set up on the emptied altar of God. This would be bad enough if it were merely an abstract theory with no influence on conduct. So far, however, from being that, it translates itself into practice immediately, even necessarily, by turning the state into a Moloch on whose cruel altar nearly every right of human personality is immolated. If we cannot see this exemplified in the various totalitarian states of today, we can see nothing.

But I may not here pursue this subject further. I assume that man has the right to possess something, and that that right is implemented in a whole host of ways, by any number of contingent facts and circumstances, which result in determining, with sufficient accuracy, the right of the individual A to a given object B. This right must be respected by everyone other than A, including the state itself, though the state may have the power and even the obligation of seeing that A’s claim is not exercised to the detriment of the rights of others.

Justice is subdivided by moralists into legal, distributive, and commutative. Legal justice binds a man to respect the rights of the community for the common good. It obliges rulers to just legislation and the ruled to due obedience.
Distributive justice lays upon rulers the obligation of dividing public benefits and public burdens impartially and equitably, in proper proportions, among the ruled. It is the virtue of those in authority. Commutative justice urges the private individual to render to other such individuals all that is strictly due to them, and in terms of arithmetical equality. It is in this sense that the word is most commonly used; and it is this virtue that is particularly prescribed by the seventh and tenth commandments. We must not steal the goods of another; we must not even covet them deliberately. And under the word “steal” is included every fraudulent transaction.

In recent times, much has been spoken and written about what is called social justice. It raises, however, issues too vast to be even summarily dealt with here. Suffice it to say that it presupposes commutative justice and can neither violate it nor substitute for it. Its basic principles are laid down in the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI as nowhere else, and the problem of our time is to reduce these to practice. A very admirable discussion of the whole question, by Rev. E.J. Coyne, S.J., marked the Lent of last year and will be fresh in the memory of all who interest themselves in the matter. I am not treating of it at all. I am speaking of commutative justice. And of this virtue, I say unhesitatingly that it is fundamental for the social and economic life of mankind and imperatively necessary in our dealings with one another. The whole vast machinery of commerce and exchange, of credit and international trade, from simple barter up to the most elaborate operations on the bourses of the world, depend upon it. And every single violation of it is a grain of dust thrown into that complex machinery, tending to clog it, paralyze its operation, and produce economic chaos.

Roguery, in all its protean forms, in all its dimensions, whether it be petty larceny or gigantic swindling, makes for the impoverishment of the whole community. It is a crime against society. And if it spreads sufficiently, it can simply ruin a whole social order.

Editor’s note: The above excerpt was taken from Written in Stone: How the Ten Commandments Strengthen and Heal Our World, available now from Sophia Institute Press.

Photo by Murray Campbell on Unsplash


Fr. P. J. Gannon (1879–1953), a Jesuit, was one of Ireland’s foremost preachers and pamphleteers. He was a professor of theology and apologetics and a beloved retreat master who wrote numerous articles for Irish and American Catholic publications.

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