1. He who has purloined from his neighbor or wronged him in his property, is under a strict obligation to restore the stolen goods or make compensation for the damage done (Lev. vi. 1-5).
A thief is not required to go himself and restore the stolen property to its owner; he may send it by the priest, who is pledged to secrecy, and will give him an acknowledgment of its receipt. On one occasion when Clement Hofbauer, the apostle of Vienna, handed over something that had been stolen to its owner, the latter refused to take it; but Hofbauer rejoined: “It is not wise to allow the thief to retain what he has purloined, or he will think stealing no great offense.”
The following rules are to be observed:
1. If the rightful owner of the stolen property is dead, it must be given to his heirs; and if there should be no heirs, it must be given to the poor or devoted to good works.
2. If the thief cannot restore the whole, he must at any rate restore as much as he can.
3. If poverty or other hindrances render the thief unable to make restitution immediately, he must at least resolve to do so as soon as possible, and he must make every effort to fulfil that resolution.
4. If the thief cannot restore even a part of what he has stolen, he ought at least to pray for the individual he has wronged.
2. If any one has unwittingly got stolen goods in his possession, he is bound to give them up to the rightful owner as soon as he becomes aware that they were stolen.
Thus any one who, whether by purchase or gift, has acquired pos session of something that was stolen, ought to give it back to its owner. If he does not know that it was stolen, he is said to be a just possessor, but if he does, then he is an unjust possessor. If the former be the case, not only must the stolen property itself be restored, but also whatever may have been gained by it without any labor on his part; if the latter, any loss the rightful proprietor may have sustained through the loss of his property must also be made good. At any rate it is well to refer the matter to one’s confessor, and follow his counsel, for he stands towards us in the place of God.
3. He who refuses either to give up the stolen property or to compensate for the loss sustained, will not obtain pardon of his sins from God, nor absolution from the priest.
“He that will not render what he hath robbed, shall die everlastingly” (Ezech. xxxiii. 15). It was not until Zacheus had declared his determination to make full restitution of all unjust gains, that Our Lord called him a son of Abraham (Luke xix. 9). As long as one who has wronged his neighbor refuses to make reparation, though he entreats the divine pardon with tears, though he seeks to appease the divine justice by fasts and penances, his sin will not be remitted. “Such a one,” St. Augustine says, “does not do penance, but only counterfeits it.” Without restitution there is no forgiveness. St. Alphonsus relates the story of a rich man who had gangrene in the arm, and was near death. The priest urged him to restore the property he had acquired unjustly; he refused on the plea that by doing so he would leave his three sons penniless. The priest bethought him of a stratagem. He said he knew of a means of cure, but it was a costly one. The sick man declared no sum would be too great to procure it. The priest replied that some living person must allow his hand to be burned and while raw, laid on that of the sufferer. The three sons were called, but neither of them would do this for their father. Then the priest said: “See, none of your children would hold his hand in the fire a few moments for you, and you are willing to endure the tortures of hell-fire to all eternity for their sakes.” This opened the sick man’s eyes; he went to confession and made restitution.
What are the Reasons which ought to Deter us from Transgress ing the Seventh Commandment?
The heathens of old held theft in abhorrence, and punished it very severely. The Anglo-Saxons (in the sixth century) used to cut off the hands of thieves; in Hungary they were sold as slaves. The Jews inflicted condign retribution on a thief; the man who at the taking of Jericho in spite of the prohibition carried away some of the spoil, was stoned to death by God’s command (Josue vii.). In former days the laws of the Church in regard to the sin of stealing were extremely rigorous; even for a petty theft restitution had to be made, and besides it was expiated by fasting for a year on bread and water. God Himself inflicts heavy chastisements on those who take what belongs to another, no matter how trifling the thing stolen; for whether it be great or small, the will to defraud is the same, and it is to the will that He looks.
People who wrong their neighbor in his property generally come to shame and poverty, often die unrepentant, and are in danger of everlasting damnation.
Confusion is upon a thief (Ecclus. v. 17). Stealing does not bring a man to honor, but to prison. Thieves are generally caught, sooner or later. Stealing is the way to poverty. Ill-gotten goods bring no blessing. He who steals another man’s goods will lose his own, for when that which he acquired unjustly is taken from him, that which was honestly acquired will go too. Stolen goods are like fire, which not only vanishes in smoke, but reduces everything near it to ashes. When the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity, there was great scarcity in the land. Some of the people profited by it to become rich; but when Nehemias came from Babylon to Jerusalem he was exceedingly angry, and rebuked the usurers. He shook his clothes before all the people, and called upon God to shake every man out of his house and out of his possessions, who did not restore what had been unjustly exacted, so that what he had got by usury might vanish as the dust (2 Esd. v. 1-13). “He that soweth iniquity shall reap evils” (Prov. xxii. 8). “The riches of the unjust shall be dried up like a river” (Ecclus. xl. 13). “Woe to him that heapeth together that which is not his own” (Hab. ii. 6). In justice is even the cause of the fall of whole nations (Ecclus. x. 8). Where are the ancient and mighty kingdoms of Babylon, of the Medes and Persians, of the Greeks, and the great empire of Rome? They came to ruin because they sought to extend their limits unjustly. Look at the state of Italy in the present day; since the Holy Father was robbed of his temporal possessions the taxation has been excessive, and a large portion of the population are starving. Furthermore thieves often come to a miserable end. Remember Judas wretched fate; what misery of mind, what torture of soul he endured before he hanged himself in despair! (Matt. xxvii. 5.) Those who have stolen or embezzled money are rarely brought to repentance, because they are unwilling to restore what they have taken. Even upon their death-bed they will not hear of making restitution. Be ware, therefore, of allowing yourself to touch what belongs to another. Moreover, if at the Last Day he will find no mercy who has not given of his substance to the needy, how much the more pitilessly will he be judged who has actually taken from his neighbor what was his (St. Augustine). Thieves and the covetous shall not possess the kingdom of God (2 Cor. vi. 10). The Mohammedans consider that he who so much as plucks an ear of corn from his neighbor’s cornfield, has done a disgraceful thing, and will go to hell. The dread of everlasting damnation deters many from committing acts of injustice. Of this the following story affords an example. A poor widow who had been defrauded of a plot of land belonging to her by a rich man, asked to be at least allowed to carry away a basket of earth. The man consented with a scornful smile; when the basket was filled, she further requested him to help her up with it on to her back. The rich man attempted to raise it, but it was too heavy for him to lift. “There,” said the widow, “if you find this basket of earth too great a weight, how will you bear the burden of the whole field for all eternity?” This remark made such an impression on the rich man that he gave the land back to the woman. Fools indeed are they who play away their chance of heaven for the sake of earth’s transitory riches! “What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Matt. xvi. 26.) By stealing you may obtain money, but you lose God. You think of the gain; forget not the loss.
The honest man will prosper upon earth (Ps. xxxvi. 25).
Tobias affords a model of upright conduct. Although he was blind and reduced to poverty, when he heard the bleating of a kid that had been given to his wife, he immediately said: “Take heed, lest perhaps it be stolen; restore ye it to its owners, for it is not lawful for us either to eat or to touch anything that cometh by theft” (Tob. ii. 21). God restored him to sight, and he lived forty-two years longer (Tob. xiv. 1). The Lord will not afflict the soul of the just with famine (Prov. x. 3). His ears are open unto his prayers (Ps. xxxiii. 16). Justice exalteth a nation (Prov. xiv. 34). Honesty is the best policy.
This article, 2. RESTITUTION OR SATISFACTION is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.