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Chapter 10: Work, Subhuman Realities, and Property

Question F: What Are One’s Responsibilities as to Others’ Property?

Others here refers to other individuals, families, businesses, or communities of which one is not a member. One should borrow others’ property responsibly, respect their property rights, and help them fulfill their property responsibilities. Not only outward sins but sins of thought bearing on material goods should be avoided.

1. One Should Help Others in Matters of Property

Others should be helped both to meet their responsibilities as owners and to protect, use, and care for their property.

a) One should encourage others to be reasonable about property. Injustice and lack of mercy about property are widespread; and in affluent societies owners often fail to grasp all that justice toward those in need requires of them. By word and example, a person should help others understand and fulfill their responsibilities in matters of property. Jesus does teach that his followers should avoid hypocritical display in giving alms (see Mt 6.2–4). Nevertheless, he also teaches that they should allow the light of their good works to shine for others’ edification and God’s glory (see Mt 5.14–16). Consequently, false modesty should not inhibit one’s effective witness to the requirement of justice that owners use their property fairly to meet others’ needs.

Sometimes Christians not only fail to encourage sound attitudes about property but even encourage unsound ones. Indeed, those who wish to sell things often do this deliberately by arousing and nurturing merely emotional motives in potential buyers so that they waste money which should be put to other uses.

Moreover, in a consumerist society, people often show great interest in others’ property, commend them for it, praise its good features, and so on; while proud owners often display their wealth and glory in it, soliciting appreciation from friends and acquaintances. These practices may manifest good intentions of friendliness and sociability, but one should be cautious about engaging in them, for they may also manifest materialistic attitudes and support the sinful social practice of consumerism.

b) Others should be helped to acquire and use things well. This can be done in various ways, especially by providing accurate information and offering sound, disinterested advice. Due to misleading advertising and the variety and complexity of available goods, some people need help to discern the real quality and value of available products and learn how to use and care for things. For example, some purchase computer equipment they never learn to use; but someone experienced with computers and their uses can help others avoid unnecessary purchases and obtain what they truly need, then show them how to set up the equipment and learn to use it.

One may also help owners meet their responsibilities by informing them about others’ needs which they might be able to satisfy and encouraging them to consider whether they can and should do so.

c) Others should be helped to protect and care for property. Opportunities sometimes arise to help others maintain or protect their property. For example, noticing that an automobile is leaking oil, or that the owner has forgotten to turn the lights out or lock the doors, one may be able to call his or her attention to the matter. Again, someone who notices signs of a fire or a possible burglary at an absent neighbor’s home has a strict duty to call the fire department or the police.

d) Lost property usually should be returned to its owner. Protecting and returning lost property constitute a special and important case of helping its owner. Plainly, a finder who can return a lost item to its readily identifiable owner without significant trouble should do so. Even if this is not possible, one should make a reasonable effort to prevent other, possibly dishonest finders from stealing a lost item, by taking it into custody or turning it over to appropriate authorities, such as a lost-and-found office or the police.

Finders who fulfill these responsibilities are entitled to nothing more than fair compensation for their trouble and expense. However, owners rightly express their gratitude by rewarding finders who return lost property, and those who promise rewards should keep their word.

When finders have done all they should without locating the owner of lost property, they may consider it their own. What if the original owner subsequently comes to light? If the item is consumable or can wear out, and the finder has used it up or worn it out, the original owner has no claim to compensation. However, if the item remains useful, both the former owner and the finder have some claim to it, which must be resolved by the property system’s provisions, if any, and by directly applying the Golden Rule. Again, sharing the item or its value often will be the appropriate resolution.

e) The duty to return lost property admits of certain exceptions. If obviously lost property—for example, small change lying on a sidewalk—is of little worth and its ownership would be difficult to determine, the finder may appropriate it. If finders would suffer unfair burdens or risks by returning lost property or safeguarding it, they need do no more than what is fair: what they and other reasonable owners would expect honest finders to do.

When special diligence and risk are needed to recover lost property and its owner declines to attempt recovery, another finder has a reasonable claim to the item; the conditions and limits of such a claim usually are specified by the property system.

Occasionally the finder of a lost item would have been justified in taking it without the permission of its legal owner (see 3.a, below). In such a case, the finder becomes its true owner in taking possession of it.

f) One should take good care of property entrusted by others. Someone who agrees to hold others’ property in safekeeping, to serve as a guard, to manage investments, or something of the sort, should fulfill that promise just like other promises. It is beside the point whether one is employed to do the service or is doing it gratuitously. In using an employers’ tools and materials, a person not only should resist any temptation to express hostile feelings by abusing them but should comply with all reasonable instructions and avoid waste.

2. One Should Not Unfairly Harm Others in Respect to Their Property

Material goods are extrinsic to persons, but serve them; moreover, property often pertains in some way to its owners’ bodily reality, insofar as it has been personalized by their use of it. For these reasons, damaging or destroying property or impeding its owner’s use and enjoyment of it harms the owner. That harm never should be intended, but sometimes may be accepted as a side effect.

a) One should not purposely harm others through their property. Hostile feelings toward others often are related to their property: one envies people their fine possessions or is indignant about their economic domination. Sometimes, however, the cause of hostile feelings is unrelated to property; for example, one’s honor is attacked or one’s friendship betrayed. In either case, the temptation can arise to try to harm others by damaging or destroying their property, or by impeding their use of it. Even if one has a just grievance, it is always a grave wrong to give in to this temptation, for that involves a will directly contrary to love of neighbor, just like any other act chosen precisely out of malice. Of course, when people act out of petty spite without sufficient reflection and/or consent, as often happens, they do not sin mortally.

b) One should not purposely harm property without a reason. Even apart from hostile feelings toward any particular person or group, merely emotional motives such as generalized hostility or mischievousness sometimes tempt people to harm property—to throw stones at passing vehicles, make graffiti, set fire to abandoned buildings, spread destructive computer viruses, and so on. Though no harm may be intended, such behavior always does harm people or, at least, risks harming them, and these bad effects cannot be justified, since the behavior has no rational point. Moreover, those affected seldom are likely to consider the harm insignificant, and so such acts usually are grave matter. Of course, children and immature adults who do such things often lack sufficient reflection.

c) Others’ property should not be harmed unfairly. It is possible to choose to harm another’s property or to do something which incidentally harms it without intending either to harm the owner or acting on a merely emotional motive. A person might kill someone’s animal to protect a child, destroy timber to limit a fire, damage an automobile to prevent a criminal’s escape, and so on. Of course, if anything else about the act makes it wrong, the property damage cannot be justified; but even if nothing else makes the act wrong, it can be unfair, for instance, if one would pursue the same end differently if one’s own property were at stake. Even when there is a reason for deliberately damaging another’s property, fairness may require compensation to the owner.

d) One should be careful not to harm others’ property by accident. While no level of care can exclude accidents entirely, people generally want others to exercise a certain level of care to avoid harming their property, and so are bound in fairness to exercise like care to avoid harming the property of others.

In many circumstances, too, people want compensation from anyone who accidentally harms their property, and so they are bound in fairness to compensate another in similar circumstances for harming his or hers. Unless the damage is minor, it is a grave matter to evade this responsibility, for example, by driving away without leaving a note after negligently damaging someone’s parked car.

3. One Should Not Unfairly Take Others’ Property

While legal systems typically, and reasonably, define theft narrowly, as a moral category it should be understood broadly, so as to include every unfair taking, that is, all appropriation or use of the property of another individual or family, or of any organization or society, contrary to the owner’s reasonable will.94

“You shall not steal” is one of the Ten Commandments (Ex 20.15; cf. Lv 19.11, 13; Dt 5.19; Jer 7.9–10; Zec 5.3–4). Like the others, it is endorsed by Jesus and presented in New Testament catechesis as an essential requirement of love of neighbor (see Mt 15.19, 19.18; Mk 7.21, 10.19; Lk 18.20; Rom 13.9; 1 Cor 6.10).

a) Taking and using against a legal owner’s will may be justified. In general, it should be assumed that no property may be taken or used without the legal owner’s express consent or, at least, a reasonable presumption of that consent. Still, there are two kinds of cases in which this general assumption can be set aside.

Sometimes epikeia applies (see D.3.d, above). Even though the owner has legal title to the property according to the norms of just law and has not consented to its being taken or used, one’s need is grave and urgent, and one is morally certain the lawmaker would have authorized an exception to the law to meet that need. In such a case, the owner should consent to the taking or use of the property required to meet the need, and so the owner’s right is not violated and the necessary taking or using is morally justified (see S.t., 2–2, q. 66, a. 7).

At other times the owner’s legal title to the property is morally defective, because granted or sustained by an unjust legal norm. If other relevant conditions are met (see 11.D.3.b–c), the property system’s unjust norm may be set aside, and the legal owner’s morally groundless claim may be ignored. In this way, even though the need is not grave and urgent enough to justify an exception to a just norm of a property system, the reason may be serious enough to justify ignoring an unjust norm.

Thus, if someone certainly owes one something in strict justice but, relying on the property system’s inadequate justice, refuses to render what actually is due, one may stealthily take it.95 Moreover, in a society whose unjust property system carefully protects the rights of powerful owners while ignoring the basic needs of the powerless, with the bad result that the wealthy live luxuriously while the poor, even with parsimony and hard work, cannot meet all their basic needs, the poor can be morally justified in using or taking what legally belongs to the wealthy, not just to survive, but to meet any genuine need which cannot otherwise be met. (Genuine need was clarified in E.1.b, above.)

Of course, no one ever is justified in taking anything against its legal owner’s will in order to put it to some use wrong in itself. For example, a destitute drug addict may not steal from the rich to support his or her self-destructive habit. Even if taking and using property against the owner’s will is justified, moreover, it does not follow that someone who does so is justified in employing bad means, such as threats of bodily harm, lying, and so on. Nor may one ignore foreseen bad consequences—whether to society at large, to innocent persons, or to oneself—which often cannot be rightly accepted.

b) Many acts not usually considered theft are theft morally. Although differing in various ways, some of them morally significant, various kinds of acts are easily recognized as sharing the common malice of theft: burglary, robbery, embezzlement, misappropriation of funds, and unauthorized appropriation of an employer’s supplies or products. In general, all obtaining of money, goods, and services by fraud or unjust coercion involves the same injustice as theft: falsifying something’s value in selling it, lying in order to obtain a more favorable contract, taking bribes or kickbacks, padding expense accounts, overstating the hours one has worked, charging for work not done, knowingly passing forged checks or counterfeit bills, incurring debts with the intention of declaring bankruptcy, concealing assets in order to obtain undue payments or benefits, rigging markets, fixing competitions so that prizes or gambling winnings will accrue to certain persons, extortion, blackmail, and so on. Moreover, all wrongful retention amounts to unfair taking: deliberately not returning what one has borrowed, neglecting or refusing to pay just debts, keeping articles which have been found and should be returned, deliberately accepting something (such as change or a delivery) which one receives by mistake, concealing assets (for example, in a bankruptcy proceeding) in order to avoid making due payments, and so on.96 Finally, failure to compensate fairly for the use of others’ property or for damage to it also has the character of theft: infringement of patents and copyrights, purchasing goods with the intent of returning them for full credit after having used them, evading liability for accidents, and so on.

c) Such acts should not too quickly be regarded as light matter. Like most other injustices, many forms of wrongful taking can admit parvity of matter. Casuists have discussed this question so often that legalistically minded thieves may be able to find opinions which seem to treat what they are doing as light matter. Before judging that one can engage in such an injustice without committing a mortal sin, however, a person should bear several things in mind.

First, the matter is not light if it is likely to cause serious harm to anyone. For example, stealing a very small amount from a child or a poor person can cause great distress; taking something of little value in itself can lead to considerable trouble and inconvenience. The matter cannot be judged light if a reasonable person in the circumstances of any individual harmed would consider the harm significant, that is, would be noticeably saddened or angered by harm of that kind and amount (see S.t., 2–2, q. 66, a. 6, ad 3). In evaluating the significance of harm suffered, however, one may take into account that a reasonable person might be less attached to property than some owners in fact are. For example, a wealthy individual of a miserly disposition might be very distressed if it appears that a cashier has shortchanged him or her by one dollar.

Again, even if an act or practice of wrongful taking does not harm any one person significantly, it may be gravely unjust because of its effect on the community as a whole. For example, petty cheating by some merchants in classifying, adulterating, weighing, and measuring goods can render honest competition impossible. Similarly, petty shoplifting can increase the costs of doing business so greatly that it cannot reasonably be considered insignificant; a sign of this is that public opinion generally supports the enforcement of laws forbidding it.

Given that an act is wrongful taking, doubts about its seriousness should be settled by presuming the matter grave. Someone who is willing to do wrong while doubtful about how serious the wrong will be, is willing to do the more serious wrong (see 5.I.2.a).

d) Circumstances can aggravate the seriousness of wrongful taking. Some forms of unfair taking—for instance, robbery, blackmail, and extortion—involve coercion or threats, which are likely to do the victim direct physical or psychological harm (see S.t., 2–2, q. 66, a. 9). Other forms, such as burglary, involve violating privacy. In many cases, too, those who engage in wrongful taking should foresee that their acts will harm innocent persons by casting suspicion on them or will impose additional burdens on those who suffer the loss, for example, emotional distress, the trouble of verifying the loss and reporting it to police, and so on. Also, lying often facilitates or is part of an act of wrongful taking. Because of such circumstances, many acts of wrongful taking harm persons and social relationships far beyond the material loss itself.

The wrongful taking of Church property is irreverent toward God, and so is a sacrilege (see 1.K.6).

e) A bad end always aggravates the seriousness of wrongful taking. Although a thief generally is interested in possessing what he or she steals, not in harming the owner, and may even regret that harm and impose it only reluctantly, sometimes the very point of wrongful taking is to harm the owner. Motivated by hatred, such wrongful taking is far more serious than that in which stealing is a means to some other end, for it is directly contrary to love of neighbor.

Also, whenever intended to provide the means for some other immoral act, wrongful taking not only does injustice to the owner but abuses the material good.

f) Circumstances can lessen the seriousness of wrongful taking. Since wrongful taking presupposes moral claims and intentions, not all acts are clear-cut. The conditions which can justify taking against a legal owner’s will are subject to judgment, which can be honest without being as careful as it should be. It makes sense to speak of family members stealing from one another, yet their property rights vis-à-vis one another often are unclear. Owners can be more or less reluctant to allow the taking of their property, for example, businesses often allow employees to make personal use of some facilities within unspecified limits. The obligation to pay the full price when a purchased good or service is not entirely satisfactory can be unclear. These and other circumstances can affect some of the essential elements of wrongful taking, thus perhaps lessening the seriousness of whatever wrong is done.

4. One Should Avoid Sins of Thought Bearing on Property

God’s commandments exclude not only wrongly taking others’ property but wrongly desiring it—coveting (see Ex 20.17, Dt 5.21). This sin can be committed by thinking of taking something illicitly, deliberately wishing to do so, and refraining only out of fear of the consequences. It also can be committed by deliberately hoping others will suffer some loss or harm from which one will benefit. For example, professionals covet if they hope more people will have problems so that they can raise their fees; merchants covet if they hope for a natural disaster which will cause shortages and higher prices.97

Besides coveting, a person also sins if, moved by envy or anger, he or she deliberately rejoices in losses others suffer in respect to their just possessions.

Moreover, it is sinful deliberately to long for wealth and possessions not in order to be able to fulfill one’s responsibilities but for merely emotional gratification. Perhaps one envies prosperous evildoers (see Ps 73.2–12); perhaps one imagines oneself equally prosperous and self-indulgent without being wicked. Perhaps one only daydreams about having wealth or possessions, without ill will toward the wealthy or a desire to take what is theirs; perhaps one resents class differences and looks forward to a time when the rich will be dispossessed. In any case: “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Tm 6.9). The heart is enslaved by inordinate wishes for wealth and possessions (see S.t., 2–2, q. 118, a. 1); and so, while it is “hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 19.23), St. Thomas, following St. John Chrysostom, holds that it “is impossible for those who set their hearts on riches” to do so (S.t., 2–2, q. 186, a. 3, ad 4).

Such sins of thought often involve grave matter, but are probably seldom committed with sufficient reflection. However, it is important to be aware of them and to resist temptations to commit them, since they distort one’s attitude toward material goods, thus easily leading to other sins.

94. See Catechismus ex decreto Ss. Concilii Tridentini ad parochos (The Catechism by Decree of the Holy Council of Trent), Latin text with trans. by J. Donovan (Rome: 1839), 3.8.5–14 (2:164–74).

95. This norm, called “occult compensation” by the approved authors, applies only to cases in which a particular owner is unwilling to meet a definite obligation, for example, an employer refuses to pay a just wage to a worker. The next sentence in the text broadens this norm to cases which the approved authors failed to consider, in which the wealthy in general fail to meet their obligations to the poor as a class.

96. St. John Chrysostom points out that failure to use one’s surplus to meet others’ needs is theft and robbery, even if those resources were inherited: De Lazaro concio, PG, 48.987–88 (On Wealth and Poverty, trans. Catherine P. Roth [Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984], 49–50).

97. See Catechismus ex decreto Ss. Concilii Tridentini, 3.10.23 (2:228–9).