The Seventh and Tenth Commandments
“The Seventh Commandment prescribes the practice of justice and charity in the administration of the goods of the earth and of the fruits of the work of men” (2451), reads the Catechism’s summary related to this law of God. Operative language throughout are expressions like: the common good, human dignity, fundamental needs, human solidarity – in short, terminology from the Church’s social encyclicals, but especially the thought of Pope John Paul II. While clearly and strongly supporting the right to private property, the text reminds us that that right is not absolute, for the earth was originally given “to the whole of humanity.” Hence, “the universal destination of these goods remains fundamental” (2403); this requires of public authority the regulation of “the legitimate exercise of the right to property” (2406).
As we look at how people should approach temporal goods, Christians will be guided by “the practice of the virtue of temperance, to moderate the attachment to worldly goods,” as well as justice and solidarity. Theft is a clear violation of the Seventh Commandment and of justice; it is defined as “the usurpation of the goods of another against the reasonable will of the owner.” However, it is not a question of theft if the consent of the owner is presumed or “if the refusal is contrary to reason and the universal destination of goods.”
In other words, basic human needs (like food, shelter and clothing) supersede one’s right to private property. Other sins against justice include: deliberate retention of lost or stolen goods; fraud in commerce; paying unjust wages; price-fixing. Similarly, one is obliged to honor promises and contracts and to pay one’s debts. When injustice has been done, reparation must be made.
“Games of chance or betting are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive the person of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others” (2413). Again, one can see Catholic moderation here – no unnecessary blanket condemnations but a call to use right judgment or prudence, with a proper sense of priorities. Slavery is proscribed because treating people like merchandise is a denial of their personal dignity.
Also obligatory is what “political correctness” today might label “an ecological sense.” Although the Catechism notes that man was given dominion over all creation, it also reminds us that this is not absolute: “It is measured by the care for the quality of life of the neighbor and takes into account coming generations; it demands a religious respect for the integrity of creation” (2415). A tender love for animals is counselled, relying on the example of saints like Francis of Assisi or Philip Neri; but this is not lop-sided, for it also acknowledges the right to use animals for food and clothing, as well as for medical experimentation to benefit man – albeit not to cause them useless suffering. At the same time, the Catechism chastises those who spend inordinate amounts of money on animals, resources that could be better used to alleviate human misery.
In treating the social doctrine of the Church, the text holds that any system completely determined by economic considerations “is contrary to the nature of the human person and his acts” and is thus unacceptable; for such reasons, the Church, it says, has rejected theories and systems like communism and socialism, but has also uttered strong cautions in regard to capitalism, always keeping in view “a just hierarchy of values and. . . the common good” (2425). Human work, à la John Paul II, is seen as proceeding from the dignity of one created in the image and likeness of the Creator-God; it also unites one with Christ’s own redemptive work. Reminiscent of St. José-Maria Escrivá, the text teaches that “work can be a means of sanctification and an animation of earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ” (2427).
Through it all, however, one must never forget that “work is for man, and not man for work.” The responsibility of the State in this sphere is to provide the needed guarantees, “so that those who work can enjoy the fruit of their labor and thus be encouraged to accomplish their work with efficiency and honesty” and to “watch over and conduct the application of human rights in the economic sector.” Rights delineated include: access to work; a just wage; striking (when necessary).
In turning to justice among nations, the Catechism again falls back on the rubric of “solidarity,” as wealthy nations are instructed regarding their “grave responsibility” toward poorer ones. Direct aid, reform of institutions, and overall development of human society are all discussed as ways of meeting this obligation. Such social action is, according to the Catechism and Vatican II and the very rich teachings of John Paul II, preeminently the work of the laity, who are especially suited and deputed “to enliven temporal realities with a Christian zeal and thereby lead the way as artisans of peace and justice” (2442).
Reflection on the Seventh Commandment ends with a meditation on the Christian meaning of love for the poor, which love – we are told – “is incompatible with the immoderate love of riches or their egoistic use.” Some powerful citations from Fathers of the Church including John Chrysostom and Gregory the Great should help all realize that the Church’s love for the poor has indeed been part of “her constant tradition,” neither a novelty of the modern era nor a dispensable commodity for those seeking a comfortable religion which never hits one’s wallet or pocketbook.
Such a teaching is likewise a fitting point of departure for an examination of the Tenth Commandment which “forbids unbridled greed, born of the excessive passion for riches and their power” (2552). Very wisely, the text connects such drives to incipient forms of idolatry. In addition to avarice, this commandment likewise prohibits envy (a capital sin), which is described as “the sadness suffered in the face of the good of another and the excessive desire to take it away, even unjustly.” It is called a “capital” sin because envy, like its six brothers, can easily lead to other sins (e.g., theft, hatred, even murder).
The Catechism astutely moves on immediately to provide a remedy, which is to be found in the development of Christian virtue which fosters “the desires of the Spirit,” like benevolence, humility and abandonment to the Providence of God (2554). It also means seeking to become “pure in heart,” which is the precondition for entering into the Kingdom of Heaven; but that final goal cannot occur when one is weighed down by excessive desires of a materialistic nature. The one desire which keeps one from sin and guarantees access to the Kingdom is summed up in the line, “I want to see God.” That desire is good and holy, and there is no commandment against it.
Some specific applications
While stealing is mentioned directly in the Seventh Commandment, we are also concerned with more than stealing.
The deliberate destruction of another’s property (real or personal) is a sinful act, because it takes away from an owner that which he has lawfully acquired and to which he is entitled. As a diminution of a person’s possessions, vandalism is a form of stealing because the value of an object has been decreased by the damage inflicted. To the extent that it’s motivated by hatred, anger or revenge, other sins also come into play.
Cheating is also sinful, which may involve the failure to give someone all of his or her due, as in taking change in a store, or in a decision not to pay all one’s taxes. Cheating on tests by students has always occurred, but today its frequency and the lightness with which it is viewed (often by students and teachers alike) is cause for greater concern. Cheating in an academic context is not only theft but also a lie, since a paper submitted with one’s name on it claims to be an accurate statement of knowledge possessed by the signer.
The employer-employee relationship also falls under the Seventh Commandment. Employees owe their employers a solid day’s work for a just wage. Employers should also feel secure that their property is safe with their employees. In encyclicals like Solicitudo Rei Socialis and Centesimus Annus, John Paul II took up with renewed interest some of the themes of Leo XIII. Thus, he reminded employers that they have obligations toward their employees, who should never be viewed merely as cogs in the wheel of a mass production process. Workers must never be robbed of their dignity, their right to enjoy the fruit of their labor – both materially and spiritually – and especially their ability to see themselves as contributing to the good of society by their labor.
The fact that stores still have “lost and found” departments says that most people still understand that the Seventh Commandment calls for the return of lost items, in the hope that their proper owner will return to recover them. If no reasonable hope exists for the discovery of a potential owner (as in finding money on a sidewalk), the finder may retain ownership of the article. Too quick an application of “finders keepers, losers weepers,” however, suggests a less than honest appreciation of another’s right to personal property.
When the Seventh Commandment has been violated, a penitent will always be told in confession that restitution must be made as a sign of true contrition and complete satisfaction of the wrong committed. At times, it may not be possible to make direct restitution; in that case, some charity should become the beneficiary of the amount or object stolen.
To this point, we have been considering acts of stealing, but how does anyone get to that point? Through greed, which is the inordinate desire for material possessions. Note that I say “inordinate.” In other words, a desire for material possessions is not wrong in itself but can become wrong. Two passages of Scripture can help explain this distinction, which is so important but so frequently missed.
In conversations, we often hear people remark, ‘Money is the root of all evil.” The quotation, however, is not really accurate. St. Paul instructs Timothy: ‘’The love of money is the root of all evils.”(1 Tim 6:10). In other words, money (or any material possession) is morally neutral; the human person transforms that basic neutrality into a good or an evil. “The love of money” implies the inordinate desire mentioned earlier.
This passage is further clarified in some remarks by Our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. In the sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, he presents Christ’s view of material things. We hear Jesus encourage His disciples to be detached from things – and most especially, from the love of money. Christ also exhorts His followers not to engage in fruitless worry. He is not unrealistic here, however, for He goes on to say that the reason for a believer’s lack of worry is not a removal from the physical demands of life, but is rather due to a firm trust in Divine Providence.
Jesus finally reminds His listeners that “your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Mt 6:32). In other words, certain things are necessary for life. The believer, though, will have a set of priorities: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness.” And the result? “. . . all these things (the necessities of life) shall be yours as well” (Mt 6:33).
Christ saw clearly the difference between needs and wants, between necessities and luxuries. When our list of needs starts to get long, chances are that many “wants” have slipped in. The result can be very destructive. For example, in the days of pop catechetics, it was common to ask students to imagine themselves in a house on fire, in which they could remove only one object. Which would it be for you, they were asked, and why? It was a surprisingly good exercise. Students had to examine their priorities. Some people, alas, are so attached to so many things that in the case of a fire, they would need a U-Haul truck. And that, on a national scale, is the story of modem materialism. We must admit that the economic crisis of 2008 was not just a result of the greed on Wall Street; the greed on Wall Street was fed by the greed on Main Street.
We often speak of America as a “consumer” or “consumerist” society. But it would really be more accurate to refer to ours as a “consumed society” – people consumed by desires for the latest gadgets; gimmicks designed to show off their owner as part of the “real world” or the “in group.” This kind of mental hunger does not merely require a car, a television, suit or game but the right brand of car, television, suit or game. That betrays a frightening shallowness because it is taken so seriously by millions of Americans who, in turn, export it to other nations. The simple Roman collar or Sister’s veil is a powerful challenge to our “consumed” society to reconsider its priorities, and a silent but effective statement that the Lord of this person’s life is Jesus Christ – not Calvin Klein or Apple.
As we consider economics, it is important to realize that, from a Christian perspective, no economic system is sacred because every economy is produced and lived by weak, sinful people, so that any system can have dehumanizing effects. It is only the human person in all his complexity and mystery who can alter systems. The first step, for a believer, is routing out all those inordinate desires which end up exploiting the weakness of others, desires which reduce other people either to objects or obstacles in our grasping for material possessions.1
The connection between the Seventh and Tenth Commandments is brought out beautifully in Guy de Maupassant’s short story, “The Necklace.” It also shows where a lack of priorities can lead, dramatizing the futility of materialism in a most effective way:
A Parisian woman was never satisfied with what her husband could provide on a government clerk’s salary and constantly nagged him for more. One night he came home with two tickets to the inaugural ball. He was sure these would make her happy. Instead, her response was, “What good are they? I have nothing to wear to such an occasion.” The husband offered her money he had been saving so that she could buy a new gown. She was briefly pleased, but soon realized that she had no jewelry worthy of so beautiful a dress. She then took, without permission, a wealthy lady friend’s piece of jewelry – a magnificent necklace. In the course of the evening, she lost the necklace and only became aware of this on her return home.
Her husband immediately suggested that she call her friend. She refused. Rather, she went to a jeweler the following day to find a replica at a cost the equivalent of several thousand dollars, for which she obviously needed a loan. It took ten years of real drudgery to pay off the loan, in addition to the loss of her so-called friends. One day she met her old friend from whom she had “borrowed” the necklace, only to learn that the friend no longer recognized her, so much had the years of labor aged her. Finally, she told her all about the lost necklace, its replacement, the loan and the hard work. “Five thousand dollars for that necklace?” said the lady. “But my dear, it was only costume jewelry and worth $100 at most.”
The point is: What do I spend my whole life working for? In the end, will I have time to enjoy it? Or is it even worth the effort to begin with?
These two Commandments invite some very positive introspection. What about our priorities? And how much of our own lives is dominated by that modern form of idolatry, which is materialism?
2450 “You shall not steal” (⇒ Ex 20:15; ⇒ Deut 5:19). “Neither thieves, nor the greedy, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” (⇒ 1 Cor 6:10).
2451 The seventh commandment enjoins the practice of justice and charity in the administration of earthly goods and the fruits of men’s labor.
2452 The goods of creation are destined for the entire human race. the right to private property does not abolish the universal destination of goods.
2453 The seventh commandment forbids theft. Theft is the usurpation of another’s goods against the reasonable will of the owner.
2454 Every manner of taking and using another’s property unjustly is contrary to the seventh commandment. the injustice committed requires reparation. Commutative justice requires the restitution of stolen goods.
2455 The moral law forbids acts which, for commercial or totalitarian purposes, lead to the enslavement of human beings, or to their being bought, sold or exchanged like merchandise.
2456 The dominion granted by the Creator over the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be separated from respect for moral obligations, including those toward generations to come.
2457 Animals are entrusted to man’s stewardship; he must show them kindness. They may be used to serve the just satisfaction of man’s needs.
2458 The Church makes a judgment about economic and social matters when the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls requires *. She is concerned with the temporal common good of men because they are ordered to the sovereign Good, their ultimate end.
2459 Man is himself the author, center, and goal of all economic and social life. the decisive point of the social question is that goods created by God for everyone should in fact reach everyone in accordance with justice and with the help of charity.
2460 The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and beneficiary. By means of his labor man participates in the work of creation. Work united to Christ can be redemptive.
2461 True development concerns the whole man. It is concerned with increasing each person’s ability to respond to his vocation and hence to God’s call (cf CA 29).
2462 Giving alms to the poor is a witness to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.
2463 How can we not recognize Lazarus, the hungry beggar in the parable (cf ⇒ Lk 17:19-31), in the multitude of human beings without bread, a roof or a place to stay? How can we fail to hear Jesus: “As you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me” (⇒ Mt 25:45)?
2551 “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (⇒ Mt 6:21).
2552 The tenth commandment forbids avarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power.
2553 Envy is sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to have them for oneself. It is a capital sin.
2554 The baptized person combats envy through good-will, humility, and abandonment to the providence of God.
2555 Christ’s faithful “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (⇒ Gal 5:24); they are led by the Spirit and follow his desires.
2556 Detachment from riches is necessary for entering the Kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”
2557 “I want to see God” expresses the true desire of man. Thirst for God is quenched by the water of eternal life (cf In 4:14).
1An invaluable resource is the – unfortunately – little-known Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published in 2004 by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the request of John Paul II.
Related at CWR:
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 1)” (Feb 23, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 2)” (Mar 2, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 3)” (March 10, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 4)” (March 17, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 5)” (March 23, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
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