THE RIGHT OF POSSESSION
1. Earthly goods are necessary to man’s subsistence, such as food, clothes, a dwelling-place, money, etc.
1. Consequently every man is justified in striving to gain earthly goods after a just manner, and in possessing them as his personal property.
Since it is the natural right of every man to preserve his own life, he is justified in gaining for himself and keeping as his own, those external goods which are indispensable to his existence. If every moment were occupied in providing for his own maintenance, he would be in the direst destitution, if sickness or misfortune befell him. The natural law prompts him to provide for such contingencies. Besides, were every moment engrossed with the business of self-maintenance, there would be no time to attend to his eternal interests. Furthermore, a man is bound to provide for those who are dependent upon him, and this he could not do if he himself lived from hand to mouth. God commanded our first parents in paradise to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. i. 28). Cain and Abel had separate possessions; each brought of his own to offer sacrifice. All trustworthy information respecting the earliest ages of humanity bears evidence to the possession of personal property. It was necessary that each should have his own, otherwise mankind could not have been at peace. There would have been continual strife and contention. Without the right of possession, the incentive to labor would be wanting. The holding of property is therefore an ordinance of God, just as much as marriage and legal authority. But it cannot be said that the distribution of wealth, as it is under existing circumstances, is in accordance with the will of God. It could not be His will that a small minority should enjoy a superfluity, while an over whelming majority of His children should live in poverty and destitution. This great inequality is the result of sin.
2. Personal property is justly obtained when it is either acquired by labor or by gift.
Nature does not give man the right to certain goods; the right to possess them must be acquired. It is acquired in the first place by labor. God has ordained that the earth should not yield what is requisite- for the maintenance of human life without cultivation. It is a violation of all justice to deprive the cultivator of the soil of what he has won by the sweat of his brow (Lev. xiii.). If the earth is the Lord’s and all they that dwell therein, because He is the Maker of it, that which man has made must rightly belong to him. Property as a rule, is gained by work, but sometimes it is a free gift. God Himself bestows property. He promised the land of Chanaan to Abraham and his posterity as a possession (Gen. xii. 7). The patriarchs bequeathed their possessions to their eldest sons by a solemn benediction. In the present day lands and property of all kinds pass into the hands of others by inheritance or bequest. Every man should make a will, in order to prevent disputes should he be suddenly called out of this life. In primitive times property was acquired by taking possession of unowned land; and now valuables, if unclaimed, may be appropriated by their finder.
1. On the other hand, this commandment forbids the acquisition of property by unjust means, i.e., by taking away what belongs to our neighbor.
Property is unjustly acquired by theft, robbery, cheating, etc.
2. The State has not the right to take from any man his personal property, but it is empowered to impose restrictions on the acquisition and disposal of personal property.
The State has not a paramount command over all property. It has a certain right of supervision, but not of disposal. The people do not exist for the Government, but the Government exists for the people; consequently far from wronging any man, it ought to aim at the welfare of each and all of its subjects. Therefore if the State compels an individual to give up his property in the public interest, it is bound to give him compensation. Nor has the State the right to seize ecclesiastical property. To rob a man is theft, to rob God is sacrilege, and for this the penalty is excommunication. Restitution must be made before the Holy See can give absolution. Since it is the business of the secular authorities, under God, to provide for the well-being of their subjects, the Government is empowered by wise legislation, to introduce gradual changes in regard to the hold ing of property. It can impose such taxes as are necessary for the common weal upon its subjects, in proportion to their means. Thus by heavy taxation of wealthy capitalists it can alleviate the poverty of the working classes. Moreover, St. Thomas Aquinas says this world’s riches are only intended for the preservation of human life. This end is not attained if they are already in the possession of individuals; therefore every one is bound of his abundance to assist those who are in want. The superfluity of the rich is the property of the poor. Thus the Government, in exercising its right of guardianship, can do something towards the just distribution of superfluous wealth.
against the Seventh Commandment
The Seventh Commandment expressly forbids: Theft, robbery, cheating, usury, injuring the property of another, detention of goods that have been found or lent, and the non-payment of debts.
1. Theft is the secret purloining of another man’s goods contrary to the rational will of their owner.
Judas was a thief; he had the purse, and appropriated a part of the common money (John xii. 6). Few sins are more common than theft, and this fact may be accounted for in the first place by the covetousness of the human heart, and also by the abundant opportunities afforded for stealing. Occasion makes the thief. But if a man steal when he is starving, or as the only means of saving his life in an extremity, it is not to be reckoned as a sin, provided he has the intention to restore what he has stolen when he is in better circumstances (Prov. vi. 30). Our Lord did not rebuke the apostles when, in passing through a cornfield, they plucked the ears of corn and eat the grain because they were hungry (Matt. xii. 1). To conceal or purchase goods that are known to be stolen is to render one’s self a partner in the sin.
2. Robbery is theft accompanied by personal violence.
If a robber kills, or mortally wounds his victim, the crime is said to be robbery with murder. Of this the robbers were guilty who attacked the Jew on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke z. 30). The forcible extortion of alms is also equivalent to robbery.
3. Cheating consists in injuring one’s neighbor in his possessions by crafty means.
For instance, by the use of false weights and measures, the issue of counterfeit coin, the adulteration of food, the falsification of documents, the removal of boundary-marks, smuggling, or arson in view of obtaining the insurance money. “Let no man overreach, or circumvent his brother in business” (1 Thess. iv. 6).
4. Usury consists in making use of the needy circumstances of another to one’s own profit (Exod. xxii. 25).
The usurer is called a money-lender, if he lends money at a high rate of interest to one who is in pecuniary difficulties, or a speculator, if he buys up corn and keeps it until a time of scarcity, in order to, sell it at a high price. Under the appearance of helping a man in need, the usurer involves him in greater complications. He is like a doctor who instead of strengthening his patient, saps the little force he had; or like a spider that weaves a web more and more closely; round the unhappy fly and sucks every drop of its blood. Usurers are murderers of the poor; they take from them their means of livelihood, and thus deprive them of life.
5. Willfully injuring another man’s property, keeping back: what one has found or what has been lent to one, and refusing! to pay one’s debts, is equivalent to stealing.
We may injure our neighbor in his property by setting it on fire, by treading down his crops, damaging his goods, fishing or shooting on his grounds without permission, etc. To keep what one has found, and not to return what has been lent to the owner is theft. Joseph’s; brethren did well in directly taking back the money they found in! their sacks. The more valuable the object one finds, the greater the obligation to give it up to the owner; and if one does not know to whom it belongs, one ought to take steps to discover him. Many people are very careless in returning books, instruments or implements which they have borrowed, and they show displeasure if the owner asks for them. Be careful about lending and very careful about returning. The non-payment of debts also is a kind of stealing. It is a bad thing to get into debt; the debtor is like a man who, when his legs begin to fail him, hobbles onward with a crutch. But it is a sin to borrow and not pay again (Ps. xxxvi. 21). Many people get into debt to satisfy their craving for amusement, to gratify their passions, or for the sake of dressing above their station, and they scarcely think this wrong. Tradespeople sin when they fraudulently declare themselves bankrupts. But most blameworthy of all are those who do not pay their servants and workpeople; this is a sin that cries to heaven. It is theft, and a sort of murder, too, to keep back the wages of a poor laborer, who lives on his daily earnings. “The wages of him that hath been hired by thee shall not abide with thee until the morning” (Lev. xix. 13). “Pay him the price of his labor the same day” (Deut, xxiv. 15). “Owe no man anything, but to love one another” (Rom. xiii. 8).
1. We are in danger of committing mortal sin if we take from our neighbor as much as he requires to support him one day in a manner suitable to his position.
Our sin against our neighbor is greater or less in proportion to the wrong we do him. To steal a few pence from one who is utterly destitute, or a few shillings from a laboring man is a mortal sin; it is equivalent to stealing a considerable sum from a rich man. It is also a sin to take trifling sums repeatedly from the same person, for in time they make a large amount. One ought not to take the smallest thing that is not one’s own. Fidelity in small things is most important, for God punishes little sins, and unfaithfulness in small things leads to grave sins. By disregarding petty thefts many a criminal has come to the gallows.