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“You shall not steal” (Exodus 20:15)

This commandment can be summed up in two words: “respect” and “responsibility” – respect for the rights of all people to material goods and responsibility in the stewarding of these goods.

Growing up as a child, in a middle-class family, as I did, the admonitions of my parents against stealing were clear and carried with them the two-fold consequences of punishment and reparation. I learned fast. I had my first test as an adult when I worked as a salesman at a food cannery. I would come home to my office from a trip to see my customers and dutifully itemize every expenditure – air travel, hotel, rental car, restaurants, miscellaneous – and hand it into the company CFO. One day, one of the other salesmen asked to see me. He proceeded to reproach me for being ‘too honest.’ He said I was making him and some of the others look bad. Evidently, they were padding their expenses. Being young and idealistic, I was astonished at his criticism. I like to be liked, but I found the inner strength to tell him I wasn’t going to change my ways.

We shouldn’t need an ethics professor to explain what fits into this commandment in our professional and social duties. However, Marianne Jennings, in her insightful book, “The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse,” reflecting on the business scandals of 2001-2003, makes the point that the MBA curriculum of the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S. taught the tools of managing earnings without discussing the ethical issues involved in manipulating such. She writes: “These executives were trained by a curriculum that convinced its charges that they were better, smarter, and above the proletarian notion of reporting debt and expenses. Managing earnings was taught as a means of delivering shareholder value. It wasn’t cooking the books, it was ‘financial engineering’…Skill was everything. Values were nothing. There were no moral absolutes.” 1

“You shall not steal,” then, covers a lot of moral ground. One could make the case that the present recession and this commandment are intimately connected. Here are some examples of theft in the marketplace:

  • Deception in advertising
  • Deception in merchandising
  • Destruction of private property
  • Price gouging
  • Business fraud/ Tax evasion
  • Running unnecessary risks with other peoples’ money
  • Defective workmanship
  • Lack of respect for the environment thus robbing from future generations
  • Paying unjust wages, such that the person is deprived of living a fully human life
  • Self-enrichment without regard to the general public by either management or unions
  • Not enabling the economically poor, locally and globally, to share in the goods necessary for a fully human life by hoarding what we have (see the Gospel of St. Luke 16:19-31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus)

The three most important virtues for living this commandment in economic matters are: temperance, justice, and solidarity. Temperance, so as to moderate attachment to this world’s goods; justice, to preserve our neighbor’s rights, and render him/her what is their due; and the practice of solidarity, in accordance with the Golden Rule.2

1. “The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse: How to Spot Moral Meltdowns in Companies Before It’s Too Late,” by Marianne M. Jennings, J.D. (New York,N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 2006), pp. 217-218.

2. “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (New York, N.Y.: An Image Book, Doubleday, 1995), Number 2407.

(October 2010 Newsletter)

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