Moral Briefs – Chapter LXXXV – Petty Thefts

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonA question may arise as to petty thefts, venial in themselves, but oft repeated and aggregating in the long run a sum of considerable value: how are we to deal with such cases? Should peculations of this sort be taken singly, and their individual malice determined, without reference to the sum total of injustice caused; or should no severe judgment be passed until such a time as sufficient matter be accumulated to make the fault grievous? In other words, is there nothing but venial sin in thefts of little values, or is there only one big sin at the end? The difficulty is a practical one.

If petty thefts are committed with a view to amass a notable sum, the simple fact of such an intention makes the offense a mortal one. For, as we have already remarked in treating of the human act, our deeds may be, and frequently are, vitiated by the intention we have in performing them. If we do something with evil intent and purpose, our action is evil whether the deed in itself be indifferent or even good. Here the intention is to cause a grave injustice; the deed is only a petty theft, but it serves as a means to a more serious offense. The act therefore takes its malice from the purpose of the agent and becomes sinful in a high degree.

As to each repeated theft, that depends again on the intention of the culprit. If in the course of his pilferings he no longer adverts to his first purpose and has no intention in stealing beyond that of helping himself to a little of his neighbor’s goods, he is guilty of nothing more than a venial sin. If, however, the initial purpose is present at every act, if at every fresh peculation the intention to accumulate is renewed explicitly or implicitly, then every theft is identical with the first in malice, and the offender commits mortal sin as often as he steals. Thus the state of soul of one who filches after this fashion is not sensibly affected by his arriving at a notable sum of injustice in the aggregate. The malice of his conduct has already been established; it is now completed in deed.

A person who thievishly appropriates small sums, but whose pilferings have no moral reference to each other, will find himself a mortal offender the moment his accumulated injustices reach the amount we have qualified as notable, provided he be at that moment aware of the fact, or even if he only have a doubt about the matter. And this is true whether the stolen sums be taken from one or from several persons. Even in the latter case, although no one person suffers serious damage or prejudice, justice however is seriously violated and the intention of the guilty party is really to perpetrate grave injustice.

However, such thefts as these which in the end become accumulative, must of their nature be successive and joined together by some bond of moral union, otherwise they could never be considered a whole. By this is meant that there must not exist between the different single thefts an interruption or space of time such as to make it impossible to consider reasonably the several deeds as forming one general action. The time generally looked upon as sufficient to prevent a moral union of this kind is two months. In the absence therefore of a specific intention to arrive at a large amount by successive thefts, it must be said that such thefts as are separated by an intervening space of two months can never be accounted as parts of one grave injustice, and a mortal sin can never be committed by one whose venial offenses are of this nature. Of course if there be an evil purpose, that alone is sufficient to establish a moral union between single acts of theft however considerable the interval that separates them.

Several persons may conspire to purloin each a limited amount. The circumstance of conspiracy, connivance or collusion makes each co-operator in the deed responsible for the whole damage done; and if the amount thus defrauded be notable, each is guilty of mortal sin.

We might here add in favor of children who take small things from their parents and of wives who sometimes relieve their husbands of small change, that it is natural that a man be less reluctant to being defrauded in small matters by his own than by total strangers. It is only reasonable therefore that more latitude be allowed such delinquents when there is question of computing the amount to be considered notable; perhaps the amount might be doubled in their favor. The same might be said in favor of those whose petty thefts are directed against several victims instead of one, since the injury sustained individually is less.

The best plan is to leave what does not belong to one severely alone. In other sins there may be something gained in the long run, but here no such illusion can be entertained, for the spectre of restitution, as we shall see, follows every injustice as a shadow follows its object, and its business is to see that no man profit by his ill-gotten goods.