Moral Briefs – Chapter XCIV – Restitution

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonA peculiar feature attaches to the sins we have recently treated, against the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth commandments. These offenses differ from others in that they involve an injury, an injustice to our fellow-man. Now, the condition of pardon for sin is contrition; this contrition contains essentially a firm purpose that looks to the future, and removes in a measure, the liability to fall again. But with the sins here in question that firm purpose not only looks forward, but backward as well, not only guarantees against future ill-doing, but also repairs the wrong criminally effected in the past. This is called restitution, the undoing of wrong suffered by our neighbor through our own fault. The firm purpose to make restitution is just as essential to contrition as the firm purpose to sin no more; in fact, the former is only a form of the latter. It means that we will not sin any more by prolonging a culpable injustice. And the person who overlooks this feature when he seeks pardon has a moral constitution and make-up that is sadly in need of repairs; and of such persons there are not a few.

Justice that has failed to protect a man’s right becomes restitution when the deed of wrong is done. Restitution therefore that is based on the natural right every man has to have and to hold what is his, to recover it, its value or equivalent, when unduly dispossessed, supposes an act of injustice, that is, the violation of a strict right. This injustice, in turn, implies a moral fault, a moral responsibility, direct or indirect; and the fault must be grievous in order to induce a grave obligation. Now, it matters not in the least what we do, or how we do it, if the neighbor suffer through a fault of ours. If any human creature sustains a loss to life or limb, damage to his or her social or financial standing, and such injury can be traced to a moral delinquency on our pa,rt, we are in conscience bound to make good the loss and repair the damage done. To do evil is bad; to perpetuate it is immeasurably worse. To refuse to remove the evil is to refuse to remove one’s guilt; and as long as one persists in such a refusal, that one remains under the wrath of God.

Restitution concerns itself with things done or left undone, things said or left unsaid; it does not enter the domain of thought. Consequently, just as an accident does not entail the necessity of repairing the injury that another sustains, neither does the deliberate thought or desire to perpetrate an injustice entail such a consequence. Even if a person does all in his power to effect an evil purpose, and fails, he is not held to reparation, for there is nothing to repair. As we have said more than once, the will is the source of all malice in the sight of God; but injustice to man requires material as well as formal malice; sin must have its complement of exterior deed before it can be called human injustice.

We deem it unnecessary to dwell upon the gravity of the obligation to make restitution. The balance of justice must be maintained exact and impartial in this world, or the Almighty will see that it is done in the next. The idea that God does not stand for justice destroys the idea that God exists. And if the precept not to commit injustice leaves the guilty one free to repair or not to repair, that precept is self-contradictory and has no meaning at all. If a right is a right, it is not extinguished by being violated and if justice, is something more than a mere sound, it must protect all rights whether sinned against or not.

It might be convenient for some people to force upon their conscience the lie that restitution is of counsel rather than of precept, under the plea that it is enough to shoulder the responsibility of sin without being burdened with the obligation of repairing it, but it is only a soul well steeped in malice that will take seriously such a contention. Neither is restitution a penance imposed upon us in order to atone for our faults; it is no more penitential in its nature than are the efforts we make to avoid the faults we have fallen into in the past. It atones for nothing; it is simply a desisting from evil. When this is done and forgiveness obtained, then, and not till then, is it time to think of satisfying for the temporal punishment due to sin.

Naturally it is much more easy to abstain from committing injustice than to repair it after it is done. It is often very difficult and very painful to face the consequences of our evil ways, especially when all satisfaction is gone and nothing remains but the hard exigencies of duty. And duty is a thing that it costs very little to shirk when one is already hardened by a habit of injustice. That is why restitution is so little heard of in the world. It is a fact to be noted that the Catholic Church is the only religious body that dares to enforce strictly the law of reparation. Others vaguely hold it, but rarely teach it, and then only in flagrant cases of fraud. But she allows none of her children to approach the sacraments who has not already repaired, or who does not promise in all sincerity to repair, whatever wrong he may have done to the neighbor. Employers of Catholic help sometimes feel the effects of this uncompromising attitude of the Church; they are astonished, edified and grateful.

We recall with pleasure an incident of an apostate going about warning people against the turpitudes of Rome and especially against the extortions of her priests through the confessional. He explained how the benighted papist was obliged under pain of eternal damnation to confess his sins to the priest, and then was charged so much for each fault he had been guilty of. An incredulous listener wanted to know if he, the speaker, while in the toils of Rome had ever been obliged thus to disgorge in the confessional, and was answered with a triumphant affirmation. At which the wag hinted that it would be a good thing not to be too outspoken in announcing the fact as his reputation for honesty would be likely to suffer thereby, for he knew, and all Catholics knew, who were those whose purse the confessor pries open.