Moral Briefs – Chapter XCIX – Debts

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonBefore closing our remarks, necessarily brief and incomplete, on this subject, so vast and comprehensive, we desire in a few words to pay our respects to that particular form of injustice, more common perhaps than all others combined, which is known as criminal debt, likewise, to its agent, the most brazen impostor and unconscionable fraud that afflicts society, the man who owes and will not pay. More people suffer from bad debts than from stealing and destruction of property. It is easier to contract a debt, or to borrow a trifle, than to steal it outright; it is safer, too. Imprudence is one of the chief characteristics of this genus of iniquity. “I would sooner owe you this than cheat you out of it:” this, in word or deed, is the highly spiritual consolation they offer those whom they fleece and then laugh at.

The willful debtor is, first of all, a thief and a robber, because he retains unjustly the lawful possessions of another. There is no difference between taking and keeping what belongs to the neighbor. The loss is the same to a man whether he is robbed of a certain amount or sells goods for which he gets nothing in return. The injustice is the same in both cases, the malice identical. He therefore who can pay his debts, and will not, must be branded as a thief and an enemy to the rights of property.

The debtor is guilty of a second crime, of dishonesty and fraud against his fellow-man, by reason of his breaking a contract, entered upon with a party in good faith, and binding in conscience until cancelled by fulfillment. When a man borrows or buys or runs an account on credit, he agrees to return a quid pro quo, an equivalent for value received. When he fails to do so, he violates his contract, breaks his pledge of honor, obtains goods under false pretense. Even if he is sincere at the time of the making of the contract, the crime is perpetrated the moment he becomes a guilty debtor by repudiating, in one way or another, his just debts. Now, to injure a person is wrong; to break faith with him at one and the same time is to incur guilt of a double dye.

There is likewise an element of contumely and outrage in such dishonest operations; the affront offered the victim is contemptible. Men have often been heard to say, after being victimized by imposture of this sort: “I do not mind the loss so much, but I do object to being treated like a fool and a monkey.” One’s feelings suffer more than one’s purse. Especially is this the case when the credit is given or a loan made as a favor or service, intended or requested, only to be requited by the blackest kind of ingratitude.

And let us not forget the extent of damage wrought unto worthy people in hard circumstances who are shut out from the advantages of borrowing and buying on credit by the nefarious practices of dishonest borrowers and buyers. A burnt child keeps away from the fire. A man, after being defrauded palpably a few times, acquires the habit of refusing nil credit; and he turns down many who deserve better, because of the persecution to which he is subjected by rogues and scoundrels. Every criminal debtor contributes to that state of affairs and shares the responsibility of causing honest people to suffer want through inability to get credit.

And who are the persons thus guilty of a manifold guilt? They are those who borrow and buy knowing full well they will not pay, pile debt upon debt knowing full well they cannot pay. Others, who do not repudiate openly their obligations, put off paying indefinitely for futile reasons: hard times, that last forever; ships coming in, whose fate is yet unlearned; windfalls from rich relatives that are not yet born, etc.; and from delay to delay they become not only less able, but less willing, to settle their accounts. Sometimes you meet a fellow anxious to square himself for the total amount; half his assets is negotiable, the other half is gall. He threatens you with the alternative of half or none; he wants you to accept his impudence at the same figures at which he himself values it. And this schemer usually succeeds in his endeavor.

Others there are who protest their determination to pay up, even to the last cent; their dun-bills are always kept in sight, lest they forget their obligations; they treasure these bills, as one treasures a thing of immense value. But they live beyond their means and income, purchase pleasure and luxury, refuse to curtail frivolous expenses and extravagant outlay. And in the meantime their debts remain in statu quo, unredeemed and less and less redeemable, their determination holds good, apparently; and the creditor breaks commandments looking on and hoping.

Some do violence to their thinking faculty by trying to find justification, somehow, for not paying their debts. The creditor is dead, they say; or he has plenty and can well afford to be generous. An attempt is often made at establishing a case of occult compensation, its only merit being its ingenuity, worthy of a better cause. All such lame excuses argue a deeper perversity of will, a malice well-nigh incurable; but they do not satisfy justice, because they are not founded on truth.

A debt has a character of sacredness, like all moral obligations; more sacred than many other moral obligations, because this quality is taken directly from the eternal prototype of justice, which is God. You cannot willfully repudiate it therefore without repudiating God. You must respect it as you respect Him. Your sins and your debts will follow you before the throne of God. God alone is concerned with your sins; but with your debts a third party is concerned. And if God may easily waive His claims against you as a sinner, a sterner necessity may influence His judgment of you as a debtor, through respect for the inviolable rights of that third party who does not forgive so readily.