Moral Briefs – Chapter XCVI – Paying Back

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonA man who has stolen, has nothing more urgent and imperative to perform, on this side of eternity, than the duty of refunding the money or goods unjustly acquired, or the value thereof. He may possibly consider something else more important; but if he does, that man has somehow unlearned the first principles of natural honesty, ignores the fundamental law that governs the universe, and he will have a difficult time convincing the Almighty that this ignorance of his is not wholly culpable. The best and only thing for him to do is to make up his mind to pay up, to disgorge his ill-gotten goods, to make good the losses sustained by his neighbor through his fault.

He may, or may not, have profited to any great extent by his criminal proceedings; but there is no doubt that his victim suffered injustice; and that precisely is the root of his obligation. The stolen goods may have perished in his hands and he have nothing to show; the same must be said of the victim the moment his possessions disappeared; with this difference, however, that justice was not violated in one case, and in the other, it was. The lawful owner may be dead, or unfindable among the living; but wherever he may be, he never intended that the thief should enjoy the fruit of his crime. The latter’s title, vitiated in its source, cannot be improved by any circumstance of the owner’s whereabouts. No one may thrive on one’s own dishonesty.

You say this is hard; and in so saying, you lend testimony to the truth of the axiom that honesty is the best policy. There is no one but will agree with you; but such a statement, true though it be, helps matters very Httle. It is always hard to do right; blame Adam and Eve for it, and think of something more practicable. But must I impoverish myself? Not to the extent of depriving yourself of the necessaries of life. But you must deprive yourself to the extent of settling your little account, even if you suffer something thereby. But how shall I be able to refund it all! You may never be able to refund it all; but you may start in immediately and do the best you can; resolve to keep at it; never revoke your purpose to cancel the debt. In case your lease of life expires before full justice is done, the Almighty may take into consideration your motives and opportunities. They do say that hell is paved with good intentions; but these intentions are of the sort that are satisfied with never coming to a state of realization.

But I shall lose my position, be disgraced, prosecuted and imprisoned. This might happen if you were to write out a brief of your crime and send the same, signed and sworn to, to your employer. But this is superfluous. You might omit the details and signature, enclose the sum and trust luck for the rest. Or you might consult your spiritual adviser; he might have had some experience in this line of business. The essential is not that you be found out, but that you refund.

It may happen that several are concerned in a theft. In this case, each and every participant, in the measure of his guilt, is bound to make restitution. Guilt is the object, restitution is the shadow; the following is fatal. To order or advise the thing done; to influence efficaciously its doing; to assist in the deed or to profit knowingly thereby, to shield criminally the culprit, etc., this sort of co-operation adds to the guilt of sin the burden of restitution. Silence or inaction, when plain duty would call for words and deeds to prevent crime, incriminates as well as active participation, and creates an obligation to repair.

There is more. Conspiracy in committing an injustice adds an especial feature to the burden of restitution. If the parties to the crime had formed a preconcerted plan and worked together as a whole in its accomplishment, every individual that furnished efficient energy to the success of the undertaking is liable, in conscience, not for a share of the loss, but for the sum total. This is what is called solidarity; solidarity in crime begets solidarity in reparation. It means that the injured party has a just claim for damages, for all damages sustained, against any one of the culprits, each one of whom, in the event of his making good the whole loss, has recourse against the others for their share of the obligation. It may happen, and does, that one or several abscond, and thus shirk their part of the obligation; the burden of restitution may thus be unevenly distributed. But this is one of the risks that conspirators in sin must take; the injured party must be protected first and in preference to all others.

No Catholic can validly receive the sacrament of penance who refuses to assume the responsibility of restitution for injustices committed, and who does not at least promise sincerely to acquit himself at the first favorable opportunity and to the extent of his capacity. This means that only on these conditions can the sin be forgiven by God. That man is not disposed sufficiently to receive absolution who continually neglects opportunities to keep his promise; who refuses to pay any, because he cannot pay all; who decides to leave the burden of restitution to his heirs, even with the wherewith to do so. It is better not to go to confession at all than to go with these dispositions; it is better to wait until you can make up your mind.