But, if guilt is always guilt, the quality of guilt is varied. Just as all virtue is not equally meritorious, so to other sources than personal unworthiness may often be traced moral debility that strives against natural causes, necessary conditions of environment and an ever-present and ever-active influence for evil. A fall does not always betoken profound degradation nor a stain, acute perversity of the will. Those therefore who wrestle manfully with the effects of regretted lapses or weaknesses, who fight down, sometimes perhaps unsuccessfully, the strong tendencies of a too exuberant animal nature, who strive to neutralize an influence that unduly oppresses them,—against these, guilty though they may have been, is not directed the moralist's unmeasured censure. His reproaches in such cases tend less to condemn than to awake to a sense of moral responsibility; earnestness in pointing out remedy and safeguards takes the place of severity against wilfulness. For he knows that not a few sentences of condemnation Christ writes on the sands, as He did in a celebrated case, and many an over-zealous accuser he has confounded, like the villainous Pharisees whom He challenged to show a hand white enough to be worthy to cast the first stone.
Evidently such pity and commiseration should not serve to make vice less unlovely and thus undo the very work it is intended to perform. It should not have the characteristics of certain books and plays that pretend to teach morality by exposing vice in all its seductiveness. Over-sensitive and maudlin sympathy is as ridiculous as it is unhealthy; its tendency is principally to encourage and spoil. But a judicious, discreet and measured sympathy will lift up the fallen, strengthen the weak and help the timorous over many a difficulty. It will suggest, too, the means best calculated to insure freedom from slavery of the passions.
The first of these is self-denial, which is the inseparable companion of chastity; when they are not found together, seldom does either exist. And by self-denial is here meant the destruction of that eternal r reference for self, that is at the bottom of all uncleanness, that makes all things, however sacred, subservient to one's own pleasures, that considers nothing unlawful but what goes against the grain of natural impulse and natural appetites. There may be other causes, but this self-love is a primary one. Say what you will, but one does not fall from his own level; the moral world is like the physical; if you are raised aloft in disregard for the laws of truth, you are going to come down with a thud. If you imagine all the pleasures of life made for you, and become lawful because your nature craves for them, you are taking a too high estimate of yourself; you are going before a fall He who takes a correct measure of himself, gets his bearings in relation to God, comes to realize his own weak points and several deficiencies, and acknowledges the obligations such a state of affairs places upon him, that one may sin, but he will not go far.
He may fall, because he is human, because strength sufficient to guard us against the assaults of impurity is not from us, but from God. The spirit of humility, therefore, which makes known to him his own insufficiency, must be fortified with the spirit of faith which makes him ask for support through prayer. It is faith that makes prayer possible, and living faith, the spirit of faith, that makes us pray aright. This kind of prayer need not express itself in words; it may be a habit, a long drawn out desire, an habitual longing for help coupled with firm confidence in God's mercy to grant our request. No state of soul however disordered can long resist such a power, and no habit of evil but in time will be annihilated by it.
The man or woman who undertakes to keep himself or herself pure, or to rise out of a habit of sin without the liberal use of divine supplication has in hand a very ungrateful task, and he or she will realize it before going far. And unless that prayer is sincere and heartfelt, a prayer full of faith that will not entertain the thought of failure, every effort will be barren of results. You must speak to God as to one near you, and remember that He is near you all the time.
Then there are the sacraments to repair every breach and to heal every wound. Penance will cleanse you, communion will adorn and equip you anew. Confession will give you a better knowledge of yourself every time you go; the Food of God will strengthen every fibre of your soul and steel you against the seductions that otherwise would make you a ready victim. Don't go once a year, go ten, twenty times and more, if necessary, go until you feel that you own yourself, that you can command and be obeyed. Then you will not have to be told to stop; you will be safe.
CHAPTER LXXXIV. THOU SHALT NOT STEAL.
THE Seventh Commandment is protective of the right of property which is vested in every human being enjoying the use of reason. Property means that which belongs to one, that which is one's own, to have and to hold, or to dispose of, at one's pleasure, or to reclaim in the event of actual dispossession. The right of property embraces all things to which may be affixed the seal of ownership; and it holds good until the owner relinquishes his claim, or forfeits or loses his title without offense to justice. This natural faculty to possess excludes every alien right, and supposes in all others the duty and obligation to respect it. The respect that goes as far as not relieving the owner of his goods is not enough; it must safeguard him against all damage and injury to said goods; otherwise his right is non-existent.
All violations of this right come under the general head of stealing. People call it theft, when it is effected with secrecy and slyness; robbery, when there is a suggestion of force or violence. The swindler is he who appropriates another's goods by methods of gross deception or false pretenses while the embezzler transfers to himself the funds entrusted to his care. Petty thieving is called pilfering or filching; stealing on a large scale usually has less dishonorable qualificatives. Boodling and lobbying are called politics; watering stock, squeezing out legitimate competition, is called financiering; wholesale confiscation and unjust conquest is called statesmanship. Give it whatever name you like, it is all stealing; whether the culprit be liberally rewarded or liberally punished, he nevertheless stands amenable to God's justice which is outraged wherever human justice suffers.
Of course the sin of theft has its degrees of gravity, malice and guilt, to determine which, that is, to fix exactly the value of stolen goods sufficient to constitute a grievous fault, is not the simplest and easiest of moral problems. The extent of delinquency may be dependent upon various causes and complex conditions. On the one hand, the victim must be considered in himself, and the amount of injury sustained by him; on the other, justice is offended generally in all cases of theft, and because justice is the corner stone of society, it must be protected at all hazards. It is only by weighing judiciously all these different circumstances that we can come to enunciate an approximate general rule that will serve as a guide in the ordinary contingencies of life.
Thus, of two individuals deprived by theft of a same amount of worldly goods, the one may suffer thereby to a much greater extent than the other; he who suffers more is naturally more reluctant to part with his goods, and a greater injustice is done to him than to the other. The sin committed against him is therefore greater than that committed against the other. A rich man may not feel the loss of a dollar, whereas for another less prosperous the loss of less than that sum might be of the nature of a calamity. To take therefore unjustly from a person what to that person is a notable amount is a grievous sin. It is uniformly agreed that it is a notable loss for a man to be unduly deprived of what constitutes a day's sustenance. This is the minimum of grievous matter concerning theft.
But this rule will evidently not hold good applied on a rising scale to more and more extensive fortunes; for a time would come when it would be possible without serious guilt to appropriate good round sums from those abundantly blessed with this world's goods.
The disorders necessarily attendant on such a moral rule are only too evident; and it is plain that the law of God cannot countenance abuses of this nature. Justice therefore demands that there be a certain fixed sum beyond which one may not go without incurring serious guilt; and this, independent of the fortune of the person who suffers. Theologians have fixed that amount approximately, in this country, at five dollars. This means that when such a sum is taken, in all cases, the sin is mortal. It is not always necessary, it is seldom necessary, that one should steal this much in order to offend grievously; but when the thief reaches this amount, be his victim ever so wealthy, he is guilty of grave injustice.
This rule applies to all cases in which the neighbor is made to suffer unjustly in his lawful possessions; and it effects all wrongdoers whether they steal or destroy another's goods or co-operate efficaciously in such deeds of sin. It matters not whether the harm be wrought directly or indirectly, since in either case there may be moral fault; and it must be remembered that gross negligence may make one responsible as well as malice aforethought.
The following are said to co-operate in crime to the extent of becoming joint-partners with the principal agent in guilt: those in whose name the wrong is done, in obedience to their orders or as a result of any other means employed; those who influence the culprit by suggesting motives and reasons for his crime or by pointing out efficient means of arriving thereat; those who induce others to commit evil by playing on their weaknesses thereby subjecting them to what is known as moral force; those who harbor the thief and conceal his stolen property against their recovery; those whose silence is equivalent to approbation, permission or official consent; those finally who before, during or after the deed, abstain from performing a plain duty in preventing, deterring or bringing to justice the guilty party. Such persons as the foregoing participate as abettors in crime and share all the guilt of the actual criminals; sometimes the former are even more guilty than the latter.
The Tenth Commandment which forbids us to covet our neighbor's goods, bears the same relation to the Seventh as the Ninth does to the Sixth. It must, however, be borne in mind that all such coveting supposes injustice in desire, that is, in the means by which we desire to obtain what is not ours. To wish for, to long ardently for something that appeals to one's like and fancy is not sinful; the wrong consists in the desire to acquire it unjustly, to steal it, and thereby work damage unto the neighbor. It is a natural weakness in man to be dissatisfied with what he has and to sigh after what he has not; very few of us are free from this failing. But so long as our cravings and hankerings are not tainted with injustice, we are innocent of evil.
CHAPTER LXXXV. PETTY THEFTS.
A 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.
CHAPTER LXXXVI. AN OFT EXPLOITED, BUT SPECIOUS PLEA.
IT is not an infrequent occurrence for persons given to the habit of petty thefts and fraud, to seek to justify their irregular conduct by a pretense of justice which they call secret compensation. They stand arraigned before the bar of their conscience on the charge of niching small sums, usually from their employers; they have no will to desist; they therefore plead not guilty, and have nothing so much at heart as to convince themselves that they act within their rights. They elaborate a theory of justice after their ideas, or rather, according to their own desires; they bolster it up with facts that limp all the way from half-truths to downright falsities; and thus acquit themselves of sin, and go their way in peace. A judge is always lenient when he tries his own case.
Secret compensation is the taking surreptitiously from another of the equivalent of what is due to one, of what has been taken and is kept against all justice, in order to indemnify oneself for losses sustained. This sort of a thing, in theory at least, has a perfectly plausible look, nor, in fact, is it contrary to justice, when all the necessary conditions are fulfilled to the letter. But the cases in which these conditions are fulfilled are so few and rare that they may hardly be said to exist at all. It is extremely difficult to find such A case, and nearly always when this practice is resorted to, the order of justice is violated.
And if common sense in the case of any given individual fail to show him this truth, we here quote for his benefit an authority capable of putting all his doubts at rest. The following proposition was advanced: "Domestic servants who adjudge themselves underpaid for services rendered, may appropriate to themselves by stealth a compensation." This proposition has received the full weight of papal condemnation. It cannot be denied that it applies to all who engage their services for hire. To maintain the contrary is to revolt against the highest authority in the Church; to practise it is purely and simply to Sin.
A case is often made out on the grounds that wages are small, work very hard and the laborer therefore insufficiently remunerated. But to conclude therefrom the right to help oneself to the employer's goods, is a strange manner of reasoning, while it opens the door to all manner of injustice. Where is there a man, whatever his labor and pay, who could not come to the same conclusion? Who may not consider himself ill-paid? And who is there that really thinks he is not worth more than he gets? There is no limit to the value one may put on one's own services; and he who is justified to-day in taking a quarter of a dollar, would be equally justified to-morrow in appropriating the whole concern. And then what becomes of honesty, and the right of property? And what security can anyone have against the private judgment of his neighbor?
And what about the contract according to the terms of which you are to give your services and to receive in return a stipulated amount? Was there any clause therein by which you are entitled to change the terms of said contract without consulting the other party interested? You don't think he would mind it. You don't think anything of the kind; you know he will and does mind it. He may be generous, but he is not a fool.
"But I make up for it. I work overtime, work harder, am more attentive to my work; and thereby save more for my employer than I take." Here you contradict yourself. You are therefore not underpaid. And if you furnish a greater amount of labor than is expected of you, that is your business and your free choice. And the right you have to a compensation for such extra labor is entirely dependent on the free will of your employer. People usually pay for what they call for; services uncalled for are gratuitous services. To think otherwise betokens a befuddled state of mind.
"But I am forced to work harder and longer than we agreed." Then it is up to you to remonstrate with your employer, to state the case as it is and to ask for a raise. If he refuses, then his refusal is your cue to quit and go elsewhere. It means that your services are no longer required. It means, at any rate, that you have to stand the cut or seek to better your condition under other employers. It is hard! Of course it is hard, but no harder than a great many other things we have to put up with.
If my neighbor holds unjustly what belongs to me, or if he has failed to repair damages caused, to recover my losses by secret compensation has the same degree of malice and disorder. The law is instituted for just such purposes; you have recourse thereto. You may prosecute and get damages. If the courts fail to give you justice, then perhaps there may be occasion to discuss the merits of the secret compensation theory. But you had better get the advice of some competent person before you attempt to put it in practice; otherwise you are liable to get into a bigger hole than the one you are trying to get out of.
Sometimes the bold assertion is advanced that the employer knows perfectly that he is being systematically robbed and tolerates it. It is incumbent on this party to prove his assertion in a very simple way. Let him denounce himself to his employer and allow the truth or falsity thereof hang on the result. If he does not lose his job inside of twenty-four hours after the interview, he may continue his peculations in perfect tranquillity of conscience. If he escapes prosecution through the consideration of his former employer, he must take it for granted that the toleration he spoke of was of a very general nature, the natural stand for a man to take who is being robbed and cannot help it. To justify oneself on such a principle is to put a premium on shrewd dishonesty.
CHAPTER LXXXVII. CONTUMELY.
THE Eighth Commandment concerns itself with the good name of the neighbor; in a general way, it reproves all sins of the tongue, apart from those already condemned by the Second and Sixth commandments, that is to say, blasphemous and impure speech. It is as a weapon against the neighbor and an instrument of untruth that the tongue is here considered.
By a good name is here intended the esteem in which a person is held by his fellow-men. Call it reputation, character, fame, renown, etc., a good name means that the bearer is generally considered above reproach in all matters of honesty, moral integrity and worth. It does not necessarily imply that such esteem is manifested exteriorly by what is technically known as honor, the natural concomitant of a good name; it simply stands for the knowledge entertained by others of our respectability and our title to honor. A good name is therefore one thing; honor is another. And honor consists precisely in that manifestation on the part of our fellows of the esteem and respect in which they hold us, the fruit of our good name, the homage rendered to virtue, dignity and merit. As it may therefore be easily seen, these two things—a good name and honor—differ as much as a sign differs from the thing signified.
The Eighth Commandment protects every man's honor; it condemns contumely which is an attack upon that honor. Contumely is a sign of contempt which shows itself by attempting to impair the honor one duly receives; it either strives to prevent that honor being paid to the good name that naturally deserves it, or it tries to nullify it by offering just the contrary, which is contumely, more commonly called affront, outrage, insult.
Now, contumely, as you will remark, does not seek primarily to deprive one of a good name; which it nearly always succeeds in doing, and this is called detraction; but its object is to prevent your good name from getting its desert of respect, your character supposedly remaining intact. The insult offered is intended to effect this purpose. Again, all contumely presupposes the presence of the party affronted; the affront is thrown in one's face, and therein consists the shocking indecency of the thing and its specific malice.
It must be remembered that anger, hatred, the spirit of vengeance or any other passion does not excuse one from the guilt of contumely. On the other hand, one's culpability is not lessened by the accidental fact of one's intended insults going wide of the mark and bearing no fruit of dishonor to the person assailed. To the malice of contumely may, and is often, added that of defamation, if apart from the dishonor received one's character is besmirched in the bargain. Contumely against parents offends at the same time filial piety; against God and His saints, it is sacrilegious; if provoked by the practice of religion and virtue, it is impious. If perpetrated in deed, it may offend justice properly so called; if it occasion sin in others, it is scandalous; if it drive the victim to excesses of any kind, the guilt thereof is shared by the contumelious agent.
Sometimes insult is offered gratuitously, as in the case of the weak, the old, the cripple and other unfortunates who deserve pity rather than mockery; the quality of contumely of this sort is brutal and fiendish. Others will say for justification: "But he said the same, he did the same to me. Can I not defend myself?" That depends on the sort of defense you resort to. All weapons of defense are not lawful. If a man uses evil means to wrong you, there is no justification, in Christian ethics, for you to employ the same means in order to get square, or even to shelter yourself from his abuse. The "eye-for-eye" principle is not recognized among civilized and Christian peoples.
This gross violation of personal respect may be perpetrated in many ways; any expression of contempt, offered to your face, or directed against you through a representative, is contumely. The usual way to do this is to fling vile epithets, to call opprobrious names, to make shameful charges. It is not always necessary that such names and epithets be inapplicable or such charges false, if, notwithstanding, the person in question has not thereby forfeited his right to respect. In certain circumstances, the epithet "fool" may hold all the opprobriousness of contumely: "thief" and "drunkard" and others of a fouler nature may be thus malicious for a better reason. An accusation of immorality in oneself or in one's parents is contumelious in a high degree. Our mothers are a favorite target for the shafts of contumely that through them reach us. Abuse is not the only vehicle of contumely; scorn, wanton ridicule, indecent mockery and caricature that cover the unfortunate victim with shame and confusion serve the purpose as well. To strike one, to spit on one and other ignoble attacks and assaults belong to the same category of crime.
The malice of contumely is not, of course, equal in all cases; circumstances have a great deal to do in determining the gravity of each offense. The more conspicuous a person is in dignity and the more worthy of respect, the more serious the affront offered him; and still more grave the offense, if through him many others are attainted. If again no dishonor is intended and no offense taken, or could reasonably be taken, there is no sin at all. There may be people very low on the scale of respectability as the world judges respectability; but it can never be said of a man or woman that he or she cannot be dishonored, that he or she is beneath contempt. Human nature never forfeits all respect; it always has some redeeming feature to commend it.
CHAPTER LXXXVIII. DEFAMATION.
DEFAMATION differs from contumely in that the one supposes the absence, the other, the presence, of the person vilified; and again, in that the former asperses the reputation of the victim while the latter attacks the honor due or paid to said reputation. A good name is, after the grace of God, mans most precious possession; wealth is mere trash compared with it. You may find people who think otherwise, but the universal sentiment of mankind stigmatizes such baseness and buries it under the weight of its opprobrium. Nor is it impossible that honor be paid where a good character no longer exists; but this is accidental. In the nature of things, reputation is the basis of all honor; if you destroy character, you destroy at the same time its fruit, which is honor. Thus will be seen the double malice of defamation.
To defame therefore is to lessen or to annul the estimation in which a person is held by his fellow-men. This crime may be perpetrated in two different manners: by making known his secret faults, and this is simple detraction; and by ascribing to him faults of which he is innocent, and this is calumny or slander. Thus it appears that a man's character may suffer from truth as well as from falsehood. Truth is an adorable thing, but it has its time and place; the fact of its being truth does not prevent it from being harmful. On the other hand, a lie, which is evil in itself, becomes abominable when used to malign a fellow-man.
There is one mitigating and two aggravating forms of defamation. Gossip is small talk, idle and sufficiently discolored to make its subject appear in an unfavorable light. It takes a morbid pleasure in speaking of the known and public faults of another. It picks at little things, and furnishes a steady occupation for people who have more time to mind other people's business than their own. It bespeaks small-ness in intellectual make-up and general pusillanimity. That is about all the harm there is in it, and that is enough.
Libel supposes a wide diffusion of defamatory matter, written or spoken. Its malice is great because of its power for evil and harm. Tale-bearing or backbiting is what the name implies. Its object is principally to spread discord, to cause enmity, to break up friendships; it may have an ulterior purpose, and these are the means it employs. No limit can be set to its capacity for evil, its malice is especially infernal.
It is not necessary that what we do or say of a defamatory nature result, as a matter of fact, in bringing one's name into disfavor or disrepute; it is sufficient that it be of such a nature and have such a tendency. If by accident the venomous shaft spend itself before attaining the intended mark, no credit is due therefore to him who shot it; his guilt remains what it was when he sped it on its way. Nor is there justification in the plea that no harm was meant, that the deed was done in a moment of anger, jealousy, etc., that it was the result of loquacity, indulged in for the simple pleasure of talking. These are excuses that excuse not.
There are those who, speaking in disparagement of the neighbor, speak to the point, directly and plainly; others, no less guilty, do it in a covert manner, have recourse to subterfuge and insinuation. They exaggerate faults and make them appear more odious, they put an evil interpretation on the deed or intention; they keep back facts that would improve the situation; they remain silent when silence is condemnatory; they praise with a malignant praise. A mean, sarcastic smile or a significant reticence often does the work better than many words and phrases. And all this, as we have said, independently of the truth or falsehood of the impression conveyed.
Listeners share the guilt of the defamers on the principle that the receiver is as bad as the thief. This supposes of course that you listen, not merely hear; that you enjoy this sort of a thing and are willing and ready to receive the impression derogatory to the neighbor's esteem and good name. Of course, if mere curiosity makes us listen and our pleasure and amusement are less at the expense of the neighbor's good name than excited by the style of the narrator or the singularity of the facts alleged, the fault is less; but fault there nevertheless is, since such an attitude serves to encourage the traducer and helps him drive his points home. Many sin who could and should prevent excesses of this kind, but refrain from doing so; their sin is greater if, by reason of their position, they are under greater obligations of correction.
Although reputation is a priceless boon to all men, there are cases wherein it has an especial value on account of the peculiar circumstances of a man's position. It not infrequently happens that the whole success of a man's life depends on his good name. Men in public life, in the professions, religious and others similarly placed, suffer from defamation far more than those in the ordinary walks of life; and naturally those who injure them are guilty of more grievous wrong. And it goes without saying that a man can stand an immoral aspersion better than a woman. In all cases the malice is measured by the injury done or intended.
CHAPTER LXXXIX. DETRACTION.
TO absolve oneself of the sin of detraction on the ground that nothing but the truth was spoken is, as we have seen, one way of getting around a difficulty that is no way at all. Some excuses are better than none, others are not. It is precisely the truth of such talk that makes it detraction; if it were not true, it would not be detraction but calumny—another and a very different fault. It would be well for such people to reflect for a moment, and ask themselves if their own character would stand the strain of having their secret sins and failings subjected to public criticism and censure, their private shortcomings heralded from every housetop. Would they, or would they not, consider themselves injured by such revelations? Then it would be in order for them to use the same rule and measure in dealing with others.
He who does moral evil offends in the sight of God and forfeits God's esteem and friendship. But it does not follow that he should also forfeit the esteem of his fellow-men. The latter evil is nothing compared with the first; but it is a great misfortune nevertheless. If a man's private iniquity is something that concerns himself and his God, to the exclusion of all others, then whosoever presumes to judge and condemn him trespasses on forbidden ground, and is open to judgment and condemnation himself before his Maker.
All do not live in stone mansions who throw stones. If there is a mote in the neighbor's eye, perhaps there is a very large piece of timber in your own. Great zeal in belaboring the neighbor for his faults will not lessen your own, nor make you appear an angel of light before God when you are something very different. If you employed this same zeal towards yourself, you would obtain more consoling results, for charity begins at home. One learns more examining one's own conscience than dissecting and flaying others alive.
It may be objected that since detraction deals with secret sins, if the facts related are of public notoriety, there is no wrong in speaking of them, for you cannot vilify one who is already vilified. This is true; and then, again, it depends. First, these faults must be of public notoriety. A judicial sentence may make them such, but the fact that some, many, or a great many know and speak of them will not do it. The public is everybody, or nearly everybody. Do not take your friends for the public, when they are only a fraction thereof. If you do you will find out oftener than it is pleasant that your sins of detraction are sins of slander; for rumors are very frequently based on nothing more substantial than lies or distorted and exaggerated facts set afloat by a calumniator.
Even when a person has justly forfeited, and publicly, the consideration of his fellowmen, and it is not, therefore, injurious to his character to speak of his evil ways, justice may not be offended, but charity may be, and grievously. It is a sin, an uncharity, to harp on one's faults in a spirit of spite, or with the cruel desire to maintain his dishonor; to leave no stone unturned in order to thoroughly blacken his name. In doing this you sin against charity, because you do something you would not wish to have done unto you. Justice itself would be violated if, even in the event of the facts related being notorious, you speak of them to people who ignore them and are not likely ever to come to a knowledge of them.
If you add, after telling all you know about a poor devil, that he did penance and repaired his sin, you must not imagine that such atonement will rehabilitate him in the minds of all. Men are more severe and unforgiving than God. Grace may be recovered, but reputation is a thing which, once lost, is usually lost for good. Something of the infamy sticks; tears and good works will not, cannot wash it away. He, therefore, who banks too much on human magnanimity is apt to err; and his erring constitutes a fault.
"But I confided the secret to but one person; and that one a dear friend, who promised to keep it." Yes, but the injured party has a right to the estimation of that one person, and his injury consists precisely in being deprived of it. Besides, you accuse yourself openly. Either what you said was void of all harm, or it was not. In the one case, why impose silence! In the other, why not begin yourself by observing the silence you impose upon others! Your friend will do what you did, and the ball you set rolling will not stop until there is nothing left of your victim's character.
Of course there are times when to speak of another's faults is derogatory neither to justice nor to charity; both may demand that the evil be revealed. A man to defend himself may expose his accuser's crookedness; in court his lawyer may do it for him, for here again charity begins at home. In the interests of the delinquent, to effect his correction, one may reveal his shortcomings to those who have authority to correct. And it is even admitted that a person in trouble of any kind may without sin, for the purpose of obtaining advice or consolation, speak to a judicious friend of another's evil ways.
Zeal for the public good may not only excuse, but even require that the true character of a bad man be shown up and publicly censured. Its object is to prevent or undo evil, to protect the innocent; it is intended to destroy an evil influence and to make hypocrisy fly under his own colors. Immoral writers, living or dead, corrupt politicians and demagogues, unconscionable wretches who prey on public ignorance, may and should be, made known to the people, to shield them is to share their guilt. This should not be done in a spirit of vengeance, but for the sole purpose of guarding the unwary against vultures who know no law, and who thrive on the simplicity of their hearers.
CHAPTER XC. CALUMNY.
TO the malice of detraction calumny adds that of falsehood. It is a lie, which is bad; it is a report prejudicial to the character of another, which is worse; it is both combined, out of which combination springs a third malice, which is abominable. All the more so, since there can exist no excuse or reason in the light of which this sin may appear as a human weakness. Because slander is the fruit of deliberate criminal spite, jealousy and revenge, it has a character of diabolism. The calumniator is not only a moral assassin, but he is the most accomplished type of the coward known to man. If the devil loves a cheerful liar, he has one here to satisfy his affections.
This crime is one that can never be tolerated, no matter what the circumstances; it can never be justified on any grounds whatsoever; it is intrinsically evil, a sin of injustice that admits no mitigation. When slander is sworn to before the courts, it acquires a fourth malice, that of irreligion, and is called false testimony. It is not alone perjury, for perjury does not necessarily attack the neighbor's good name; it is perjured calumny, a crime that deserves all the reprobation it receives in this world—and in the next.
To lie outright, deliberately and with malice aforethought, in traducing a fellow-man, is slander in its direct form; but such conditions are not required to constitute a real fault of calumny. It is not necessary to be certain that what you allege against your neighbor be false; it is sufficient that you be uncertain if it be true. An unsubstantiated charge or accusation, a mere rumor given out as worthy of belief, a suspicion or doubt clothed so as to appear a certainty, these contain all the malice and all the elements of slander clearly characterized. Charity, justice and truth alike are violated, guilt is there in unquestioned evidence. Whatever subterfuge, equivocation or other crooked proceeding be resorted to, if mendacity in any form is a feature of the aspersions we cast upon the neighbor, we sin by calumny, purely and simply.
Some excuse themselves on the plea that what they say, they give out for what it is worth; they heard it from others, and take no responsibility as to its truth or falsehood. But here we must consider the credulity of the hearers. Will they believe it, whether you do or not? Are they likely to receive it as truth, either because they are looking for just such reports, or because they know no better? And whether they believe it or not, will they, on your authority, have sufficient reason for giving credence to your words? May it not happen that the very fact of your mentioning what you did is a sufficient mark of credibility for others? And by so doing, you contribute to their knowledge of what is false, or what is not proven true, concerning the reputation of a neighbor.
For it must be remembered that all imprudence is not guiltless, all thoughtlessness is not innocent of wrong. It is easy to calumniate a person by qualifying him in an off-hand way as a thief, a blackleg, a fast-liver, etc. It is easy, by adding an invented detail to a statement, to give it an altogether different color and turn truth into falsehood. But the easiest way is to interpret a man's intentions according to a dislike, and, by stringing in such fancies with a lot of facts, pass them on unsuspecting credulity that takes all or none. If you do not think well of another, and the occasion demand it, speak it out; but make it known that it is your individual judgment and give your reasons for thus opining.
The desperate character of calumny is that, while it must be repaired, as we shall see later, the thing is difficult, often impossible; frequently the reparation increases the evil instead of diminishing it. The slogan of unrighteousness is: "Calumniate, calumniate, some of it will stick!" He who slanders, lies; he who lies once may lie again, a liar is never worthy of belief, whether he tells the truth or not, for there is no knowing when he is telling the truth. One has the right to disbelieve the calumniator when he does wrong or when he tries to undo it. And human nature is so constructed that it prefers to believe in the first instance and to disbelieve in the second.
You may slander a community, a class as well as an individual. It is not necessary to charge all with crime; it is sufficient so to manipulate your words that suspicion may fall on any one of said class or community. If the charge be particularly heinous, or if the body of men be such that all its usefulness depends on its reputation, as is the case especially with religious bodies, the malice of such slander acquires a dignity far above the ordinary.
The Church of God has suffered more in the long centuries of her existence from the tongue of slander than from sword and flame and chains combined. In the mind of her enemies, any weapon is lawful with which to smite her, and the climax of infamy is reached when they affirm, to justify their dishonesty, that they turn Rome's weapons against her. There is only one answer to this, and that is the silence of contempt. Slander and dollars are the wheels on which moves the propaganda that would substitute Gospel Christianity for the superstitions of Rome. It is slander that vilifies in convention and synod the friars who did more for pure Christianity in the Philippines in a hundred years than the whole nest of their revilers will do in ten thousand. It is slander that holds up to public ridicule the congregations that suffer persecution and exile in France in the name of liberty, fraternity, etc. It is slander that the long-tailed missionary with the sanctimonious face brings back from the countries of the South with which to regale the minds of those who furnish the Bibles and shekels. And who will measure the slander that grows out of the dunghill of Protestant ignorance of what Catholics really believe!
CHAPTER XCI. RASH JUDGMENT.
THE Eighth Commandment is based on the natural right every fellow-man has to our good opinion, unless he forfeits it justly and publicly. It forbids all injury to his reputation, first, in the estimation of others, which is done by calumny and detraction; secondly, in our own estimation, and this is done by rash judgment, by hastily and without sufficient grounds thinking evil of him, forming a bad opinion of him. He may be, as he has a right to be, anxious to stand well in our esteem as well as in the esteem of others.
A judgment, rash or otherwise, is not a. doubt, neither is it a suspicion. Everybody knows what a doubt is. When I doubt if another is doing or has done wrong, the idea of his or her guilt simply enters my mind, occurs to me and I turn it over and around, from one side to another, without being satisfied to accept or reject it. I do not say: yes, it is true; neither do I say: no, it is not true. I say nothing, I pass no judgment; I suspend for the moment all judgment, I doubt.
A doubt is not evil unless there be absolutely no reason for doubting, and then the doubt is born of passion and malice. And the evil, whatever there is of it, is not in the doubt's entering our mind— something beyond our control; but in our entertaining the doubt, in our making the doubt personal, which supposes an act of the will.
Stronger than doubt is suspicion. When I suspect one, I do not keep the balance perfectly even between yes and no, as in the case of doubt; I lean mentally to one side, but do not go so far as to assent one way or the other. Having before me a person who excites my suspicion, I am inclined to think him guilty on certain evidence, but I fear to judge lest I should be in error, because there is evidence also of innocence. If my suspicion is based on good grounds, it is natural and lawful; otherwise it is rash and sinful; it is uncharitable and unjust to the person suspected. A suspicion often hurts more than an accusation.
Doubt and suspicion, when rash, are sinful; but the malice thereof is not grave unless they are so utterly unfounded as to betoken deep-seated antipathy and aversion and a perverse will; or unless in peculiar circumstances the position of the person is such as to make the suspicion gravely injurious and not easily condoned. There is guilt in keeping that suspicion to oneself; to give it out in words is calumny, whether it be true or not, simply because it is unfounded.
In a judgment there is neither doubt nor suspicion; I make my own the idea presented to my mind. The balance of assent, in which is weighed, the evidence for and against, is not kept even, nor is it partially inclined; It goes down with its full weight, and the party under consideration stands convicted before the tribunal of my judgment. I do not say, I wonder if he is guilty; nor he most likely is guilty; but: he is guilty—here is a deliberate judgment. Henceforth my esteem ceases for such a person. Translated in words such a judgment is not calumny because it is supposedly founded in reason; but it is detraction, because it is injurious.
Such a judgment, without any exterior expression, is sinful if it is rash. And what makes it rash? The insufficiency of motive on which it is based. And whence comes the knowledge of such sufficiency or insufficiency of motive? From the intelligence, but mostly from the conscience. That is why many unintelligent people judge rashly and sin not, because they know no better. But conscience nearly always supplies intelligence in such matters and ignorance does not always save us from guilt. An instinct, the wee voice of God in the soul, tells us to withhold our judgment even when the intelligence fails to weigh the motives aright. To contemn this voice is to sin and be guilty of rash judgment.
In the language of ordinary folks, not always precise and exact in their terms, an opinion is frequently a judgment, to think this or that of another is often to judge him accordingly. The suspicions of suspicious people are at times more than suspicions and are clearly characterized judgments. To render a verdict on the neighbor's character is a judgment, by whatever other name it is called; all that is necessary is to come to a definite conclusion and to give the assent of the will to that conclusion.
When the conduct of the neighbor is plainly open to interpretation, if we may not judge immediately against him, neither are we bound to give him the benefit of the doubt; we may simply suspend all judgment and await further evidence. In our exterior dealings this suspicion should not affect our conduct, for every man has a right to be treated as an honest man and does not forfeit that right on the ground of a mere probability. This, however, does not prevent us from taking a cue from our suspicion and acting guardedly towards him. This does not mean that we adjudge him dishonest, but that we deem him capable of being dishonest, which is true and in accordance with the laws of prudence.
Neither are we bound to overlook all evidence that points to a man's guilt through fear of judging him unfavorably. It is not wrong to judge a man according to his merits, to have a right opinion of him, even when that opinion is not to his credit. All that is necessary is that we have good reason on Which to base that opinion. If a neighbor does evil in our presence or to our knowledge he forfeits, and justly, our good opinion; he is to blame, and not we. We are not obliged to close our eyes to the truth of facts, and it is on facts that our judgments are formed.
CHAPTER XCII. MENDACITY.
TO lie is to utter an untruth, with full knowledge that it is an untruth. The untruth may be expressed by any conventional sign, by word, deed, gesture, or even by silence. Its malice and disorder consists in the opposition that exists between our idea and the expression we give to it; our words convey a meaning contrary to what is in our mind; we say one thing and mean another. If we unwittingly utter what is contrary to fact, that is error; if we so clumsily translate our thoughts as to give a false impression of what we mean, and we do the best we can, that is a blunder; if in a moment of listlessness and inattention we speak in a manner that conflicts with our state of mind, that is temporary mental aberration. But if we knowingly give out as truth what we know is not the truth, we lie purely and simply.
In misrepresentations of this kind it is not required that there be a plainly formulated purpose of deceiving another; an implicit intention, a disposition to allow our words to run their natural course, is sufficient to give such utterances a character of mendacity. For, independently of our mental attitude, it is in the nature of a lie to deceive; an intention, or rather a pretense to the contrary, does not affect that nature. The fact of lying presupposes that we intend in some manner to practise deception; if we did not have such a purpose we would not resort to lying. If you stick a knife into a man, you may pretend what you like, but you did certainly intend to hurt him and make him feel badly.
Nor has any ulterior motive we may have in telling an untruth the power to change its nature; a lie is a lie, no matter what prompted it. Whether it serves the purpose of amusement, as a jocose lie; or helps to gain us an advantage or get us out of trouble, as an officious lie; or injures another in any way, as a pernicious lie: mendacity is the character of our utterances, the guilt of willful falsehood is on our soul. A restriction should, however, be made in favor of the jocose lie; it ceases to be a lie when the mind of the speaker is open to all who listen and his narration or statement may be likened to those fables and myths and fairy tales in which is exemplified the charm of figurative language. When a person says what is false and is convinced that all who hear him know it is false, the contradiction between his mind and its expression is said to be material, and not formal; and in this the essence of a lie does not consist.
A lie is always a sin; it is what is called an intrinsic evil and is therefore always wrong. And why is this? Because speech was given us to express our thoughts; to use this faculty therefore for a contrary purpose is against its nature, against a law of our being, and this is evil. The obnoxious consequences of falsehood, as it is patent to all, constitute an evil for which falsehood is responsible. But deception, one of those consequences, is not in itself and essentially, a moral fault. Deception, if not practised by lying and therefore not intended but simply suffered to occur, and if there be grave reason for resorting to this means of defense, cannot be put down as a thing offensive to God or unjustly prejudicial to the neighbor. But when deception is the effect of mendacity, it assumes a character of malice that deserves the reprobation of man as it is condemned by God. And this is another reason why lying is essentially an evil thing, and can never, under any circumstances be allowed or justified.
This does not mean that lying is always a mortal sin. In fact, it is oftener venial than mortal. It becomes a serious fault only in the event of another malice being added to it. Thus, if I lie to one who has a right to know the truth and for grave reasons; if the mendacious information I impart is of a nature to mislead one into injury or loss, and this thing I do maliciously; or if my lying is directly disparaging to another; in these cases there is grave malice and serious guilt. But if there is no injustice resulting from a lie, I prevaricate against right in lying, but my sin is not a serious offense.
This is a vice that certainly deserves to be fought against and punished always and in all places, especially in the young who are so prone thereto, first because it is a sin; and again, because of the social evils that it gives rise to. There is no gainsaying the fact that in the code of purely human morals, lying is considered a very heinous offense that ostracizes a man when robbery on a large scale, adultery and other first-degree misdemeanors leave him perfectly honorable. This recalls an instance of a recent courtroom. A young miscreant thoroughly imbued with pharisaic morals met with a bold face, without a blush or a flinch, accusations of misconduct, robbery and murder; but when charged with being a liar, he sprang at his accuser in open court and tried to throttle him. His fine indignation got the best of him; he could not stand that.
Among pious-minded people two extreme errors are not infrequently met with. The one is that a lie is not wrong unless the neighbor suffers thereby; the falsity of this we have already shown. According to the other, a lie is such an evil that it should not be tolerated, not one lie, even if all the souls in hell were thereby to be liberated. To this we answer that we would like to get such a chance once; we fear we would tell a whopper. It would be wicked, of course; but we might expect leniency from the just Judge under the circumstances.
CHAPTER XCIII. CONCEALING THE TRUTH.
THE duty always to tell the truth does not imply the obligation always to tell all you know; and falsehood does not always follow as a result of not revealing your mind to the first inquisitive person that chooses to put embarrassing questions. Alongside, but not contrary to, the duty of veracity is the right every man has to personal and professional secrets. For a man's mind is not public property; there may arise at times circumstances in which he not only may, but is in duty bound to withhold information that concerns himself intimately or touches a third person; and there must be a means to protect the sacredness of such secrets against undue curiosity and inquisitiveness, without recourse to the unlawful method of lying. Silence is not an effective resource, for it not infrequently gives consent one or the other way; the question may be put in such a manner that affirmation or negation will betray the truth. To what then shall one have recourse?
Let us remark in the first place that God has endowed human intelligence with a native wit, sharpness and cunning that has its legitimate uses, the exercise of this faculty is evil only when its methods and ends are evil. Used along the lines of moral rectitude strategy and tact for profiting by circumstances are perfectly in order, especially when one acts in the defense of his natural rights. And if this talent is employed without injustice to the neighbor or violence to the law of God, it is no more immoral than the plain telling of truth; in fact it is sometimes better than telling the truth.
But it must be understood that such practices must be justified by the circumstances. They suppose in him who resorts thereto a right to withhold information that overrides the right of his interrogator. If the right of the latter to know is superior, then the hiding of truth would constitute an injustice, which is sinful, and this is considered tantamount to lying. And if the means to which we resort is not lying, as we have defined it, that is, does not show a contradiction between what we say and what we mean, then there can be no fear of evil on any side.
Now, suppose that instead of using a term whose signification is contrary to what my mind conceives, which would be falsehood, I employ a word that has a natural double meaning, one of which is conform to my mind, the other at variance. In the first place, I do not speak against my mind; I say what I think; the word I use means what I mean. But the other fellow! that is another matter. He may take his choice of the two meanings. If he guesses aright, my artifice has failed; if he is deceived, that is his loss. I do him no injustice, for he had no right to question me. If my answer embarrasses him, that is just what I intended, and I am guilty of no evil for that; if it deceives him, that I did not intend but willingly suffer; I am not obliged to enter into explanations when I am not even bound to answer him. Of the deception, he alone is the cause; I am the occasion, if you will, but the circumstances of his inquisitiveness made that occasion necessary, and I am not responsible.
This artifice is called equivocation or amphibology; it consists in the use of words that have a natural double meaning; it supposes in him who resorts to it the right to conceal the truth, a right superior to that of the tormentor who questions him. When these conditions are fulfilled, recourse to this method is perfectly legitimate, but the conditions must be fulfilled. This is not a weapon for convenience, but for necessity. It is easy to deceive oneself when it is painful to tell the truth. Therefore it should be used sparingly: it is not for every-day use, only emergencies of a serious nature can justify its employ. Another artifice, still more delicate and dangerous, but just as legitimate when certain conditions are fulfilled, is what is known as mental restriction. This too consists in the employ of words of double meaning; but whereas in the former case, both meanings are naturally contained in the word, here the term employed has but one natural signification, the other being furnished by circumstances. Its legitimate use supposes that he to whom the term is directed should either in fact know the circumstances of the case that have this peculiar significance, or that he could and should know them. If the information drawn from the answer received is insufficient, so much the better; if he is misinformed, the fault is his own, since neither genuine falsehood nor evident injustice can be attributed to the other.
An example will illustrate this better than anything else. Take a physician or lawyer, the custodian of a professional secret, or a priest with knowledge safeguarded by the seal of the confessional. These men either may not or should not reveal to others unconcerned in the matter the knowledge they, possess. There is no one but should be aware of this, but should know that when they are questioned, they will answer as laymen, and not as professionals. They will answer according to outside information, yes or no, whether on not such conclusion agree with the facts they obtained under promise of secrecy. They simply put out of their mind as unserviceable all professional knowledge, and respond as a man to a man. Their standing as professional men puts every questioner on his guard and admonishes him that no private information need be expected, that he must take the answer given as the conclusion of outside evidence, then if he is deceived he has no one to blame but himself, since he was warned and took no heed of the warning.
Again we repeat, the margin between mental restriction and falsehood is a safe, but narrow one, the least bungling may merge one into the other. It requires tact and judgment to know when it is permissible to have recourse to this artifice and how to practise it safely. It is not a thing to be trifled with. In only rare circumstances can it be employed, and only few persons have the right to employ it.
CHAPTER XCIV. RESTITUTION.
A 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 part, 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.
CHAPTER XCV. UNDOING THE EVIL.
WHENEVER a person, through a spirit of Police or grossly culpable negligence, becomes responsible for serious bodily injury sustained by another, he is bound, as far as in him lies, to undo the wrong and repair the injustice committed. The law of personal rights that forbade him to lay violent hands on another, now commands that the evil be removed by him who placed it. True, physical pain and tortures cannot be repaired in kind; physical injury and disability are not always susceptible of adequate reparation. But there is the loss incurred as a result of such disability, and this loss may affect, not one alone, but many.
Death, too, is of course absolutely irreparable. But the killing of the victim in nowise extinguishes the obligation of reparation. The principal object is removed; but there remain the loss of wages, the expenses necessitated by illness and death; there may be a family dependent on the daily toil of the unfortunate and made destitute by his removal. One must be blind indeed not to see that all these losses are laid at the door of the criminal, a direct result of his crime, foreseen, too, at least confusedly, since there is a moral fault; and these must be made good, as far as the thing is possible, otherwise the sin will not be forgiven.
Slander must be retracted. If you have lied about another and thereby done him an injury, you are bound in conscience to correct your false statement, to correct it in such a manner as to undeceive all whom you may have misled. This retraction must really retract, and not do just the contrary, make the last state of things worse than the first, which is sometimes the case. Prudence and tact should suggest means to do this effectively: when, how and to what extent it should be done, in order that the best results of reparation may be obtained. But in one way or another, justice demands that the slanderer contradict his lying imputations and remove by so doing the stain that besmirches the character of his victim.
Of course, if it was by truth and not falsehood, by detraction and not calumny, that you assailed and injured the reputation of another, there is no gainsaying the truth; you are not justified in lying in order to make truth less damaging. The harm done here is well nigh irreparable. But there is such a thing as trying to counteract the influence of evil speech by good words, by mentioning qualities that offset defects, by setting merit against demerit; by attenuating as far as truth will allow the circumstances of the case, etc. This will place your victim in the least unfavorable light, and will, in some measure, repair the evil of detraction.
Scandal must be repaired, a mightily difficult task; to reclaim a soul lost to evil through fatal inducements to sin is paramount, almost, to raising from the dead. It is hard, desperately hard, to have yourself accepted as an angel of light by those for whom you have long been a demon of iniquity. Good example! Yes, that is about the only argument you have. You are handicapped, but if you wield that argument for good with as much strength and intensity as you did for evil, you will have done all that can be expected of you, and something may come of it.
The wrong of bodily contamination is a deep one. It is a wrong, and therefore unjust, when it is effected through undue influence that either annuls consent, or wrings it from the victim by cajolery, threat, or false promise. It becomes immeasurably aggravated when the victim is abandoned to bear alone the shame and burdensome consequences of such injustice.
Matrimony is the ordinary remedy; the civil law will force it; conscience may make it an obligation, and does make it, unless, in rare cases, there be such absolute incompatibility as to make such a contract an ineffective and ridiculous one, an inefficient remedy, or none at all. When such is the case, a pecuniary compensation is the only alternative. A career has been blasted, a future black with despair stares the victim in the face, if she must face it unaided; a burden forced upon her that must be borne for years, entailing considerable expense. The man responsible for such a state of affairs, if he expects pardon for his crime, must shoulder the responsibility in a manner that will repair at least in part the grave injustice under which his victim labors.
If both share the guilt, then both must share the burden. If one shirks, the other must assume the whole. The great victim is the child. That child must get a Christian bringing-up, or some one will suffer for it; its faith must be safeguarded. If this cannot be done at home, then it must be placed where this can be done. If it is advantageous for the parent or parents that their offspring be raised in ignorance of its origin, it is far more advantageous for the child itself. Let it be confided to good hands, but let the money necessary for its support be forthcoming, since this is the only way to make reparation for the evil of its birth.
I would add a word in regard to the injustice, frequent enough, of too long deferring the fulfilment of marriage promises. For one party, especially, this period of waiting is precarious, fraught with danger and dangerous possibilities. Her fidelity makes her sacrifice all other opportunities, and makes her future happiness depend on the fulfilment of the promise given. Charms do not last forever; attractions fade with the years. If affection cools, she is helpless to stir up the embers without unmentionable sacrifice. There is the peril. The man who is responsible for it, is responsible for a good deal. He is committing an injustice; there is danger of his not being willing to repair it, danger that he may not be able to repair it. His line of duty is clear. Unless for reasons of the gravest importance, he cannot in surety of conscience continue in a line of conduct that is repugnant alike to natural reason and common decency, and that smacks of moral make-up that would not bear the scrutiny of close investigation.
CHAPTER XCVI. PAYING BACK.
A 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 little. 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.
CHAPTER XCVII. GETTING RID OF ILL-GOTTEN GOODS.
IT may happen that a person discover among his legitimately acquired possessions something that does not in reality belong to him. He may have come by it through purchase, donation, etc.; he kept it in good faith, thinking that he had a clear title to it. He now finds that there was an error somewhere, and that it is the property of some one else. Of course, he is not the lawful owner, and does not become such by virtue of his good faith; although, in certain given circumstances, if the good faith, or ignorance of error, last long enough, a title may be acquired by prescription, and the possessor become the lawful owner. But we are not considering the question of prescription.
It is evident, then, that our friend must dispossess himself in favor of the real owner, as soon as the latter comes upon the scene and proves his claim. But the possessor may in all innocence have alienated the goods, destroyed or consumed them; or they may have perished through accident or fatality. In the latter case, nothing remains to refund, no one is to blame, and the owner must bear the loss. Even in the former case, if the holder can say in conscience that he in nowise became richer by the possession and use of the goods in question, he is not bound to make restitution. If, however, there be considerable profits, they rightly belong to the owner, and the possessor must refund the same.
But the question arises as to how the holder is to be compensated for the expenditure made in the beginning and in good faith when he purchased the goods which he is now obliged to hand over to another. Impartial justice demands that when the rightful owner claims his goods, the holder relinquish them, and he may take what he gets, even if it be nothing. He might claim a compensation if he purchased what he knew to be another's property, acting in the interests of that other and with the intention of returning the same to its owner. Otherwise, his claim is against the one from whom he obtained the article, and not against him to whom he is obliged to turn it over.
He may, if he be shrewd enough, anticipate the serving of the owner's claim and secure himself against a possible loss by selling back for a consideration the goods in question to the one from whom he bought them. But this cannot be done after the claim is presented; besides, this proceeding must not render it impossible for the owner to recover his property; and he must be notified as to the whereabouts of said property. This manoeuvre works injustice unto no one. The owner stands in the same relation to his property as formerly; the subsequent holder assumes an obligation that was always his, to refund the goods or their value, with recourse against the antecedent seller.
The moment a person shirks the responsibility of refunding the possessions, by him legitimately acquired, but belonging rightfully to another, that person becomes a possessor in bad faith and stands towards the rightful owner in the position of a thief. Not in a thousand years will he be able to prescribe a just title to the goods. The burden of restitution will forever remain on him; if the goods perish, no matter how, he must make good the loss to the owner. He must also disburse the sum total of profits gathered from the illegal use of said goods. If values fluctuate during the interval of criminal possession, he must compute the amount of his debt according to the values that prevailed at the time the lawful owner would have disposed of his goods, had he retained possession.
Finally, there may be a doubt as to whether the object I possess is rightfully mine or not. I must do my best to solve that doubt and dear the title to ownership. If I fail, I may consider the object mine and may use it as such. If the owner turn up after the prescribed time, so much the worse for the owner. An uncertainty may exist, not as to my proprietorship, but as to whom the thing does belong. If my possession began in good faith and I am unable to determine the ownership, I may consider myself the owner until further developments shed more light on the matter.
It is different when the object was originally acquired in bad faith. In such a case, first, the ill-gotten goods can never be mine; then, there is no sanction in reason, conscience or law for the conduct of those who run immediately to the first charitable institution and leave there their conscience money; or who have masses said for the repose of the souls of those who have been defrauded, before they are dead at all perhaps. My first care must be to locate the victim; or, if he be certainly deceased or evidently beyond reach, the heirs of the victim of my fraud. When all means fail and I am unable to find either the owner or his heirs, then, and not till then, may I dispose of the goods in question. I must assume in such a contingency as this, that the will of the owner would be to expend the sum on the most worthy cause; and that is charity. The only choice then that remains with me is, what hospital, asylum or other enterprise of charity is to profit by my sins, since I myself cannot be a gainer in the premises.
It might be well to remark here that one is not obliged to make restitution for more than the damages call for. Earnestness is a good sign, but it should not blind us or drive us to an excess of zeal detrimental to our own lawful interests. When there is a reasonable and insolvable doubt as to the amount of reparation to be made, it is just that such a doubt favor us. If we are not sure if it be a little more or a little less, the value we are to refund, we may benefit by the uncertainty and make the burden we assume as light as in all reason it can be made. And even if we should happen to err on the side of mercy to ourselves, without our fault, justice is satisfied, being fallible like all things human.
CHAPTER XCVIII. WHAT EXCUSES FROM RESTITUTION.
THOSE who do not obtain full justice from man in this world will obtain it in the next from God. If we do not meet our obligations this side of the tribunal of the just Judge, He will see to it that our accounts are equitably balanced when the time for the final reckoning comes. This supposes, naturally, that non-fulfilment of obligations is due on our part to unwillingness—a positive refusal, or its equivalent, wilful neglect, to undo the wrongs committed. For right reason and God's mercy must recognize the existence of a state of unfeigned and hopeless disability, when it is impossible for the delinquent to furnish the wherewithal to repair the evils of which he has been guilty. When this condition is permanent, and is beyond all remedy, all claims are extinguished against the culprit, and all losses incurred must be ascribed to "an act of God," as the coroner says. For no mart can be held to what is impossible.
Chief among these moral, as well as legal, bankrupts is the good-for-nothing fellow who is sorry too late, who has nothing, has no hopes of ever having anything, and who therefore can give nothing. You cannot extract blood from a beet, nor shekels from an empty purse. Then a man may lose all his belongings in a catastrophe, and after striving by labor and economy to pay off his debts, may see himself obliged to give up the task through sickness, misfortune or other good causes. He has given all he has, he cannot give more. Even though liabilities were stacked up mountain-high against him, he cannot be held morally responsible, and his creditors must attribute their losses to the misfortune of life—a rather unsubstantial consolation, but as good a one as the poor debtor has.
There are other cases where the obligations of restitution are not annulled, but only cancelled for the time being, until such a time as circumstances permit their being met without grave disaster to the debtor. The latter may be in such a position that extreme, or great, want would stare him in the face, if he parted with what he possesses to make restitution. The difficulty here is out of all proportion with the injustice committed for, after all, one must live, and charity begins at home, our first duty is toward ourselves. The creditors of this man have no just claim against him until he improves his circumstances; in the meantime, the burden of responsibility is lifted from his shoulders.
The same must be said when the paying off of a debt at any particular time, be it long or short, would cripple a man's finances, wipe out his earnings to such an extent as to make him fall considerably below his present position in life. We might take a case during the late coal famine, of a man who, in order to fill his contracts of coal at six dollars a ton, would be obliged to buy it at fifteen and twenty dollars a ton; and thereby sacrifice his fortune. The thing could not be expected, it is preposterous. His obligee must wait and hope for better times.
A man's family is a part of himself. Therefore the payment of a just debt may be deferred In order to shield from want parents, wife, children, brothers or sisters. Life, limb and reputation are greater possessions than riches; consequently, rather than jeopardize these, one may, for the time, put aside his obligations to make restitution.
All this supposes, of course, that during the interval of delay the creditor does not suffer inconveniences greater than, or as great as, those the debtor seeks to avoid. The latter's right to defer payment ceases to exist the moment it comes into conflict with an equal right of the former to said payment. It is against reason to expect that, after suffering a first injustice, the victim should suffer a second in order to spare the guilty party a lesser or an equal injury. Preference therefore must be given to the creditor over the debtor when the necessity for sacrifice is equal, and leniency must be refused when it becomes cruelty to the former.
Outside these circumstances, which are rare indeed, it will be seen at once that the creditor may act an unjust part in pressing claims that accidentally and temporarily become invalid. He has a right to his own, but he is not justified in vindicating that right, if in so doing, he inflicts more damage than equity calls for. The culprit has a right not to suffer more than he deserves, and it is mock justice that does not respect that right. If the creditor does suffer some loss by the delay, this might be a circumstance to remember at the final settlement but for the present, there is an impediment to the working of justice, placed by the fatal order of things and it is beyond power to remove it.
CHAPTER XCIX. DEBTS.
BEFORE 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 wilful 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.