Theft is the secret taking of another's property against the reasonable will of that other.
It is to be noted that the word secret is not employed to exclude the idea of the owner's presence and advertence whilst the theft is being committed. It is used merely to signify that the crime has been perpetrated without violence towards him. Not only the taking, but the keeping or the use unjustly of what belongs to another against his will, is to be considered theft. This would happen, for instance, where one unwarrantably refused to restore what had been entrusted to him as a pledge or loan or only for safe-keeping. Likewise where one would manage to ride on the railway without paying any fair. For the notion of theft, the unwillingness of the owner to part with what is rightfully his, is essential. If he be content, or if under some circumstances he can legitimately be presumed to be satisfied with what is done although perhaps displeased at the manner of its doing, there is no theft properly so called. Moreover his unwillingness must be reasonable, not simply insensate close-fistedness. He is not justified in declining always and without regard to conditions to assent to the alienation of what belongs to him merely because it is his. Thus one in danger of death from want of food, or suffering any form of extreme necessity, may lawfully take from another as much as is required to meet his present distress even though the possessor's opposition be entirely clear. Neither, therefore, would he be bound to restitution if his fortunes subsequently were notably bettered, supposing that what he had converted to his own use was perishable. The reason is that individual ownership of the goods of this world, though according to the natural law, yields to the stronger and more sacred right conferred by natural law upon every man to avail himself of such things as are necessary for his own preservation. St. Thomas (II-II:66:7) declares that in such straits what is taken becomes, because of the dire need experienced, one's very own, and so cannot be said to be stolen. This doctrine is sometimes expressed by saying that at such a time all things become common, and thus one reduced to such utter destitution only exercises his right.
The sin of theft is of itself grievous, because it violates the great virtues of justice and charity. St. Paul (1 Corinthians 6:10) enumerates it as one of the transgressions which bars the offender from the kingdom of heaven. Still, as happens with regard to other delinquencies, its guilt may often be venial. This is particularly true when the value of what is filched is inconsiderable, or as the theologians say, is not grave matter. The determination of what is grave matter, whose taking, namely, is prohibited under pain of mortal sin, is beset with great difficulties and has offered room for widespread difference of opinion. It is agreed, however, that a distinction is to be drawn between relatively and absolutely grave matter. The grievousness of theft seems to depend on the way in which the purposes which make the respecting of property rights obligatory are set at naught. These ends are, first the preservation of peace and harmony among individuals, and then the guaranteeing of the security of human society, as well as the providing an incentive for each one to pursue an industrious career. A man who steals may bid defiance to either or both of these ends. So far as the first is concerned it is obvious that the unjust appropriation of goods to such a value as to destroy this concord and furnish reasonable ground for great sorrow to the owner must be reputed a mortal sin. That amount is clearly not a constant quantity. It will vary according to the circumstances of the person injured as well as of place and time in which commodities may be more or less valuable. It will even take account of the special relationship which perchance the thief holds to the one he has despoiled, as when children steal from their parents. The sum so ascertained is termed the relatively grave matter. Thus the theft of an amount equal to a day's wages from an ordinary artisan would unquestionably be a mortal sin. The same thing must be said of the taking of an insignificant sum from a beggar. Theologians teach that this method of establishing the grievousness of theft cannot be employed indefinitely and exclusively. There is an absolute sum which it is always a mortal sin to take even from the wealthiest person or corporation. Were this not so the very fabric of human society would be imperilled, the stimulus to labour and enterprise extinguished, and the axe laid to the root of that confidence which must accompany human intercourse.
In the attempt to compute this sum in money theologians are not at one; nor is this surprising. In the settlement of the question we have to reckon with a most important factor, that is with the purchasing power of money which is not the same everywhere nor at all times. Writers on economics tell us that for the last hundred years or so this value has decreased from thirty to forty per cent. Of course, the less the value of money at any given time or in any region the more of it would be required to constitute a mortal sin of theft, always, however, within the limits of the principle already laid down. Comparisons instituted between the United States and Europe in the matter of wages prevailing and cost of living, seem to point unmistakably to the conclusion that money has less purchasing capacity here than abroad. Hence where reputable moralists assign as absolutely grave matter, six dollars for Italy, eight for Belgium, and from seven to ten for England, it will not be deemed excessive to fix the amount for this country as ranging from ten to fifteen dollars. One of the greatest of modern theologians, Palmieri, writing in Europe, professes his willingness to stand sponsor for the opinion which makes the sum twenty dollars. He gives as his reason the greatly lessened value of money in our own time. We may not feel obliged to accept this decision, but it is at any rate an indication of the trend of expert opinion. There is no doubt but that small pilferings perpetrated at different times, whether to the prejudice of one or of many owners, can eventually coalesce and reach a sum forbidden under pain of mortal sin. The contrary doctrine was condemned by Innocent XI. The reason, of course, is that the damage wrought is serious. This coalescence may be brought about by the specific intention of the thief in his petty stealing to ultimately arrive at a conspicuous amount. When several persons join forces to steal from another and the loss incurred is notable, then each one contracts the guilt of grievous sin, even though his own contribution to the wrong-doing has been but small. One who hoards the proceeds of his petty thefts is chargeable with mortal sin when the sum accumulated is grave. Even when he has disposed of his ill-gotten goods as fast as they were acquired, his thievings will still be held to coalesce unless there has been a considerable interval of time betwen them.
SLATER, Manual of Moral Theology (New York, 1908); BALLERINI, Opus theologicum morale (Prato, 1899); GENICOT, Institutiones theologiæ moralis (Louvain, 18980; BUCCERONI, Enchiridion morale (Rome, 1887).
APA citation. (1912). Theft. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14564b.htm
MLA citation. "Theft." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14564b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. In memory of Fr. John Hilkert, Akron, Ohio Fidelis servus et prudens, quem constituit Dominus super familiam suam.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.