A test-case of subjective and objective guilt

At the JPII Colloquium mentioned below, I was naughty enough to ask the two Lutheran presenters whether “concupiscence” is a part of human nature or not. That of course led to the old Lutheran/Catholic debate on whether concupiscence was sin “properly speaking” or not (Catholics say it isn’t, Lutherans say it is). Fraser Pearce responded that it might be the result of the different perspectives: when I, a sinner, look at my disordered desires, I bemoan them before God as sinful, even if I do not act upon them. But if I were to go to the confessional, my confessor would tell me that, objectively speaking, to experience the desire itself is not a sin, but only when one wills it and acts upon it.

Now, over at Cardinal Pole’s blog, he has taken Bill Muhlenberg to task on the matter of when stealing is or is not a sin. Muhlenberg argues that it is always a sin to steal, and I should never regard any of the 10 commandments as simply “suggestions”, and that I may not judge myself exempt from the commandments under any conditions. The Cardinal points out rightly that the Church has never regarded as a culpable sin if someone were to steal in the case of true necessity, such as starvation.

I wonder if what we have here might not be a case of the different subjective/objective judgments that Fraser was referring to. That is, the Cardinal is concerned that we not charge with culpable sin someone who is innocent of sin. And Bill is concerned that we not give licence to individuals to “take the law into their own hands”. In other words, objectively the Church does not judge stealing in cases of true necessity as a sin, but subjectively, I am not at liberty to use this as a “get out of jail free card” to justify any stealing that I might personally have in mind.

What do you think?

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7 Responses to A test-case of subjective and objective guilt

  1. Kiran says:

    I disagree. I think the point is that, under certain circumstances, stealing is just not sinful. It is not a matter of absence of will, or of knowledge, but an absence of grave matter. Subjectively, I can be sure that such an action would not be sinful, provided the conditions are satisfied. Under certain circumstances, I would think, this does to some extent justify “taking the law” into your own hands. The question then is the hairy one of how exactly one can be sure that the circumstances apply (that true necessity exists, and so on). But this is not impossible.

    I do like the idea about concupiscence though.

  2. Schütz says:

    The idea in relation to concupiscence is related to the idea that we might say of someone “He is a saint” (objective perfection) although the saint himself would say before God (coram Deo) “I am a sinner” (subjective acknowledgment of sinfulness).

  3. Austin says:

    How could we say that stealing in some cases is not a sin? Where is the justification for that, and how are the cases decided?

  4. Peter says:

    the Church has never regarded as a culpable sin if someone were to steal in the case of true necessity, such as starvation.

    I may be wrong, but wasn’t there another condition on this? I thought that it was only not a sin where they are stealing from the genuine excess of another who has unjustly refused to share necessary goods.

    ie. a Rich man has more than he could possibly needs but refuses to share with a poor man who is starving. The starving man takes some of the excess.. but it isn’t stealing. BUT if the poor man stole what another poor man needs to survive, it IS.

    It has to do with the right to property I think. We each have the right to individual ownership of enough to fulfill our needs and the rest is ‘owned’ by others who need it, but entrusted to us for distribution. If we withold it from a case of genuine need then it is WE who steal from them.

    Not sure if that’s exactly how it goes, but close enough.

  5. An Liaig says:

    I think Peter is correct. The Church has never regarded the right to private property as absolute.

  6. Mr. Schütz,

    Thank you for your link to my blog. With respect to your proposed resolution of the difficulty in this case by consideration of objective and subjective perspectives, I disagree, for two reasons:

    1) In the case of stealing, both Mr. Muehlenberg and I are dealing with the concrete will act of stealing rather than an evil (but, we Catholics would argue, resistable) urge to steal, so my quarrel with Mr. Muehlenberg does not relate to the question of whether concupiscence is sin or the fuel of sin, as the Roman Catechism calls it. (If anything, in the context of Catholic/Protestant polemics, it would be a question of whether fallen human will is truly free or not.)

    2. Moreover, I think that my dispute with Mr. Muehlenberg comes down to a question of the definition of stealing. Catholic moral theology defines stealing as ‘taking another’s property against his or her reasonable will’. Mr. Muehlenberg’s theology seems to define stealing as ‘taking another’s property’, full stop. It’s like how Catholic moral theology defines lying as ‘a statement which is at variance with the mind’, full stop, not something like ‘a statement, when the hearer has a right to the truth, which is at variance with the mind’. So just as a Catholic would say that one cannot tell the tiniest little officious lie in order to save one’s life, Mr. Muehlenberg would (apparently) say that one may not steal even the tiniest little morsel of food in order to save one’s life. (The reason, though, why the ‘reasonable will’ qualification is rightly included in the definition of stealing is because of the universal destination of goods. Property rights are hence relative, but truth is absolute.)


    At the combox of that post by Mr. Muehlenberg, Mr. Webb used the same line of reasoning (absence of grave matter, hence not sinful), but keep in mind: just because something is not gravely sinful doesn’t mean that it’s not sinful at all, and one should never do even the most (seemingly) trifling evil even if one expected thereby to avert an enormous evil or procure an enormous good. So to use the example which Mr. Webb gave–a starving man taking a banana from a banana plantation–Mr. Muelenberg might (I’m not sure) concede that it would only be venially sinful, but it’s sinful nonetheless (to him). It really comes down to the meaning of stealing.

    One other thing for us all to keep in mind: when we speak about necessity, it is only extreme (life or death) necessity which excuses from sin when taking another’s property; the Magisterium teaches that lesser degrees of necessity, even grave necessity, are not sufficient to excuse from sin (see the condemned error which I quoted at my blog).

    Reginaldvs Cantvar

  7. David Lonsdale says:

    I am not aware of any examples from scripture where the commandment not to steal is qualified. Indeed, if Jesus is to be believed, no Christian should ever need to steal.
    Please read Matthew Chapter 6 verses 25 to 34. Jesus is saying that God will provide for us on a daily basis with one qualification: seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. If a Christian is starving it must be because he has not sought first the Kingdom of God, otherwise Jesus is a liar.
    How can we talk about faith if we do not put into practice what Jesus tells us to do? If Jesus tells us that God will provide for us, where is the faith in stealing?
    As for stealing from the rich, what is it to you if someone is rich and does not share his wealth. That is an issue between him and God. God calls you to seek Him, not to stand in judgement on others. God is the judge.

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