But Zacheus standing, said to the Lord: Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have wronged any man of any thing, I restore him fourfold. Jesus said to him: This day is salvation come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.--Luke 19: 8-10

The Necessity of Providing Restitution
by Rev. Henry Gibson, 1882

Q. Must we restore ill-gotten goods?

A. Yes; we are bound to restore ill-gotten goods if we are able, or else the sin will not be forgiven; we must also pay our debts.

We come now to speak of the third way of wronging our neighbour by unjustly keeping what belongs to him, and that is when we do not restore ill-gotten goods. The restitution of what we have stolen to the rightful owner is a strict duty, for the neglect of which millions are now burning in hell, and it is therefore most necessary that all should be well instructed as to the obligation of it and the manner of making it.

Remember, therefore, my dear children, throughout life, that there is no pardon from God for any injury which you have knowingly and willingly inflicted on your neighbour, unless you repair that injury to the utmost of your power. This is equally true of injuries which regard the property and those which affect the character of your neighbour; but it is of those which regard his property that we are here speaking, those which concern his character will be treated of under the eighth commandment. Bear in mind, then, that if you have stolen from your neighbour, cheated him in any way, or wilfully damaged his property, you are strictly bound, as a necessary condition of obtaining pardon, to make good the loss. Moreover, the loss which we have to make good is not the bare amount or value of what we have stolen or destroyed, but it is the entire loss which our neighbour has undergone, and which we might have foreseen that he would be in danger of undergoing from our unjust action.

For example, let us suppose that a thief has stolen a hundred pounds from a shopkeeper. To supply the loss, the poor tradesman has to borrow another hundred pounds to enable him to preserve his credit and carry on his business. You can easily see that the thief has injured him not only to the amount of the hundred pounds which he stole, but also to the amount of the interest which the tradesman has to pay for the money which he has been obliged to borrow; therefore the thief is bound to make this good also. Take, again, the case of a person who has stolen a workman's tools. The poor man is unable to get employment without his tools, and remains for some days idle. The thief is obliged to restore not merely the value of the tools, which may be trifling, but the loss which the workman and, his family have suffered in consequence. In a word, a thief is bound in justice to repay all the losses and expenses as well as the direct injury which has been caused by his theft. Hence we find Zaccheus in the Gospel restoring to those, whom he had wronged, fourfold the amount of that which he had deprived them, no doubt in order to make full atonement for all the losses which they might have suffered in consequence of his dishonesty. And our Blessed Lord praised him highly for so doing, and assured him that his excellent dispositions had obtained his pardon (Luke xix. 8, 9).

So far we have been speaking of restitution in cases where a person has himself committed the theft or wilful damage by which his neighbour has suffered loss. But what shall we say of him who finds that he is, without any fault of his own, in possession of a stolen article or any property which in justice belongs to his neighbour? For example, a person inherits a fortune which he afterwards finds out to have been unjustly acquired, and to be really the property of another. In this case he must at once, when he has undoubted proof as to the ownership, give it up to the real heir. Again, supposing that you have purchased a watch or any other article which you learn afterwards has been stolen, you must give it up at once to the rightful owner, for he does not lose his right to his own property by the fact of your having been deceived in buying it. In this case, however, you could justly claim the money you had paid for it from him from whom you had bought it.

We next come to speak of those who, though they do not actually commit the theft or do the damage with their own hands, are equally guilty of it in the sight of God. I mean those who co-operate in the injustice; in other words, who have a share in doing it by being, in part at least, the cause of it. For example they may have advised another to commit a theft, or even commanded him to do so if he happened to be under their authority, as in the case of a servant or child. Again, they may have joined with others in some plan for injuring their neighbour, thus consenting to the wrong, though it may not have been inflicted by their own hands. Or they may have provoked some one by sneers and threats, or encouraged him by praise and flattery to injure another. They may also have undertaken to hide or conceal the stolen goods until they could be divided without danger, or to go shares and partake in the spoil in case the theft was committed. Again, they may have preserved silence, when it was their duty to speak, as in the case of servants who have the charge of certain goods, but allow their masters to be plundered without opposition.

Finally, they may have become sharers in the crime by promising protection and defence to those who commit it. These, my dear children, are the nine ways of co-operating or partaking in another person's sin which are mentioned in a latter part of the catechism, and when that sin happens to be a sin of injustice, those who partake of it not only incur the guilt of the sin, but also the obligation of restitution. For this, however, it is necessary that they should really have been, though perhaps in part only, the cause of the injury having been committed. For example, a person might harbour a thief after he had committed a crime, and though he might do wrong, he would not be obliged to repair the injury, unless he had actually induced the thief to commit the robbery by the promise of giving him shelter.

Finally, in all cases of theft we must remember that whoever has the stolen property in his possession, is the first person obliged to restitution; but if he neglects, the obligation falls on all who have had a share in the deed in any of the ways I have mentioned--each is bound to make good the loss in proportion to the part he has taken in the crime. If all the rest neglect, then the obligation of repairing the entire loss will fall upon any one of the number. The best plan to take in all such cases is to consult your confessor, both as to the extent of your obligation and the best manner of discharging it.

But some one will ask, What must I do if I have wronged my neighbour but am unable through poverty to make restitution? Will not God forgive the sin in that case? He will, provided that you have the sincere intention of repairing the injury as soon as it is in your power. If you are able to restore a portion of the amount, though not the whole, you must give back now what you can, and the remainder at the first opportunity. Meanwhile you must avoid all unnecessary expense, lay by a portion of your weekly earnings, and make restitution by degrees until the whole of the debt is discharged. But what do you think of a man who has wronged another, and declares to his confessor that he is too poor to restore, but still continues to frequent the public house, and spend money on his own pleasure and amusement, putting off the duty of restitution from day to day? Such a one is undoubtedly mocking the Almighty, but, though he may deceive his confessor, he will not deceive God, who sees the real dispositions of his heart, and who strictly requires that restitution should be made without delay and to the utmost of the means in our power. To put off restoring what we owe when we have the means of doing it, is in itself a sin of injustice; it is like a fresh theft committed, for our neighbour has a right this very day to that of which we have deprived him. Hence it is often the duty of a confessor to defer giving absolution to a penitent, or to put off his Communion until restitution has actually been made. By so doing he really acts with the greatest charity towards his penitent, for the latter is thereby better prepared to receive the grace of the Sacrament, and is preserved from the unhappy fate of so many thousands "who promise their confessors to make restitution, but by putting it off from day to day are in the end surprised by death, and eternally lost through the neglect of this essential duty. Listen to the following awful example on this subject related by St. Alphonsus Liguori.


A certain father, who had committed many acts of injustice during his lifetime in order to enrich his family, finding his death approach, sent for a lawyer to make his will. As soon as he arrived, the dying man exclaimed, "Write down the following bequests: I leave my soul to the devil." Hereupon his wife and children cried out, "Alas! alas! the poor man is delirious." He replied, "I am not delirious. Lawyer, write, I leave my soul to the devils that they may carry it to hell in punishment of the thefts I have committed. I also leave to the devils the soul of my wife, who encouraged me to steal that she might indulge her vanity. I also leave to the devils my children, who have been the cause of my thefts." The confessor who had heard his confessions during life, and was then assisting him, was struck with horror, and earnestly exhorted him not to despair, but to hope for everything from the Divine Mercy. But the wretched man again, addressing the lawyer, said, "Write, I leave to the devils the soul of my confessor, because during life he always absolved me and did not oblige me to make restitution." So saying he fell back and expired.--St. Liguori on the Commandments.

From what I have said you will imderstand the absolute necessity we are under of maning restitution to the last farthing for every act of injustice committed against our neighbour, if we ever hope to enter the kingdom of heaven. But to whom must the restitution be made? Will it do if I give what I have stolen to the poor, or devote it to the building of a church, or get Masses said with the money for the poor souls in purgatory? No, it certainly will not do, unless it is quite impossible to make restitution to the person you have wronged; for example, through not knowing who he is or where he lives, or for some other cause. For you must always remember that it is your neighbour whom you have wronged, and not the poor, or the Church, or the souls in purgatory, and therefore that it is to your neighbour that restitution must be made. You have no right, without his leave, to give away his money in charity, for he might wish to employ it in some other way. If, however, he is not to be found, then you should do with his money what you think will do him most good, by devoting it, for example, to some pious or charitable work for the benefit of his soul.

St. Paul, in speaking on this subject, says, "He that stole, let him now steal no more, but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have something to give to him that suffereth need " (Ephes. iv. 28). Here the Apostle suggests alms to the poor as an excellent way of making restitution in certain cases. You will notice also, from the words of St. Paul, how strict is the obligation of restoring to the utmost what you have stolen, since he says that we must, if necessary, "labour with our hands in some honest employment, in order that we may obtain the means of fully discharging our debt, and this, if no other way is possible, at least by works of charity to the poor.

We come now to speak of the last way in which we may wrong our neighbour by keeping what belongs to him, and that is when we neglect to pay our just debts. Hence the catechism says, we must also pay our debts. Remember, then, my dear children, that when you have bought anything, and it has been delivered up to you, the price you agreed to pay is no longer yours, but belongs to him from whom you have purchased the article. It is his money, not your own, which you have in your purse. If, then, you go and spend it on something else, and leave your debt unpaid, you wrong your neighbour as much as if you had stolen from him. Even if you put off paying for an unreasonable time, you still wrong him, for no one willingly consents to be kept out of what belongs to him. It is this delay in the payment of bills which brings on tradespeople so many troubles, losses, and often total ruin. Under this class of dishonesty comes that grievous sin which is mentioned in the catechism as one of the four crimes which cry to heaven for vengeance, namely, defrauding labourers of their wages. Those masters and mistresses are guilty of this sin who cheat their servants of their just hire, and those also, though in a less degree, who delay to pay them for a long time, and thus expose them to want or inconvenience.

I have now explained the different ways in which we may sin against the seventh commandment either by unjustly taking away from our neighbour, or keeping what belongs to him. You will ask, perhaps, whether to do this is always a mortal sin, or whether it may not sometimes be only venial. This depends partly upon the amount which we steal, and partly upon the injury which we inflict upon the person whom we wrong. If the amount be great or the injury a serious one, then the sin is mortal; but if the amount be only trifling, then the sin is usually a venial one, because but a slight injury is inflicted on our neighbour. Thus it would be a venial sin to steal an apple or an orange, or even a small sum of money, unless it were from a very poor man; for the loss of a sixpence or a shilling might be a serious one to him. But notice, that if you often steal little things from the same person, it may come in time to be a mortal sin, for little things mount up and soon make a considerable sum.

Indeed, if from the first you intended to go on stealing, it would be a mortal sin to begin with, for you have the intention of taking what will soon become a large amount, and may inflict a serious injury on your neighbour. Thus, for example, a shop boy who intends to steal a sum of money from his master, but only takes sixpence or a shilling at a time for fear of it being missed, is guilty of a mortal sin of theft when he takes the first sixpence, on account of his wicked intention. Nay, even if you were to pilfer many little things from different people, the sin after a time would be mortal, because the total amount of the thefts would be large, though perhaps no particular person would be seriously injured. You would like to know, I daresay, how much would be considered such a serious amount as to make the theft a mortal sin. My dear children, it is impossible to tell you. If a number of little things be taken from different people, or even from the same person at different times, no doubt it requires a larger amount to be a grievous theft than if it all be taken at once from the same man, because the injury to our neighbour is less serious. But what exact amount is required in each case to make it a mortal sin God only knows. You must not therefore ask yourselves whether to take this or that is a mortal or a venial sin, but whether it is a theft or not. Those who accustom themselves to steal little things under the pretext that they are only trifles, show very little love to God, for they know that even this offends Him. Besides they will always be in extreme danger of passing the line and committing mortal sin, for when the habit of pilfering is once formed, the thief goes on from little things to greater, and finds the temptation to steal, when a good opportunity presents itself, too strong to be resisted. And depend upon it, that a thief, though for a time he may escape detection, is sure to be found out in the end. Some day, or other suspicion will fall on him, he will be watched and caught in the act, or some way or other the theft will be brought home to him. Then what becomes of him? His character is utterly ruined; he is looked upon as a mean contemptible creature in whom no one can place the slightest confidence, and he is pointed at by all with the finger of scorn. But, worst of all, he has incurred the Anger of God and merited his severe punishments.

Oh! what true friends to their children are those parents who bring them up in the strictest honesty, and chastise them severely if ever they are guilty of petty thefts! If it is true of other things, it is, above all, true of stealing, that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. Do you, parents, then, be always firm in chastising severely the least theft of which your children are guilty. If it is from others that they have stolen, see that they go back with what they have taken and restore it at once, no matter how trifling its value is. And do you, children, be grateful to your parents if they are strict with you on this point; for, by acting thus, they are preserving you from much misery and sin. In conclusion, if ever you are tempted to steal, say a Hail Mary to our Blessed Lady, to preserve you from such a crime, and go at once out of the way of temptation.