End Notes: Letter from an Kleptophobic

Dear Ralph,

Although you did so subtly and in a manner that many readers may have missed, I congratulate you for drawing attention to the evil of kleptophobia.

The stereotypes of the thief are so imbedded in our culture, that it is virtually impossible for us to overcome their influence. I remember vividly the day I first asked myself why I was so fearful of thieves. Like so many others, my first inclination when I felt someone else’s hand in my pocket was to beat the hell out of him. How lacking in compassion! When my son was arrested for petty larceny, my consciousness was suddenly raised and I have since founded a group called Katholics Konquering Klepto-phobia (KKK).

Christianity, of course, has a lot to answer for in the treatment of thieves, and this despite the fact that it is clear that Our Lord loved to socialize with them. Indeed, he chose to die between two thieves. The one whom even bigots call the Good Thief went that very day to heaven. Of course, we are told that his sins were forgiven, but the fact that no stay in Purgatory was asked of him suggests that theft ranks very low on any list of sins. Do we read of any penitent prostitute or tax collector bypassing the seven story mountain? As with so many other things that have traditionally been disapproved, theft must now emerge from the shadows and be acknowledged as a special—dare I say superior?—way of living the Christian message.

Scholars have shown that theft is in large part an invention of Christian theology, and that negative attitudes toward it deepen during the industrial revolution when the moral sensibilities of so many were dulled by the greedy pursuit of money. The thief was rightly seen as a threat, but we can discern his prophetic role in drawing attention to the ravages of liberal capitalism.

By promoting devotion to St. Didimus, we hope to bring attention back to the benign attitude of Our Lord to thievery. How can we call ourselves Christians when we persecute and prosecute men and women whose only crime is that they are different from the rest of us?

Biblical scholars are finally drawing the true lesson of the passage that has long puzzled homilists. The rich man’s agent who discounted the bills owed to his master is a shining example of compassion, whatever the kickback might have been. The story in Acts 5 about Ananias and his wife Sapphire is also now seen in a new light. That they died of shock and shame when outed by their fellow Christians draws attention to the terrible price our kleptophobia exacts.

Shakespeare has much to answer for in this regard, combining anti-semitism and anti-usury—usury of course is a form of theft—in the person of Shylock. Dickens is an equivocal case, however. He cannot quite bring himself to demonize the thief. It is interesting that Fagin has become an almost loveable character in the transfer of Dickens’s novel to the musical stage. Psychiatrists have long noted an audience’s tendency to side with the thief rather than the one he is benefitting by his action. As for psychiatrists themselves, they have finally removed kleptomania from their list of psychological disorders, although they long regarded it as a flaw in need of a cure! This turnabout was effected when attention was drawn to the astronomical fees they charge. The profession, having acknowledged that its practitioners belong with the robbers rather than the robbed, is doubtless the better for it.

There is I believe a little thief in all of us, and the sooner we let the little fellow out the better off we all will be. A society of thieves? Political philosophers in the vanguard of their discipline now boldly say that the destiny of society is that all citizens should acknowledge their latent inclination to rob. Recall the grudging admission that there is honor among thieves. Perhaps only among thieves. On that happy day when everyone comes out of the closet and admits they are thieves, private property will be no more and mankind will have regained the community life of the early Christians. Then the paradox involved in the revolutionary slogan, “Property is theft,” will reveal its deep and universal meaning.

I thank you again for bringing this anguishing issue to the attention of your many readers. Needless to say I have presumed to photocopy your End Note for wide distribution and have also submitted it to a rival publication under my name. Please ask your readers not to send contributions to KKK. We will call on them and take their money with such finesse they will not notice its absence until they notice ours.

May he who will come as a thief in the night be with you.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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