National Catholic Register


Are the Borrowers thieves?!

BY Steven D. Greydanus

| Posted 3/2/12 at 9:18 AM


Reader response to the lovely family film The Secret World of Arrietty, I’m delighted to say, has been almost entirely positive. However, I did receive one negative email from a reader who not only didn’t enjoy the film, but considered it downright immoral. Why? Because the Borrowers, tiny people who live in secret in big people’s homes, survive by “borrowing” (i.e., taking) the things they need from the big people. Here’s the complaint:

I heard you review The Secret World of Arrietty on the radio after taking my granddaughter to the movie. I was appalled that you rated it so highly. From the moment I started watching the film, I felt it went against Catholic values and teachings. Since when is it okay for someone to enter someone else’s home to “borrow” things and it not be called STEALING? When I was growing up that would have been called breaking the commandment “Thou shall not steal.” I’ve known many children whose attitude is “Finders keepers, losers weepers.” They see nothing wrong with stealing because they’ve had no moral instruction. Please consider reviewing this movie again. I would like a reply as I plan to contact the radio station on this matter.

Really? Are the Borrowers thieves? Let’s think it through. (Some Arrietty spoilers ahead.)

  1. To begin with, some perspective. The Borrowers were created in 1952 by British author Mary Norton. The Borrowers book series, like the similar Littles series, have been popular with generations of English and American children. They can be found in countless Catholic school libraries, and are recommended by orthodox Catholic resources such as Seton Home Study School, Adoremus Books and Good to Read. That doesn’t prove anything, but if you’re going to take issue with Catholic sources recommending stories based on the premise of the Borrower way of life (which is fundamentally the same in the book as in the movie), you’re going to have to write a lot more emails.
  2. Even if the Borrowers’ lifestyle were sinful, which I will argue it is not, it would be at most a very slight sin due to what Catholic moral tradition and catechesis calls paucity of matter. Any well-instructed Catholic schoolboy or girl making their first confession knows that stealing something small enough (a nickel, say) is not serious sin. The Secret World of Arrietty is at pains to emphasize that the Borrowers limit their appropriations of human property to what they need and what will never be missed—indeed, their lives depend on it not being missed. (For example, Pod insists that they take nothing from the dollhouse.) This is a very clear-cut example of paucity of matter. Gravity is proportionate to harm, and since the harm Borrowers cause to humans is negligible, even if it were sinful, the sin would be vanishingly slight.
  3. You ask, “Since when is it okay for someone to enter someone else’s home to ‘borrow’ things and it not be called stealing?” Here is the answer, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “There is no theft” in cases of “obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing…) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others” (CCC §2408). This is traditional Catholic moral theology going back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, who likewise teaches, “It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need” (Sum II-II, 66, art 7). Many Catholics are not aware that this is Catholic teaching, but it is.

    How does this apply to the Borrowers? Let’s consider their situation:

  4. It’s worth reflecting why Norton came up with the idea of a race of little people living under the floorboards and in the walls of people’s homes, and why children universally love the idea: because it’s fun to think about. It’s the same reason Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to believe in fairies: It’s just a charming idea. It’s fun to look at human-sized architecture and furniture and so forth and think about it from the perspective of miniature mountain climbers, foresters, spelunkers. We naturally make legs with our first two fingers and walk them along tabletops and such. Also, of course, we all lose things from time to time, and sometimes we’re sure we left a thing where it isn’t now, and it’s fun to pretend that it was taken by imaginary beings like little people. (We certainly aren’t encouraged to think that the little people are stealing from us. It’s only cranky Hara who says that.)

    At the end of the day, though, we are the big people and they are the little people. Their way of life is not ours. No child can live the life of a Borrower, and I’ve never known one to try. Moreover, while I didn’t read the Borrowers books growing up, I did read the similar Littles books, and it certainly never encouraged me to think that there was nothing wrong with stealing.

    Of course there are children whose attitude is “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” especially if, as you note, they’ve had no moral instruction. But in the first place, when I speak on Catholic radio, I’m addressing parents whom I presume are instructing their children, and a movie like this is not going to harm a child who is well instructed. As for children who have had no moral instructions, well, they have much bigger problems than a cartoon like this.

  5. On the contrary, there is so much moral goodness in this film that will do young viewers good that I can’t imagine stumbling over worries that they will somehow learn that stealing is okay. This movie is wise and humane and decent in a way that utterly transcends virtually all American family entertainment. It is gentle, compassionate and thoughtful. There are so many things to love, morally, about the film:

A family film so beautiful and wise and good is a rare thing. To ignore all that and focus on the issue of stealing, which as I’ve argued is just not an issue here, strikes me as missing the forest for the trees.

What do you think?