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The payment or the promise of money or other lucrative consideration to induce another, while under the obligation of acting without any view to private emolument, to act as the briber shall prescribe. Only the moral aspect of bribery will be touched upon here; the historical aspect of the question will be dealt with in the articles on the nations and countries.
The word is ordinarily used with reference to payments or other lucrative consideration illicitly made in favor of persons whose duty to the commonwealth binds them to act for the common good. Thus judges are bound, as servants of the commonwealth, to administer justice without fear or favor, and they are forbidden to take bribes from litigants or others. Similarly, regard for the public good should be the motive which influences those who appoint to public offices, or who have the placing of contracts for public works or institutions, or who are entrusted with the execution of the laws, or who elect representatives to seats in the legislature. They should appoint only worthy candidates who will serve the public well. If they neglect the common good, and seek private advantage from the exercise of the trust committed to them, they violate their duty to the commonwealth, and they make themselves accomplices in all the evil that results from the incompetence or the roguery of those whom they elect. The general principle is obvious enough, but in the matter of details difficulties are encountered which cannot all be solved in the same way. An elector may say that as a rule there is very little to choose between the candidates for some public position or office, and that even if there were a difference in their moral character and capacity to serve the public, it is difficult for the ordinary voter to detect it. Why should he not make a little money by promising to vote for the candidate who is ready to pay the highest price?
It may be that in this hypothesis no injustice is done by taking a bribe and that there is no obligation incurred of making restitution. Still the action is immoral, and rightly forbidden by law. A person who has a vote in the appointment to offices or in the election of representatives is under a serious responsibility to use his power to the best of his ability. If he takes a bribe he renders himself practically incapable of exercising a discriminating judgment. He is bound to do what he can to make sure that the person for whom he votes is worthy of the post; but if he takes a bribe this blinds him, blunts his judgment, and makes him incapable of doing his duty. Besides, in questions of this kind, we must look at the general result of the action whose moral quality we are studying; the general result of the willingness of voters to sell their vote for money is that power and office are put in the hands of that portion of the moneyed class which is least worthy and most selfish.
Those who hold public offices to which patronage or power of any sort is attached are specially bound to use their power for the common good. They accepted office under the express or tacit condition that they would use their influence for the public benefit, not merely for their private emolument. If they sell the posts, offices or favors of any kind, in their gift, for money or any lucrative consideration, they violate the express or tacit pledge that they gave on their assumption of office. There is more malice in such actions than in that of the venal elector who sells his vote for money. They also produce more direct and more immediate evils in the commonwealth. A man who has bought an office, or a post, or a contract for money will as a rule try to recoup himself at the expense of the public. It is not likely that he will be an honorable or even an honest servant, and the disastrous consequences of his appointment begin to show themselves at once. The evils are perhaps less, but they do not cease, if offices or favors are bestowed in consideration of money contributed to the funds of the political party. Power, influence and even an external respectability are sometimes given to unscrupulous men whose only recommendation is the possession of wealth.
Moralists have devoted special attention to the question of bribery in connection with the administration of justice. The judge on his assumption of office undertakes to administer justice to all who come before him, and in most countries binds himself by a special oath to do his duty. He receives a salary for his services. If he accepts bribes from suitors or criminals he makes himself practically incapable of exercising an unbiased judgment, fails in the execution of his duty, and violates his oath. If he takes money for giving a sentence that is just, he commits a sin against justice and is bound to restore the bribe to him who gave it. For the judge is bound in justice to pronounce a just sentence apart from the bribe, and his action affords him no title to take payment for what is due in justice without payment. If he takes a bribe for giving a sentence that is unjust, he will of course sin against justice on account of the sentence, and will be bound to make reparation to the injured party for the wrong that he has suffered. Some moralists, however, refuse to impose on him the obligation of restoring the bribe, on the ground that something was given for it which indeed the judge had no right to give, but which, for all that, was worth the money to him who paid the bribe. The same principles are applicable to jurymen, arbitrators and referees, who have obligations similar to those of judges. Bribery under all the above aspects is in most countries forbidden by positive law and punished by severe penalties.
LUGO, De justitiâ et jure (Paris 1869), disp. xxxiv, disp. xxxvii, n. 123f., LEHMKUHL, Theologia Moralis (Freiburg, 1898), I, 809, 810.