Does the existence of inequality legitimately make those who have less suffer?




Prof Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

with the collaboration of others


Proposition 3

Furthermore, he who loves his neighbour seriously must show sympathy for his suffering. Now, the existence of inequalities makes those who have less suffer unjustly. Therefore, those who have more must divide what they possess with the latter until they attain equality that may be the source of general joy and harmony. As long as a man has what is necessary for his sustenance and prosperity and that of his family and receives just payment for his work,

he has no right to deplore the fact that other persons or families possess more.

If he deplores it, he sins through pride and envy.

Through pride, by not accepting the will of God, who created men with unequal physical and intellectual capacity, thus giving rise to the inequality of goods.

Through envy, by feeling sad or revolted that someone legitimately possesses greater goods, whatever they may be.

For him who has less, love of neighbour requires that he rejoice because someone else has more. And accept his conditions joyfully if they are just and dignified.



One could object to the principle contained in the affirmed proposition: If all should be content with what they have as long as it is sufficient, no one would have the right to rise in the social body. Would the Gospel then lead to a hateful caste system? Or lead to a shameful stagnation, men with remarkable capacity born in humble conditions? Would the country be deprived of making use of those values? It is easy to reply.

1. Legitimate individual advancement

Tending toward improvement is inherent to everything alive. The first form of advancement to which each should tend is the spiritual and intellectual one. Thus, as man lives on, he should grow in virtue and intelligence. At the same time is born within him a just desire to introduce more decorum and well-being into his existence. Through work, he obtains the economic means for that end. And, with the elevation of his personal level and the ambience in which he lives, his social standing also grows.

There are times when a man, looking for means of subsistence, finds the access roads to fortune open to him. His material situation improves. But he should feel a desire to place himself on a par with the newly acquired situation by elevating himself and those of his household in virtue and culture. This will serve them as a more precious and respectable foundation than the simple material fact of possessing gold.

In acting thus, there is no envy, for there is no sorrow for what others have. Nor is there pride, for a man does not wish for more than what is fitting for him. He gradually merits more and proportionally acquires more. And if he acquires more, he is careful to place himself on a level commensurate with what he has.

2. Legitimate advancement of families and classes

In history, this ascending movement is slow, profound, and fertile. In general, it is transmitted from father to son, and this is how families rise.

Usually, this movement animates not only this or that family but a whole social class. Thus, all social classes – even the most humble –, can very legitimately tend toward advancement.

Since a normally constituted social body should have many classes,97 one could argue that this advancement would result in the extinction of the lower classes because, to the extent they advanced, they would mingle with the higher classes. However, such a consequence is not to be feared in a healthy advancement of social classes. Levelling from the top is as impossible as levelling from the bottom.

As a rule, this ascending movement of entire classes consists of each person in his class and each class in the country progressing in a single movement, carrying all classes forward. Thus, the tenor of moral worth, wholesome popular culture, good taste and technical capacity should grow along with the generations of small property owners, as it has grown magnificently, for example, in European peasants from the barbarian invasions to this day. But, in the same ascending movement, corresponding qualities should also intensify in the other social classes. As a living body, society will thus progress proportionally at the impulse of a single growing force.

3. Individual advancement and social classes

Will then a person be unable to rise from his social class?

He certainly will be able to rise. In all classes are born, at times, individuals with an ability that surpasses the average to a greater or lesser degree. They have a just and reasonable notion of their capacity – a notion very different from the illusions that some fool forms about them. They rightfully desire to elevate themselves. Pride does not move them, for they desire what they deserve rather than what they do not deserve. They feel within themselves the throbbing of their own capacity. They are not moved by envy, as they do not wish to harm or deprive anyone. In the savoury expression of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the virtue that leads man to aspire to honours in social relations is called “magnanimity,” that is, the grandeur of soul.98 The desire for social advancement participates in that virtue.

As these social advancements raise some to higher social levels and others to the culminations of the social body, they must find the higher classes permeable and open to welcome these new members like so many living cells that will replace those that lose their vigour.

4. Purification of the elites

Indeed, while stability is good in every social stratum, the latter should have, in addition to an entrance door, an exit door as well. Individuals or families that degenerate deserve to fall, and as a rule they do.

Just as the human body remains the same throughout life but continually acquires and loses negligible portions of its elements, the various strata of the social body should be stable through time and generations, but constantly assimilating certain elements and gradually eliminating others.

5. Stability and mutability of the elites

The fact this incorporation or wearing out becomes too frequent or too rare is a sign of some infirmity in the social body. Indeed, men of outstanding valour normally exist and should rise. If they do not, there is something wrong preventing them from doing so. On the other hand, however, since outstanding men are exceptions, those who rise should not be too many. If they are, it is a sign that something is allowing people to advance without merit.

Conversely, the slow wearing away of the elite is an inevitable phenomenon; and if it should cease altogether, that is the sign of an anomaly. As a result, individuals no longer worthy of their mission remain in a situation of unmerited relief. If, on the contrary, persons or families are set loose from an elite in great numbers, this is a sign of irregularity, for either that decadence is merited or it is not. If it is, the deterioration of the elite has taken on excessive and alarming proportions. If it is not, many of its valid elements are being unjustly harmed, and the whole structure of that class is undermined.

These principles refer much more to normal epochs of history than to times of cataclysms and convulsions.


Applying these principles to the agrarian regime, one can affirm that it is very desirable and should not be rare for a hired man to have access to the condition of small property owner and, to some degree, for the small property owner to have access to the condition of a medium property owner, and the latter to that of a large property owner. As for the advancement of the large property owner, it is fitting to ponder that on certain occasions, an increase in the size of a large property can render considerable services. But it should be the exception. Another exception should be the possibility for a well-deserving wage earner to rise to the condition of large property owner. This possibility is far from chimerical. For example, an erstwhile farm worker became Brazil’s “Coffee King,” and many similar cases occurred on a lesser scale. Another example is that of a large sugar mill owner from the city of Campos, who took pleasure in saying he started out in life as a candy vendor.

* * *

In Brazil, medium and large property owners who accumulate profits and savings often invest their available funds to acquire distant lands in uncultivated and almost uninhabited areas, instead of purchasing neighbouring plots to enlarge their properties. In this way, they become owners of large and, at times, huge areas. No one can see this as a censurable phenomenon as long as the sums invested do not result from an insufficient payment to workers. Quite the contrary, it is a sign of legitimate strength and a guarantee of progress, especially as large properties are particularly efficient in cultivating the hinterland.

Pontifical Texts


Leo XIII Describes the Intemperate Desire to improve one’s own Condition

“We deplore … that society is threatened with a serious danger in the growing contempt of those homely duties and virtues which make up the beauty of humble life.  In the workman, it evinces itself

in a tendency to desert his trade, to shrink from toil, to become discontented with his lot, to fix his gaze on things that are above him, and to look forward with unthinking hopefulness to some future equalization of property.” 99

A legitimate desire for advancement, attachment to the goods of the earth

“ the poor, in their turn, while engaged, according to the laws of charity and justice, in acquiring the necessities of life and also in bettering their condition, should always remain ‘poor in spirit,’ (Acts 5:3), and hold spiritual goods in higher esteem than earthly property and pleasures. Let them remember that the world will never be able to rid itself of misery, sorrow and tribulation, which are the portion even of those who seem most prosperous. Patience, therefore, is the need of all, that Christian patience which comforts the heart with the divine assurance of eternal happiness.” 100

The desire for better living conditions and earthly happiness

“As regards bodily labour, even had man never fallen from the state of innocence, he would not have remained wholly idle; but that which would then have been his free choice and his delight became afterwards compulsory, and the painful expiation for his disobedience. ‘Cursed be the earth in thy work; in thy labour thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life’ (Gen. 3:17). In like manner, the other pains and hardships of life will have no end or cessation on earth; for the consequences of sin are bitter and hard to bear, and they must accompany man so long as life lasts. To suffer and to endure, therefore, is the lot of humanity; let them strive as they may, no strength and no artifice will ever succeed in banishing from human life the ills and troubles which beset it. If any there are who pretend differently – who hold out to a hard-pressed people the boon of freedom from pain and trouble, an undisturbed repose, and constant enjoyment – they delude the people and impose upon them, and their lying promises will only one day bring forth evils worse than the present.” 101

The manual worker should not be ashamed of his condition

“According to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honourable livelihood.” 102

Describing the slow advancement of peoples under the influence of the Church, Saint Pius X says:

“The Church, even in preaching Jesus Christ crucified, ‘stumbling block and foolishness to the world’ (1 Cor. 1:23), has become the foremost leader and protector of civilization. She brought it wherever her apostles preached. She preserved and protected the good elements of the ancient pagan civilizations, disentangling from barbarism and educating for a new civilization the peoples who flocked to her maternal bosom. She endowed every civilization, gradually, but with a certain and always progressive step, with that excellent mark which is today universally preserved. The civilization of the world is Christian. The more completely Christian it is, the truer, more lasting and more productive of genuine fruit it is. On the other hand, the further it draws away from the Christian ideal, the more seriously the social order is endangered. By the very nature of things, the Church has consequently become the guardian and protector of Christian society. That fact was universally recognized and admitted in other periods of history. In truth, it formed a solid foundation for civil legislation.” 103



97 Cf. Proposition 2.

98 Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIa. IIae., q. 129.

99 Leo XIII, Encyclical Laetitiae Sanctae, September 8, 1893 no. 5 at

100 Pius XI, Encyclical Divini Redemptoris, March 19, 1937 no. 45 at

101 Leo XIII, Encyclical Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891 nos. 17-18 at

102 Ibid., no. 20.

103 St. Pius X, Encyclical Il Fermo Proposito, June 11, 1905 no. 4 at