Does the salary system respects the legitimate rights of owners and workers? – Pontifical texts





Prof Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

with the collaboration of others


Section II, Chapter I (cont.)

Proposition 6

The salary system is unjust as such and contrary to human dignity. The normal thing is for man, free and equal by nature to all other men, to have no bosses and to fully benefit from the whole fruit of his labour. To live off a salary, depending on someone else, is humiliating. To yield part of the product of his work to the owner of a land that God has made for all is odious.

Each man should be the owner of the plot he cultivates. If they do not divide the lands soon, let them at least apply to agriculture the principle of worker participation in the company’s profits, management and ownership.

The salary system respects the legitimate rights of owners and workers. Thus, it is just of itself. It is often enhanced with the regime of agricultural partnership.

It is not humiliating to have a boss. A humble man accepts, even gladly, the authority of his superiors. Such is the will of God, and St. Paul commanded they should be obeyed.123

As for participation in profits, management and ownership, it is very desirable in the cases, more or less frequent or rare, depending on times and places, in which it is viable. Thus the law can favour, but never impose it.



Man’s right to the fruit of his work

We have seen the legitimacy of the right of property according to Church doctrine.124 Man has an absolute right over the fruit of his labour and thus can save and accumulate his earnings. In this regard, Leo XIII said in a very expressive way that capital is nothing but “his wages in another form.”125 Work, however, is not the only source of property. Man equally has the right to appropriate goods or real estate that has no owner.

To give work is to benefit

Having thus admitted the legitimacy of the right of private property, which stems from nature and therefore from God, Author of the universe, it is easy to see that an owner is benefitting a person he accepts to work on his land. And if the owner pays for his work in a just and proper way, he proceeds righteously.

Communists and socialists deem it unjust for a worker not to retain the whole fruit of his work, that is, the entire harvest. In the logic of their system, which denies property, they are right. But since private property is legitimate, all arguments based on its being unjust are groundless.

Legitimacy of the salary regime

The salary regime, thus, is just as such.

The fact that this regime is just does not mean that concrete injustices cannot be committed as it is applied. Since every man has the right to establish a family and maintain it with his work, his salary must be proportional to his work and sufficient for that end. It is the minimum family-wage defined by Pius XI.126

The law cannot impose the regime of participation

As for the participation of rural workers in the company’s profits, management and ownership, it offers advantages in some cases and real drawbacks in others. Thus, the law cannot impose it. Indeed, how could the State impose without compensation the participation by third parties in goods that do not belong to it? How could it impose on owners a partnership in which workers participate in the company’s profits but cannot share its risks and losses? (Nor could workers, in their economic situation, be asked to do so.)127

Pontifical texts

Private property is essential to the common good

“The division of goods which results from private ownership was established by nature itself in order that created things may serve the needs of mankind in fixed and stable order.”128

Private property stems from nature itself

“Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary.”129

Private property originates from the worker’s right to a salary

“It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labour, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases. Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and, consequently, a working man’s little estate thus purchased

should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labour. But it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consists of land or chattels.”130

Man can legitimately become the owner of things without an owner

“Ownership is originally acquired both by occupancy of a thing not owned by any one… For, whatever some idly say to the contrary, no injury is done to any person when a thing is occupied that is available to all but belongs to no one.” 131

Man can legitimately become a landowner

“This becomes still more clearly evident if man’s nature is considered a little more deeply. For man, fathoming by his faculty of reason matters without number, linking the future with the present, and being master of his own acts, guides his ways under the eternal law and the power of God, whose providence governs all things. Wherefore, it is in his power to exercise his choice not only as to matters that regard his present welfare, but also about those which he deems may be for his advantage in time yet to come. Hence, man not only should possess the fruits of the earth, but also the very soil, inasmuch as from the produce of the earth he has to lay by provision for the future. Man’s needs do not die out, but forever recur; although satisfied today, they demand fresh supplies for tomorrow. Nature accordingly must have given to man a source that is stable and remaining always with him, from which he might look to draw continual supplies. And this stable condition of things he finds solely in the earth and its fruits.”132

It is an error to claim that the whole fruit of the work belongs to the worker

“For they are greatly in error who do not hesitate to spread the principle that labour is worth and must be paid as much as its products are worth, and that consequently the one who hires out his labour has the right to demand all that is produced through his labour.”133

It is just for owners to earn more – and for workers to be able to save

“The owner of the means of production, whether it is a private individual, workers’ association or foundation, within the bounds of public financial laws, must always remain in control of economic decisions. It is obvious that his income is higher than his employees’. But it is clear that the material prosperity of all members of the people, which is the end of the social economy, imposes on him more than others an obligation to contribute through savings to increase the nation’s capital. Since, on the other hand, we must not lose sight that it is supremely advantageous for a sound economy for this increase in social capital to come from as numerous sources as possible, it is very desirable that the workers also be able, through the fruit of their savings, to participate in the formation of the nation’s capital.” 134

The salary system is according to justice

“First of all, those who declare that a contract of hiring and being hired is unjust of its own nature, and hence a partnership-contract must take its place, are certainly in error and gravely misrepresent.

Our Predecessor whose Encyclical not only accepts working for wages or salaries but deals at some length with its regulation in accordance with the rules of justice.”135

The salary should be sufficient to maintain the worker

“Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.”136

The salary of the head of a family should be sufficient to maintain his wife and children

“… in the State such economic and social methods should be adopted as will enable every head of a family to earn as much as, according to his station in life, is necessary for himself, his wife, and for the rearing of his children.” 137

Justice does not require worker participation in the company’s profits or ownership

“Nor would it be true to say that every private company is by nature a society in which relations between participants are determined by the rules of distributive justice, so that all without distinction – whether or not they are owners of the means of production – would be entitled to a share in ownership or at least in the company’s profits. This concept stems from the premise that every company falls by nature into the sphere of public law. It is an inaccurate assumption. Indeed, whether the company is incorporated as a foundation or association of worker co-owners, or whether it is the private property of an individual who signs an employment contract with the workers, in both cases it falls into the legal jurisdiction of the private economic sphere.” 138

Justice does not require worker participation in the company’s ownership and management

“This is why Catholic social teaching speaks out so consciously, among other issues, about the right of individuals to own property. Here also appear the deeper reasons why the Popes of the social encyclicals and We ourselves refuse to deduct from the nature of the employment contract, either directly or indirectly, a right to worker co-ownership in the company’s capital and therefore a right to co-management. It was important to deny that right because a bigger problem is posited behind it. The right of the individual and the family to property is a direct corollary of the person’s essence and his right to personal dignity, albeit one burdened with social duties; but it is not an exclusively social function.” 139

“The same danger also presents itself when a company is required to give its employees the right to co-economic management, particularly when the exercise of that right actually depends, directly or indirectly, on organizations run by entities unrelated to the company. Now then, neither the nature of

the employment contract, nor the nature of the company, necessarily entail, by themselves, such a right.” 140

Socialists want to pry responsibility for the company away from its owners

“For dozens of years now in most of these [long industrialized] countries and often under the decisive influence of the Catholic social movement, a social policy was put in place characterized by a progressive development of labour law and, correspondingly, by subjecting the private owner, in possession of the means of production, to legal obligations favouring the worker.

“Anyone wishing to advance social policy even further in this direction stumbles on a limit: he faces the danger that the working class will fall, for its part, into the mistakes of capital, which consisted, especially in large companies, in taking away control of the means of production from the personal responsibility of the private owner (individual or company) to place it under the responsibility of anonymous entities.

“A socialist mentality would accommodate itself very well with this situation. But it cannot fail to cause real concern among those aware of the fundamental importance of the right of private property in promoting [free] initiatives and setting responsibilities in economic matters.” 141

Beware of errors regarding corporate reform

Worker participation in a company’s profits, ownership and management normally leads to reform in the company’s structure. Pius XII warns the faithful against erroneous tendencies that often arise in this matter:

“There is much talk today about reforming the structure of the company, and those promoting it aim primarily at changing the legal status of its members, whether they are entrepreneurs or dependents incorporated into the company by virtue of an employment contract.

“However, We could not fail to see the trends infiltrated in such movements, which do not apply – as trumpeted – undisputed norms of natural Law to the circumstances of changing times, but simply exclude them. For this reason, in Our speeches of May 7, 1949 to the International Union of Catholic Employers’ Associations and of June 3, 1950 to the International Congress of Social Studies, We opposed these trends, not to promote the material interests of one group rather than another, but to ensure honesty and tranquillity of conscience to all those concerned with these problems.” 142

Private responsibility in the enterprise must be maintained

Corporate reform can lead to the abolition of private responsibility, a grave error against which Pius XII warns the faithful:

“Nor could We ignore the changes that disfigured the words of great wisdom of Our glorious Predecessor Pius XI by attributing the weight and importance of the Church’s social program in our time to a wholly accessory observation on possible changes in legal relationships between workers, subjects of the employment contract, and the other contracting party; while, on the contrary, remaining more or less silent about the main part of the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which really contains the said program, that is, the idea of a professional corporate order throughout the economy.

Anyone wishing to deal with issues concerning the reform of the corporate structure without taking into account that every private company is, by virtue of its end, closely linked to the overall national economy, runs the risk of making false and erroneous assumptions to the prejudice of the whole economic and social order. That is why in the same speech of June 3, 1950 we strive to put in its proper light the thought and teaching of Our Predecessor, to whom nothing was more alien than any incentive to continue on a path leading to anonymous forms of collective responsibility.” 143



123 Title 2:9.

124 Section I, Title II, Chapter II.

125 Encyclical Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891 no. 5 at

126 Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, May 15, 1931 nos. 66 ff. at 127 On worker participation on a company’s profits, management and ownership from the Catholic standpoint, see the excellent articles by Prof. José de Azeredo Santos in the monthly cultural journal, Catolicismo, no. 17, May 1952; no. 46, October 1954 and no. 47, November 1954.

128 Pius XI, Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, May 15, 1931 no. 56 at

129 Leo XIII, Encyclical Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891 no. 22 at

130 Idem, no. 5.

131 Pius XI, Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, May 15, 1931 no. 52 at 132 Leo XIII, Encyclical Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891 no. 7 at

133 Pius XI, Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, May 15, 1931 no. 68 at

134 Pius XII, Address to the 9th Conference of the International Union of Catholic Employers’ Associations, May 7, 1949 – Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. XI, pp. 63-64 [our translation].

135 Pius XI, Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, May 15, 1931 no. 64 at 136 Leo XIII, Encyclical Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891 no. 45 at

137 Pius XI, Encyclical Casti Connubii, December 31, 1930 no 117 at

138 Pius XII, Address to the 9th Conference of the International Union of Catholic Employers’ Associations, May 7, 1949 – Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. XI, p. 63 [our translation].

139 Pius XII, Radio broadcast to Vienna’s Katholikentag, September 14, 1952 – Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. XIV, p. 314 [our translation].

140 Pius XII, address to members of the International Congress of Social Studies of the International Social Christian Association, June 3, 1950 – Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. XII, p. 101 [our translation].

141 Pius XII, address to members of the International Congress of Social Studies of the International Social Christian Association, June 3, 1950 – Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. XII, pp. 100-101.

142 Pius XII, Address of January 31, 1952 at the National Council of the Christian Union of Corporate Heads and Managers of Italy – UCID – Discorsi e Radiomessaggi, vol. XIII, p. 465.

143 Idem, p. 466.