What´s Justice?




Prof Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

with the collaboration of others


Proposition 5


“Agrarian Reform” will certainly deprive many people from the plush life they enjoy. But by subjecting them to living conditions bearable to all, it will not cause them real prejudice and thus will not be unjust.

Justice is not only for everyone to have dignified living conditions but, once such conditions are assured to all, also for those who can acquire more through their own

work or other legitimate way such as inheritance, to actually have more.


In terms of Catholic doctrine, one cannot accept inequality among men reaching such a point that some will find themselves in a situation of underserved poverty because others, moved by ambition and a thirst for luxury, deny them the necessary to maintain themselves and their families with a sufficient and dignified salary. This injustice leads to disproportionate inequality and constitutes one of the four sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance.

This principle is easy to admit.

What is the duty of those who have more than they need when a situation of unmerited poverty occurs? Leo XIII says:

“True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, ‘for no one ought to live other than becomingly’ (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, IIa. II ae., q.32, a. 6, c.13) But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. ‘Of that which remaineth, give alms’ (Luke, 11:41). It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity – a duty not enforced by human law. But the laws and judgments of men must yield place to the laws and judgments of Christ the true God.” 117

Of course, in cases where there is a duty of justice, it is up to the law – with the caution that should always be inherent to it – to enforce compliance with that duty.

But from there to leap to the conclusion that when a person is well-off there is no evil in the law taking something from him on behalf of those who have less (and this without even distinguishing whether or not the latter have enough) is actually to deny the right of property in its root, sacrificing it on the altar of the most radical egalitarianism.

Consequently, it is a grievous injustice to deprive a man or family of what legitimately belongs to them, the patrimonial situation corresponding to their level of education and habits they have thus acquired. That is true even if the deprived person does not die of hunger because of it.

* * *

Incidentally, one notes in this contested proposition and subsequent ones, explicitly or implicitly, the totalitarian principle shared by Nazis, socialists and communists, that the State is almighty and can abolish or modify the right of property as it wishes.

The Church condemns this position and considers certain rights such as property, family as previous and superior to the State.

Pontifical texts

Ultra-rich and countless poor

Referring not specifically to agriculture but to the contemporary economy in general, Pius XI said: “The distribution of created goods … as every discerning person knows, is labouring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless.” 118

To approve the existence of unequal classes, great and small, employers and employees, large, medium and small fortunes, and finally, persons or families living a sufficient and dignified life from a salary is not the same as approving the coexistence of “ultra-rich” with indigents.

Exaggerated class differences have already diminished in some places

John XXIII: “On this point it should be noted, and this gives rise to hope for a better future, that in some places in recent days, relations among the classes have been less bitter and difficult. As Our predecessor, addressing the Catholics of Germany, expressed it: ‘The terrible disasters of the recent war plunged you into hardship, but produced at least one blessing among the many classes of your population: prejudices and exaggerated ambitions for personal advantage have subsided; the conflicting interests of the classes are nearer to reconciliation. Closer association with one another since the war has done this. Hard times borne together have taught you all a helpful, though bitter, lesson’ (Radio address to the 73rd Congress of German Catholics: Discorsi e radiomessaggi di S.S. Pio XII, v. 11, 189. AAS 41 (1949) 460).

“As a matter of fact, the distances which separate the classes of society are shrinking. Since it is no longer a matter merely of ‘capital’ and ‘labour,’ the number of classes has multiplied, and all of them are readily accessible to all men. Anyone who is diligent and capable has the opportunity to rise to higher levels of society. As for the condition of those who live by their daily toil, it is consoling to note that recently undertaken improvements in working conditions in factories and other places of employment have done more than give these workers a greater economic value; they have made their lives nobler and more dignified.” 119

Social inequalities should be harmonious

Leo XIII comments “on the rights and duties which both classes of society – those namely, who control capital, and those who contribute labour – are bound in relation to each other.”120

The poor: principal victims of demagoguery

“The poor are obviously more exposed than others to the wiles of agitators who, taking advantage of their extreme need, kindle their hearts to envy of the rich and urge them to seize by force what fortune seems to have denied them unjustly.”121

Defend the poor without inciting hatred for the upper classes

The contested proposition reeks of envy against higher classes and is particularly censurable in this regard:

“XIX. Finally, let Catholic writers take care, when defending the cause of the proletariat and the poor, not to use language calculated to inspire aversion among the people for the upper classes of

society. Let them refrain from speaking of redress and justice when the matter comes within the domain of charity only, as has been explained above. Let them remember that Jesus Christ endeavoured to unite all men in the bond of mutual love, which is the perfection of justice, and which carries with it the obligation of working for the welfare of one another.”122



117 Encyclical Rerum Novarum, May 15, 1891 no. 22 at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum_en.html. 118 Pius XI, Encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, May 15, 1931 no. 58 at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19310515_quadragesimo-anno_en.html.

119 John XXIII, Encyclical Ad Petri Cathedram, June 29, 1959 nos. 41-42 at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_29061959_ad-petri_en.html.

120 Leo XIII, Encyclical Graves de Communi, January 18, 1901 no. 2 at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_18011901_graves-de-communi- re_en.html.

121 Pius XI, Encyclical Divini Redemptoris, March 19, 1937 no. 61 at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19031937_divini-redemptoris_en.html.

122 St. Pius X, Motu Proprio Fin Dalla Prima Nostra on Popular Catholic Action, December 18, 1903 no. XIX in American Catholic  Quarterly Review, Vol. XXIX (1904) 234-239.