Online Course Unit 1

Thomas Aquinas, the Late Scholastics and their Influence on the Tradition of Catholic Social Teaching

André Azevedo Alves, Hugo Chelo, Inês Gregório ABOUT THE AUTHORS


This module links the contributions to Catholic social thought of Thomas Aquinas and the late scholastics with the development of contemporary Catholic social teaching. The first section explains the relevance of Aquinas for Catholic thought in the context of his own time. The second section addresses the developments of the late scholastics, particularly those in the School of Salamanca, who built on Aquinas. The final section addresses Aquinas’s influence on contemporary Catholic social teaching from the encyclical Rerum novarum onwards. Each section illustrates the development of the ideas through their application to the issues of private property and just wages.

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Thomas Aquinas and Catholic social teaching: context and relevance

Despite having lived for less than 50 years during the Middle Ages, the impact and reputation of the work of Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) has been extraordinarily influential. Six centuries after his death, Pope Leo XIII put Aquinas’s thinking and work at the centre of Catholic social teaching, proclaiming him as an authoritative source of Catholic doctrine and giving rise to a new edition of his works.

In the encyclical Aeternis Patris (1878), Pope Leo XIII appeals to the restoration of Christian philosophy and to the study of the doctrine of the Scholastic Doctors, amongst whom Thomas Aquinas is considered: “the chief and master of all towers…[who] collected together and cemented, distributed in wonderful order, and so increased with important additions that he is rightly and deservedly esteemed the special bulwark and glory of the Catholic faith.” (17)

The importance of Aquinas and his work is reiterated some paragraphs later, when Pope Leo XIII recognises that his masterpiece, Summa Theologica, should be used as a guidance tool by the Catholic Church, alongside the Holy texts. Noting: “But the chief and special glory of Thomas, one which he has shared with none of the Catholic Doctors, is that the Fathers of Trent made it part of the order of conclave to lay upon the altar, together with sacred Scripture and the decrees of the supreme Pontiffs, the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, whence to seek counsel, reason, and inspiration.” (AP 22)

According to John Finnis, what characterises Aquinas’s thinking and renders it so distinctive is the fact that he could benefit from the access to divine revelation – to the teachings found in the prophets of Israel, in the Gospels and other sacred scriptures – to better understand moral questions. He then combined these with the best philosophical approaches available, found in Plato and Aristotle (Finnis 2019, 12). Within this theoretical framework, Thomas Aquinas addressed the tension in the relationship between the whole and the parts, i.e., between the necessity of the political community to ensure its sustainability and to provide, at the same time, the conditions for all individuals to guide their own lives according to moral dictates.

From these two sources that inspired the work developed by Aquinas, one element of each are worth mentioning. First of all, there is a specific understanding of human dignity according to which each individual is an image of the divine nature and has the free capacity to choose. Apart from elevating human beings to a superior position when compared with other animals, this capacity for free choice also corresponds to an important form of equality by which all persons are in the same position, not subject to the control of anyone. However, in different aspects of his thinking, Aquinas follows notions originally set forth by the great classical Aristotelian philosophy. This is so both in terms of the understanding of justice as a particular virtue in the context of relationships between people, but also in the consideration of the legitimate origins of private property.

This concept of justice is fundamental to understanding the whole moral theology of Thomas Aquinas and, particularly, the treatment of economic questions, which are the main focus of this module. Classified as a primary or cardinal virtue (I.II 61, a. 2), justice is defined as “a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will” (II.II 58, a. 1). By implying a form of equality, justice also implies a form of relationship towards another and, for that reason, it concerns external actions and rectifies relationships between individual people:

As stated above since justice by its name implies equality, it denotes essentially relation to another, for a thing is equal, not to itself, but to another. And forasmuch as it belongs to justice to rectify human acts, as stated above this otherness which justice demands must needs be between beings capable of action. (II.II 58, a. 2)

Within the community, apart from ensuring right relations between persons, justice is also vested of a legal value and requires respect for community laws which aim to promote the common good or universal happiness.

Thomas Aquinas then proceeds with the discussion of this virtue and distinguishes between two types of justice. The first, distributive justice concerns the sharing of goods and “renders what is due to each person, as determined by a criterion of proportionality between individual worthiness and the goods being distributed”. The second form, commutative justice, concerns the exchange of goods. Commutative justice “preserves equality in accordance with an arithmetical mean, that is to say, with respect to the quantity of things exchanged between persons or the benefits and burdens that accrue to each one” (Porter 2002, 278). When these conditions are not respected, injustices are committed. Those injustices take the form of a lack of respect for persons, in the case of distributive justice, or theft and robbery, in the case of commutative justice. Injustice may have a general character when it refers to vices opposed to the common good, or a particular character when it affects a particular relationship with another individual. In the case of particular justice, an injustice always constitutes an imbalance in relationship to others (II.II 59, a. 1), implying also a perspective of intentionality. Moreover, Aquinas considers that injustice reveals a violation of equality, because it fails to recognise the fundamental dictate of human dignity, according to which all persons are equal and an image of the divine nature (II.II 59 a. 1).

As noted above, the treatment given by Aquinas to the virtue of justice is fundamental to understanding the theoretical framework within which economic questions are examined. It is important to bear in mind that, in the Middle Ages, these questions were not subject to special reflection, but they were becoming important. Societies were urbanising more rapidly and the proximity between producer and consumer that previously existed was becoming more stretched. The practical application of the key principles of what became known as the Thomistic way of thinking about economic questions became of huge importance.

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Thomas Aquinas and Catholic social teaching: applications

Private Property

According to Aquinas, the emergence of private property cannot be dissociated from the divine episode of the expulsion from paradise, “where nature provided for everything needed for survival” (Koehler 2016, 59). From that moment on, the survival of the human species depended on the use of natural and material resources in producing goods for the fulfilment of bodily necessities. In order to ensure the efficiency of this arrangement, it was necessary to find a mechanism that could make each individual accountable for his own task: such a mechanism was the possession of external things, or private property. And Aquinas advances three reasons to justify this:

it is lawful for man to possess property. Moreover this is necessary to human life for three reasons. First because every man is more careful to procure what is for himself alone than that which is common to many or to all: since each one would shirk the labour and leave to another that which concerns the community, as happens where there is a great number of servants. Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in more orderly fashion if each man is charged with taking care of some particular thing himself, whereas there would be confusion if everyone had to look after any one thing indeterminately. Thirdly, because a more peaceful state is ensured to man if each one is contented with his own. Hence it is to be observed that quarrels arise more frequently where there is no division of the things possessed. (II.II 66, a. 2)

Nonetheless, this private character of property is not understood by Aquinas in absolute terms, or as sustained by “any metaphysical connection between the possessor and the property” (Walsh 2018, 200). On the contrary, it is based on the premise that the institution of private property ensures that property is used for the promotion of the common good. For this reason, after referring to the three justifications, Aquinas states: “man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need.” (II.II 66, a. 2).

There are two important results from this clarification. Firstly, the urge to possess external things should be moderate and should not degenerate into greed or avarice. It should be measured by what is necessary to provide for the sustenance of oneself and one’s family, according to its condition of life. Secondly, the condition of those in greater need constitutes another limitation on the use of private property, for persons can only possess external things if they are willing to share those things with those in need. Aquinas affirms:

A man would not act unlawfully if by going beforehand to the play he prepared the way for others: but he acts unlawfully if by so doing he hinders others from going. On like manner a rich man does not act unlawfully if he anticipates someone in taking possession of something which at first was common property, and gives others a share: but he sins if he excludes others indiscriminately from using it. (II.II 66, a. 2)

This limitation derives also from one key principle of Catholic social teaching discussed in the beginning of this module: that all men are equal and created in God’s image. For this reason, each life has the same value in the sight of God and its material sustainability should be secured and supported.

Given that it is lawful for an individual to own property, as long as the situation of the needy is respected, Thomas Aquinas considered that it would be a sin to violate or to act against this possibility of possessing material goods. The sin of theft thus has three main characteristics: it implies taking possession of something that belongs to another; it involves taking a material thing; and it also requires the item to have been taken secretly (II.II 66, a. 3). A second form of violation of the right to private property is the sin of robbery. This differs from theft as it is not practised in secret but done with violence. Regardless of this difference, both theft and robbery constitute vices against the virtue of justice, for “they evidently involve a failure to render to another that which is her or his own” (Porter 2002, 280). However, and despite being a mortal sin, there is a circumstance in which someone is allowed to take the possessions of another, either by secret or by force. This again relates to the case of the needy. If the reason why someone takes the property of another person is to provide for their survival or that of their family then he shall not be considered guilty of theft or robbery (II.II 66, a. 7). John Finnis (2019, 24) summarises the conditions imposed on private property by Thomas Aquinas as follows:

  • For anyone in dire necessity, nothing belongs to anyone in particular; “for anyone in that situation, all resources become common resources”. That is to say, people who find themselves or their dependants in such life-threatening need are morally entitled to take anything which will relieve that need, and this entitlement overrides anyone else’s otherwise legitimate title or property right.
  • In situations where no one confronts extreme necessity, the right of owners and other property-holders to keep their property extends just as far as their…need to maintain themselves (with their dependants) in the form of life which they have reasonably adopted. All their further resources [residuum; superfllua] are “held in common”: all these resources should be made available to those (“the poor”) who, though not in extreme necessity, lack the resources to satisfy their needs… The poor have a natural right that the whole of this residuum be distributed in their favour.

Summing up, private property is defined in Thomas Aquinas’s thinking as belonging to the ius gentium: as a consequence of natural law (God grants men the right to use material goods for survival) that was added by human reason (because the common good is better served when property is held privately rather than in common) and therefore restrained by natural law itself (due to the equal value of all individuals in the sight of God). Private property has no absolute character and is always associated to the improvement of the common good. However, to the distribution of property to the poor is an obligation in charity and justice that is not necessarily to be enforced by the state.

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Just Wages

Thomas Aquinas understands wages as being strictly associated with merit. They are a reward for the applied service of a human faculty and, for this reason, it is an act of justice to pay someone in return for the effort put into a specific job. As he affirms:

merit and reward refer to the same, for a reward means something given anyone in return for work or toil, as a price for it. Hence, as it is an act of justice to give a just price for anything received from another, so also is it an act of justice to make a return for work or toil. (I.II 114, a. 1)

An important aspect of the discussion about wages in Aquinas is the concept of the just price, justum pretium. The wage is the price paid in return for the labour of the worker. The just price or just wage does not simply follow a mathematical formula. It takes into account the economic value of whatever is traded and the circumstances of a specific time and place. When this definition is applied to the wage, we find the criteria for determining whether it is just. The wage has to assure the sustainability of the worker and of his family: in other words, the wage is just when it is proportional to the necessities of the life of the worker, which include not only everything without which it is not possible to exist, but also those things necessary to live a life with dignity according to his station in life. As Aquinas argues:

a thing is said to be necessary, if a man cannot without it live in keeping with his social station, as regards either himself or those of whom he has charge. The “necessary” considered thus is not an invariable quantity, for one might add much more to a man’s property, and yet not go beyond what he needs in this way, or one might take much from him, and he would still have sufficient for the decencies of life in keeping with his own position…for no man ought to live unbecomingly. (II-II 32, a. 6)

On the other hand, the definition of a just salary must take also into account the quantity and the complexity of the labour that was hired by the worker. St. Thomas does not deny that there are differences between professions and the faculties required for each one and he recognises that not all labour has the same value. For this reason, someone who works more or who performs a more complex task deserves a bigger salary: “more labourious, more difficult and more productive labour, demands a higher remuneration” (Rocha 1992, 36).

Within this framework, the salary paid may be unjust either by defect or by excess. In the first case, it is unjust when the master or the buyer refuse to pay the worker what is due to be paid for his labour. In the second case, it is unjust when the worker receives more than he needs given his conditions of life, especially if this leaves the one who paid in a condition that is not decent. This injustice by excess is not very common in the case of manual labour. However Aquinas draws attention to the case of professions such as lawyers or doctors, where professionals are allowed to sell their services but should establish a price considering the circumstances of those who resort to them and common practices. When this does not occur, injustices may be committed:

Now it is evident that an advocate is not always bound to consent to plead, or to give advice in other people’s causes. Wherefore, if he sell his pleading or advice, he does not act against justice. The same applies to the physician who attends on a sick person to heal him, and to all like persons; provided, however, they take a moderate fee, with due consideration for persons, for the matter in hand, for the labour entailed, and for the custom of the country. If, however, they wickedly extort an immoderate fee, they sin against justice. (II-II 71, a. 3)

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The late scholastics and Catholic social teaching: context and relevance

The contributions of the late scholastics mark a significant stepping stone in the development of Catholic social thought. Although Catholic social teaching as a structured and articulated body of thought is relatively recent, its roots go back much further. As evidenced above, the work of St. Thomas Aquinas is certainly pivotal in this regard. But, in relation to several applied economic and social issues, the first consistent reflection from a Catholic perspective ought to be credited to the late scholastics and particularly to the so-called School of Salamanca (Alves and Moreira 2013a).

The founder of the School of Salamanca, a Dominican called Francisco de Vitoria, studied in Paris where he developed a Thomist line of reasoning, combining Aristotelian foundations with a strong emphasis on the concept of natural law and the exploration of its implications. In 1526, Vitoria returned to Spain to take over the prime chair of theology at the University of Salamanca.

The School included a distinct group of Iberian late scholastics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who, in most cases, applied Thomistic reasoning to deal with new problems arising out of the European expansion into the New World. In doing so, they significantly expanded the pre-existing understanding of many important issues, ranging from business ethics and economic theory to politics and international law. The rapid growth of commercial and financial activity in this period, coupled with the new problems related to international relations and the rights of indigenous populations, led to the need to address new problems from a Catholic perspective. The serious theological, political and cultural challenges posed by Protestantism further reinforced this need and so ethical reflection and discourse on a wide variety of applied subjects was a primary concern for the Iberian late scholastics.

The intellectual importance of the School of Salamanca also corresponded historically with a period in which several favourable demographic, economic, cultural and political circumstances turned the Iberian Peninsula into a focal point for commerce and diplomacy as well as for intellectual exchange. The interaction between Christian, Jewish and Muslim elements in the Iberian Peninsula was an important factor, as was the development of the printing press which allowed mass production of literary material.

The conjunction of all these circumstances led to the late scholastics being in a position to apply long-standing pillars of Catholic thought to the new challenges presented by a new process of globalisation.

This was done mostly by revisiting Aquinas and developing an analytical framework that could be applied to these new challenges in a suitable way. Even though the earlier thought of St. Thomas Aquinas was firmly rooted in an association between the common good and objective right (rather than individual rights), the emphasis on the prevalence of universal natural law over positive law dependent on time, place and the disposition of the ruler, provided a favourable environment for laying a foundation for an affirmation and defence of individual rights. The emphasis on the importance of the natural law paved the way for increased protection for individuals in their relationship with civil authorities and from potential abuses in positive law enacted by the state.

Furthermore, the adaptation and expansion of the traditional Roman law concept of ius gentium by the late scholastics, leading to the development of a notion of international law, meant that their contributions were universal, i.e. common to all mankind and applicable to all nations and peoples. Authors such as Vitoria, Soto and Suárez all agreed that the ius gentium was universal and could be recognised by reason even though it was not the product of the will of any human assembly or legislator.

The late scholastics progressively added an increased understanding of autonomy of the person to the traditional Thomist conception of objective right linked with a distinct sphere of individual freedom. Building upon the universal character of natural law, these notions were then gradually – but not linearly – understood to extend to all mankind, which ultimately led most of the late scholastics to, for example, oppose forced conversions of the peoples of the New World, stressing the need to employ peaceful means of conversion.

In the following section, this approach is illustrated by summarising key aspects in the late scholastics’ analysis of property and wages.

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Late scholastics and Catholic social teaching: applications

Private property

The approach of the late scholastics to the right to property builds directly upon the foundations laid by Aquinas. The arguments for the legitimacy and desirability of the existence of property rights are linked to their understanding of how best to promote the common good under a realistic anthropological framework about human society and an individual’s reaction to the incentives they face.

In this context, the justification for private property lies in the incentives it fosters to promote a better use of material goods while at the same time contributing to a peaceful and well-ordered community (Alves and Moreira 2013b). The late scholastics, for the most part, mounted a robust defence of private property that always had in the background an articulate understanding of the dire negative effects that could be expected of common ownership of material goods given the conditions of human nature and of human earthly existence. As expressed by Domingo de Soto:

What the poet has said, that these words: mine and yours, lead to many disputes and fights, we sincerely recognize; but there would be many more [disputes and fights] if the things were possessed in common. (De Soto,1968, book iv, q. iii, a. i.)

This recognition of the importance of private property was closely linked to the underlying assumptions about human nature:

Considering also the premises that in a corrupted [i.e., fallen] state of nature, if men lived in common they would not live in peace, nor would the fields be fruitfully cultivated, men have deduced that it is more convenient to divide property. (De Soto 1968, book i, q. v, a. iv.)

Following Aquinas, the late scholastics did not regard private property as an absolute right. They nevertheless defended it robustly and argued that it was fully compatible and in harmony with the principles of natural law. Private property was primarily justified through its social function and importance which, in turn, gained greater emphasis through the increased understanding of economic theory by the late scholastics.

A defence of private property based on its social function meant that it was ultimately subordinated to the common good which, in turn, implied that, in extreme circumstances, such as dire need or imminent danger to human life, it could be deemed legitimate to make use of goods one did not own (although the late scholastics were also careful to stress that an obligation to compensate the original owner applied whenever feasible).

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Just wages

The treatment of wages by the late scholastics also tended to build upon a pre-existing Thomist framework. They refined it taking account of their interpretation of the economic and social circumstances of their time.

Since the wage is the price paid for labour and, in many cases, the price paid for a product is directly the wage of the seller, the understanding of the idea of a just wage by the late scholastics is necessarily heavily influenced by their just price theory. The authors of the School of Salamanca made important contributions to just price theory (Elegido, 2009). Particularly important for the treatment of wages are the notions that equivalence in value is the fundamental standard of commutative justice and that the price fetched by a good in an open market is generally the best indicator of its value.

For the late scholastics, value should be associated with “common estimation” in a regular market setting, an understanding that was close to what contemporary economic theory refers to as the subjective theory of value. A good illustration of this understanding can be found in Molina’s definition of the concept of “natural price”:

They call him so not because it doesn’t depend to a large extent upon the esteem with which men appreciate some things more than others, as happens with certain precious objects, that sometimes are valued in more than twenty thousand gold coins and more than many other things, which, by their nature are much better and more useful; nor do they call him so because that price doesn’t fluctuate and change, since it is evident that it does change; but they call him natural because it is born out of these same things, independently of any human law or public decree, but dependent on many circumstances which make it vary and on the affection and esteem that men have for things according to the several uses in which they can be employed. (Molina 1981, 168)

Consistent with this, Molina argued that the justice of a wage should evaluated according to the wages paid for similar functions under similar circumstances:

After considering the service that an individual undertakes and the large or small number of people who, at the same time, are found in similar service, if the wage that is set for him is at least the lowest wage that is customarily set in that region at that time for people in such service, the wage is to be considered just. (quoted in Chafuen, 2003, 106)

As with other prices, “common estimation” played a key role in determining if a given wage was to be considered just or not.

The late scholastics also placed great emphasis on the need to ensure that no coercion was involved. Consent and voluntary contracts were important pre-conditions that had to be assured in order for a wage to deemed as just.

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Aquinas, the late scholastics and the modern encyclicals

The influence of Thomas Aquinas on the doctrinal corpus through which the social dimension of the Pontifical Magisterium was developed is undeniable. The development of Rerum novarum drew heavily on this body of Thomistic thinking and, in turn, provided a “lasting paradigm for the Church” (Centesimus annus, 5).

The prevalence of St Thomas’s thinking was not constant or uniform. However, from Leo XIII until the first stages of the Second Vatican Council, the impact of the Thomist doctrine was evident and abundant. This was true both in the philosophical contributions of the works of Mercier, Maritain or Gilson, and in theological developments led by priests such as Congar, Chenu, Lubac or Daniélou. Aquinas’s thinking exerted its influence inside the Church (Souto Coelho, 2002, page 28) as well as in the secular world: for example, in the work of Yves Simon, Heinrich Rommen, Josef Fuchs, Mortimer Adler or Robert Hutchins (Sigmund 1988, page xxiv).

Thomist thought was emphasised and praised by John Paul II (see, for example, Fides et ratio, 58). However, it could be argued that it waned in influence through and following the Second Vatican Council with a move towards the incorporation of technical scientific and social-scientific knowledge in the development of Catholic social teaching as well as the incorporation of more scriptural and patristic sources. However, in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004), which Benedict XVI consecrated as the organic presentation of Catholic social teaching (Deus caritas est, 27), Aquinas still remains the most referenced ecclesiastical author, though he has only 26 references (not all direct) whilst there are more than one thousand references to biblical texts, ecumenical councils, papal documents, Church documents, of congregations, pontifical councils and documents of international law.

Nevertheless, the insights of Thomistic thinking incorporated in Rerum novarum have infused the tradition of Catholic social teaching. We will examine this in relation to the topics discussed above – private property and just wages.

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Private Property

Rerum novarum is especially notable for its support of private property and includes an explicit reference to Thomas Aquinas:

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. “It is lawful,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.” (Rerum novarum, 22)

Furthermore, the reasons put forward for the right to property explicitly use the Thomist synthesis in which, following on from the distinction between possession and use, it is affirmed that the title of the domain over things derives originally from God and that there is a primary right to the common use of goods. It is this which subordinates and conditions the right to possession and it remains unchanged in the subsequent magisterium. This does not mean that the right to private ownership is not of paramount importance. It can be the case that secondary rights are indispensable for ensuring that primary rights are realised. If property were undivided and unowned without legally enforceable title, experience suggests that one of the results is that it is exploited by the strongest or most astute and nobody cares for it.

As the Church makes clear in her encyclicals, the principle of private property puts serious obligations on its holders to act justly and charitably. Pope Pius XI emphasises the principle of just distribution (Quadragesimo anno, 56-58). John XXIII highlights the social function of all property, including of productive goods (Mater et magistra, 19) founded on the natural order that establishes the priority of the individual in relation to society (Mater et magistra, 109).

The Second Vatican Council synthesised this teaching, declaring:

God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner. Whatever the forms of property may be, as adapted to the legitimate institutions of peoples, according to diverse and changeable circumstances, attention must always be paid to this universal destination of earthly goods. In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others. (Gaudium et spes, 69).

This subordination of the right to private property to the common use of goods follows the formulation of Aquinas and the late scholastics. In other words,

Christian tradition has never upheld this right [to private property] as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone. (Laborem exercens, 14)

It is also important to note that, in Catholic social teaching, the question of property is indissolubly linked to the topic of labour. Property, as Rerum novarum (5) puts it, is a working person’s wages in another form and this adds resonance to the teaching on private property. This then relates, of course, to the question of the justice of wages.

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Just wages

The social encyclicals have also developed teaching on just wages. Rerum novarum 45 and 46 state that underlying any wage agreement should be the condition that the wage is sufficient to “support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner”. So, free agreement is not enough to establish that a wage meets the criterion of distributive justice. There should be an additional condition that, if it is possible, an enterprise should pay sufficient so that the worker can sustain himself and his family and have some savings. This teaching was elaborated by Pope Pius XI, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II.

Much of Catholic social teaching has emphasised that the payment of just wages is an essential part of the whole socio-economic system. As noted above, wages can be linked to the right to private property – the worker should be able to keep what he is paid. At the same time, the payment of just wages is an important social use of the property that is held by the owner of a business enterprise. And, it is argued that, if enterprises pay just wages, the state will need to intervene less and social movements that demand the redistribution of property will have less traction. Furthermore, different groups of people will be able to live in harmony rather than being in conflict. Therefore, a system of just wages underlies much else, especially when it comes to the position of the poor:

In every system, regardless of the fundamental relationships within it between capital and labour, wages, that is to say remuneration for work, are still a practical means whereby the vast majority of people can have access to those goods which are intended for common use: both the goods of nature and manufactured goods. (Laborem exercens, 19)

In determining the justice of wages, precedence is given to the objective demands of distributive justice and giving to each what is due. Simple free, contractual agreement according to the principles of commutative justice is not sufficient to determine that a wage is just. At the same time, it should not be assumed that free agreement of wages contracts does not, in general, lead to just wages: in well-functioning labour markets it may well do so. There is, in a sense, a combination of the thinking of St. Thomas Aquinas, which concluded that wages should be sufficient to support the worker whilst being related to the value of what is produced, with that of the late scholastics, who concluded that wages should be determined by common estimation of the value of a particular type of work, in the statement of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 2004):

The simple agreement between employee and employer with regard to the amount of pay to be received is not sufficient for the agreed-upon salary to qualify as a “just wage”, because a just wage “must not be below the level of subsistence” of the worker: natural justice precedes and is above the freedom of the contract. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 302)

It could be argued that these questions are more difficult in modern developed economies. A number of conditions have changed since the 1931s, when the principles of just wages were discussed at length in Quadragesimo anno. In particular, “needs” have become more complex and difficult to define objectively in modern society. In addition, women within a family with children may well work as well as the father. Governments, of course, provide welfare payments, but they also tax low paid workers thus lowering their disposable income. In addition, other government policies, especially in relation to housing, raise the cost of living. These things are not within the control of a business enterprise and complicate the concept of a just wage. For example, is a business to pay a different wage to an employee who is part of a two-earner family from that paid to a single-earner family? It could be argued that, given these developments, the idea of the just wage needs further reflection. There are questions, for example, about the role of welfare payments in topping up wages and whether living wages should be legislated or negotiated. Nevertheless, the original precepts remain true. Free contractual agreement is not necessarily sufficient to guarantee that a wage is just; if an enterprise exploits employees’ weakness in determining their wages, this offends justice; and employers should pay a living wage, taking everything into account, if it can be afforded.

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References and further reading for this unit

Alves, A. A. and Moreira J. M. (2013a), The Salamanca School, New York: Bloomsbury.

Alves, A. A. and Moreira J. M. (2013b). “Business Ethics in the School of Salamanca”, in Handbook of the Philosophical Foundations of Business Ethics, edited by Christoph Luetge, 207-225, Heidelberg: Springer.

Alves, A. A. and Gregório I. (2021), “Price Controls and Market Economies”, in Christianity and Market Regulation: An Introduction, edited by Daniel A. Crane and Samuel J. Gregg, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. forthcoming

Aquinas, T. (2017), The Summa Theologiæ. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province.

Chafuen, A. (2003), Faith and liberty: the economic thought of the late scholastics, Lanham: Lexington Books.

De Molina, L. (1981), La Teoria del Justo Precio, Madrid: Editora Nacional.

De Soto, D. (1968), De Iustitia et Iure (facsimile of the 1556 Latin edition accompanied with a Spanish translation), Madrid: Instituto de Estudios Politicos.

Elegido, J. M. (2009), The just price: three insights from the Salamanca school, Journal of Business Ethics 90(1), 29–46.

Finnis, J. (2019), “Aquinas as a Primary Source of Catholic Social Teaching”, in Catholic Social Teaching. A Volume of Scholarly Essays, edited by Gerard V. Bradley and E. Christian Brugger, 11-33, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grice-Hutchinson, Marjorie. 1978. Early Economic Thought in Spain 1177-1740. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Koehler, B. (2016), The thirteenth-century economics of Thomas Aquinas, Economic Affairs 36(1), 56-63.

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (2005), Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, London: Burns & Oates.

Porter, J. (2002), “The Virtue of Justice (IIa IIae, qq. 58-112)”, In The Ethics of Aquinas, edited by Stephen Pope, 272-286, Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

Rocha, M. (1992), Trabalho e Salário na Escolástica, Lisboa: Editora Rei dos Livros.

Sigmund, P. E. (1988), “Introduction”, in St. Thomas Aquinas on Politics and Ethics, edited by Paul E. Sigmund, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

AAA: not sure what coord means here: might be fine, just checking Souto Coelho, J. (coord) (2002), Doctina Social de la Iglesia: manual abreviado, Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos/Fundación Pablo VI.

Walsh, R. (2018), Property, Human Flourishing and St. Thomas Aquinas: Assessing a Contemporary Revival, Canadian Journal of Law & Jurisprudence XXXI, no. 1 (February), 197-222.

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Papal encyclicals and other Church documents referred to in this unit

Benedict XVI, 2005, Deus Caritas est, encyclical letter:

John Paul II, 1981, Laborem exercens, encyclical letter: /john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_14091981_laborem-exercens.html

John Paul II, 1991, Centesimus annus, encyclical letter: /john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_01051991_centesimus-annus.html

John Paul II, 1998, Fides et racio, encyclical letter:

John XXIII, 1961, Mater et magistra, encyclical letter:

Leo XIII, 1878, Aeterni Patris, encyclical letter:

Leo XIII, 1891, Rerum novarum, encyclical letter:

Pius XI, 1931, Quadragesimo anno, encyclical letter:

Pius XII, 1942, Con Sempre Nuova Freschezza, radio message:

Vatican II, Gaudium et spes, 1965, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World,

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Questions for discussion

On what grounds is private property regarded as desirable given the fallen nature of the human person?

Did Catholic social thought begin in 1891 with Rerum novarum?

What was the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and the late scholastics on whether a wage was just?

How was the teaching on the just wage developed in Rerum novarum?

What did Rerum novarum have to say on the following?

  • The role and limits of the state
  • The moral responsibilities of business towards workers
  • The importance of private property
  • The importance of the family
  • Institutions designed to provide welfare to workers and families who came upon hard times

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About the authors

Andre Alves

André Azevedo Alves holds a PhD in Political Science from the London School of Economics, an MA in Political Science from the Catholic University of Portugal and a BA in Economics from the University of Porto. He is currently Director of Research at the Catholic University of Portugal’s Institute for Political Studies and Associate Professor at St. Mary’s University. He was Visiting Professor at Rio de Janeiro State University in November 2011 and at Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) in October 2012. He is co-author of the book “The Salamanca School”

Hugo Chelo

Hugo Chelo holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from the Institute of Political Studies of the Catholic University of Portugal and a degree in Philosophy from the Faculty of Human Sciences of the Catholic University of Portugal. He is currently Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Studies, teaching since 2000 several courses in Political Science and Political Philosophy. His research interests focus on the research areas of Contemporary Political Thought, Classical and Christian Thought, Moral Philosophy and Social Doctrine of the Church.

Ines Gregorio

Inês Gregório works as a Research Assistant at the Research Centre of the Institute for Political Studies of Universidade Católica Portuguesa (CIEP-UCP), where she is responsible for the executive coordination of ongoing research projects. Additionally, she is a teaching assistant at IEP-UCP and her main research interests include education policies and alternative educative models. Inês holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations, an MA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of York and a BA in International Relations from the Institute for Political Studies of Universidade Católica Portuguesa. Between 2013 and 2016, she was a correspondent in Portugal of the Iberian office in Spain of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

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