Defrauding wages 'a great crime'

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"To defraud anyone of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven." Pope Leo XIII's statement in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum is jarring, writes Adelaide Mena.

But the Church's view on wages and compensation has a history reaching back centuries – and remains relevant today to employers and employees alike – say businesspeople and theologians seeking to find a moral response to today's changing economic landscape.

"The Church starts really from the perspective of the human person, and wants to see why the relationship between the employer and the employee is more than just an exchange of money for a certain part of time," said Fr Dominic Legge OP, who teaches systematic theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception.

"It's a personal relationship, and that means that there are rights and duties on both sides of that."

Teachings against defrauding workers of wages can be found in Catholic catechisms for families as far back as the 1600s, and the principles of justice within Catholic teaching reach back even further, to the Bible itself. The development of Catholic thought on how wages and compensation for work should be considered is rooted not in laws of supply and demand, but in the human person and natural law.

"It's not just reducible to the market. Just because the market would allow you to pay someone less does not mean that you have a right in justice to do that. Nor does it mean that it is just, for a labourer, to charge an extravagant amount of money for his work," Fr Legge told CNA.

He explained that the teaching surrounding the just payment of workers received substantial attention as part of St Thomas Aquinas' work elaborating upon the nature of justice. What's striking, he said, is that St Thomas Aquinas uses just wages as the first "and most obvious" example of what justice actually is.

However, the concept of just compensation is clearly not the most obvious example of justice to contemporary thinkers, "which is a way of telling us that the way we think about wages now is very different from the way that someone like Aquinas in the Middle Ages thought about it," Fr. Legge said.

Instead of viewing it as a situation where the employee, the business, and the state were the only parties involved in making a person's livelihood, the Church's thought on just wages also incorporated all of the relationships and institutions an employer and employee interacted with.

"There's a much richer texture to human life, and the Church has always respected the place of family, private organisations, the family, local organisations, the Church."

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The Catholic Church has something to say about your paycheck (Catholic News Agency)

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