Is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Right About the “Living Wage?”

“A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice.” (CCC 2434)

Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656), “Childhood of Christ”
Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656), “Childhood of Christ” (photo: Public Domain)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can fairly be called a “socialist” for plenty of reasons; her desire to see people paid a living wage, however, is not one of them. Though she has been criticized by some Catholics for even using the term, it might surprise many of them to know that the Catholic Church has long argued that to be paid a living wage is a human right. In fact, the same popes who have condemned socialism as incompatible with Christianity have simultaneously maintained that employers have a moral duty to pay a living wage.

In 1891’s Rerum Novarum, the first of what came to be known as the “Social Encyclicals” of the Church, Pope Leo XIII is very clear: “The preservation of life is the bounden duty of one and all, and to be wanting therein is a crime. It necessarily follows that each one has a natural right to procure what is required in order to live, and the poor can procure that in no other way than by what they can earn through their work.” Lest this appear to modern American ears as an endorsement of socialism, note Leo’s condemnation of this error: “Hence, it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind… .”

Forty years later, in Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI concurred with his predecessor: “the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family.” He proceeded to denounce socialism as “a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity.”

In 1961’s Mater et Magistra, Pope Saint John XXIII echoed Pius XI’s belief that “no Catholic could subscribe even to moderate Socialism” because it denies the nature of man and “places too severe a restraint on human liberty… .”  He then went on to say in 1963’s Pacem in Terris, “The worker is likewise entitled to a wage that is determined in accordance with the precepts of justice.  This needs stressing. The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity.”

In 1991’s Centesimus Annus, Pope Saint John Paul II blasted the evils of socialism, concluding that “the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature.” He also made the argument that “A workman's wages should be sufficient to enable him to support himself, his wife and his children.”

The Magisterium could not be clearer: a man’s right to a living wage originates in justice and is a natural extension of his right to life. If man has the right to life, he therefore has the right to those things necessary to sustain that life. That truth should be self-evident, but in modern times there has been an unfortunate rhetorical development which has obscured it. In America, the term “right to life,” often refers merely to the unborn. This is not incorrect, but it is radically incomplete.

Rather than one narrow claim, the right to life entails what we might call “sub-rights,” or natural, logical extensions of the most fundamental right. In Western law, the right to private property is seen not as a single right of possession, but as a bundle of rights, including the right to possess, the right to use, the right to dispose of the thing, and the right of exclusion. Similarly, the right to life is also a bundle. Beginning in the womb, this most fundamental right naturally entails the right to not be harmed unjustly, the right to private property, the right to food, the right to shelter, the right to live until natural death. It also contains the right to those materials necessary to properly sustain his life—including a living wage.

Simply put, the right to life is the right to live. A living wage is a right because living is a right.

Of course, these magisterial references might prompt a question: Does not the worker have a corresponding duty in justice to try to be a productive and efficient worker?  The answer is yes, and the Church affirms that. Rights have reciprocal duties and the employer has the right to expect an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.

Further, the Church also recognizes that the payment of each person’s adequate wage is not always realistic or even possible in every situation. In Quadragesimo Anno, for instance, Pope Pius XI writes:

“In determining the amount of the wage, the condition of a business and of the one carrying it on must also be taken into account; for it would be unjust to demand excessive wages which a business cannot stand without its ruin and consequent calamity to the workers.”

Let’s return to Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, whose economic comments have been dismissed and/or laughed off as one big, uneducated rant. As a good socialist, she denies the legitimate rights of private property, and she supports unchecked abortion, which—among other problematic positions she holds—are absolutely indefensible, even disqualifying. But on the particular subject of demanding living wages, her comments could—and should—provide an opportunity for us Catholics to re-examine and remind others of official magisterial teaching. If we Catholics equate the living wage with socialism, we not only throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we set ourselves up as opponents of a chief tenet of Catholic social teaching.