Harmonious Social Inequalities

August 20, 2015

By Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Portrait of the Family of Joseph, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg, painted by Joseph Karl Stieler.

Portrait of the Family of Joseph, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg, painted by Joseph Karl Stieler.

A factor of hostility against traditional elites is the revolutionary bias that any inequality of birth is opposed to justice. It is habitually admitted that a man can stand out on his personal merit. However, some people refuse to admit that the fact that he comes from an illustrious lineage is for him a special badge of honor and influence. The Holy Father Pius XII gives us a precious teaching in this regard:

“Social inequalities, even those related to birth, are inevitable: Benign nature and God’s blessing to humanity illuminate and protect all cradles, looking on them with love, but do not make them equal.” (1)

Emperor Charles IV giving alms to the poor

Emperor Charles IV giving alms to the poor

This is a magnificent phrase. God loves all cradles but does not make them equal. He loves all the newborn, but His blessing does not make them equal. He does not want them to be equal: He wants the inequality derived also from differences in lineage. Obviously, these inequalities wanted by the Creator must be harmonious and proportionate.

The Pope’s statement is precious for anyone defending the nobility from the standpoint of the Catholic religion, in accordance with Church teaching.

baptism by Johann Hamza

The baptism by Johann Hamza

On the other hand, it is also a very prudent statement. Pius XII is aware of the bias he has to confront and wants to make very clear that God loves everyone. The phrase is characteristically affectionate, but he substantially affirms that God does not make them equal.

Further on, he continues: “on the other hand, to a mind instructed and educated in a Christian way these disparities can only be considered a disposition willed by God with the same wisdom as the inequalities within the family. Hence, they are destined to bring men more closely together on the present life’s journey toward the Kingdom of Heaven, with some helping others in the way a father helps the mother and children.”(2)

Benign nature and God’s blessing to humanity illuminate and protect all cradles, looking on them with love, but do not make them equal

Benign nature and God’s blessing to humanity illuminate and protect all cradles, looking on them with love, but do not make them equal

Therefore, one cannot but consider these inequalities of birth as something wanted by God.

God loves inequalities to such a point that He disposed that even the family, the basic and most elementary society, is unequal in its essence. And for this very reason, society at large – which is a fabric of families – is also unequal. And it is in this family spirit that inequalities should exist.

The true meaning of paternalism

Visiting the fisherman's widow by Charles Baugniet

Visiting the fisherman’s widow by Charles Baugniet

The Christian glory of traditional elites consists in serving not only the Church but also the common good. Pagan aristocracy took pride exclusively in its illustrious progeny. To this title, Christian nobility adds an even higher one: that of exercising a paternal function in regard to the other classes. Many noble families constitute typical examples of this aristocratic kindness: they are exceedingly good toward their subordinates while not allowing their natural superiority to be denied or vilified in any way.
Revolutionaries began to denigrate this fact as something vile by employing a word to which they falsely attached a pejorative meaning: paternalism.

It used to be prestigious to say that a factory owner or director exerted a paternal influence on his workers. That is now deemed utterly objectionable: according to the revolutionary creed, workers have rights not because of the owner’s paternal goodness but because they earned them through force. It would be the same as saying that children receive nothing from their father because of his love and goodness but because they have their own rights.

Now then, according to Catholic tradition, even great men who serve the common good exercise a paternal function. They are country’s fathers, the patricians as Pius XII calls them, who worthily play their role as nobles by defending the common good in times of war, of peace and in all of life’s occasions.

The charity of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary By Edmund Blair Leighton

The charity of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary By Edmund Blair Leighton

When a family is truly Catholic, it forms habits that change only in very special and delicate circumstances.

Thus, it tends to remain living in the same house for many generations, with the touches and adaptations that become necessary. But it is essentially the same house. Likewise, the best objects in the residence are maintained in the same family from one generation to the next.

Members of a family gradually acquire habits in the way they treat one another, habits that express the virtue that exists in that family. Everything that acquires a certain continuity is tied to reality by bonds that are at times imperceptible or noticed only when something changes and one realizes that it was wrong to have it changed.

first-steps by by Giovanni SandrucciThe reason is that continuity is analogous to life and change is analogous to death. Just as a family’s wholesome habits should remain, so also the just laws of a country should not be changed – except in case of serious need. Because to change them is against wisdom, as nature is conservative and seeks to preserve things as much as possible.

As Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches, “Human law is rightly changed, only in so far as such change is conducive to the common weal. But, to a certain extent, the mere change of law is of itself prejudicial to the common good” (Summa Theologica, I-II, q.97, a.2,c).

Therefore, for the sake of the common good, changing a law is justified only in very serious circumstances.

St. Thomas Aquinas by Fra Bartolommeo

St. Thomas Aquinas by Fra Bartolommeo

The Angelic Doctor continues: “Because custom avails much for the observance of laws, seeing that what is done contrary to general custom, even in slight matters, is looked upon as grave. Consequently, when a law is changed, the binding power of the law is diminished, in so far as custom is abolished.”

Thus, custom contributes to the fulfillment of a law. If an old and venerable law that has always been fulfilled is abolished to establish another law, the new law will not have custom in its favor and may be poorly fulfilled or not fulfilled at all. Since custom lays roots in the people, the very fact that a law is new makes it born weak; because custom throws its force against it.

And Saint Thomas concludes, “Wherefore human law should never be changed, unless, in some way or other, the common weal be compensated according to the extent of the harm done in this respect. Such compensation may arise either from some very great and every evident benefit conferred by the new enactment; or from the extreme urgency of the case, due to the fact that either the existing law is clearly unjust, or its observance extremely harmful. Wherefore the jurist says [Pandect. Justin. lib. i, ff., tit. 4, De Constit. Princip.] that, ‘in establishing new laws, there should be evidence of the benefit to be derived, before departing from a law which has long been considered just.’”

Therefore, in order for the people to become resigned to a new law, it is necessary for the usefulness of the change to be obvious; for one does not take the people away from an established custom. This is tradition.

One could object that this topic is a bit marginal to the question of nobility. That is not true. More than other social classes, the nobility is the maintainer of customs and traditions. It lives from tradition; it recalls a past which it makes continue in the present. This is its strength.



(1) Allocution to the Roman Patriciate and Nobility, Jan. 5, 1942, Discorsi e Radiomessaggi di Sua Santità Pio XII, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana, pp. 345-349.

(2) (Idem, ibidem)

Excerpts from a lecture by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira to TFP members and volunteers in São Paulo on Nov. 23, 1992 commenting at their request on his work Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII to the Roman Patriciate and Nobility (Editora Civilização, Porto, 1992). Without the author’s revision.
(Catolicismo – August 1998)


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