Occult compensation is the act of appropriating secretly what is owed to one in strict justice by another who
will not satisfy his obligation. It amounts, in fact, to the secret collection of a debt. Moral theologians are agreed that it is licit under certain conditions; otherwise an individual would be without means to defend himself against flagrant violations of his property rights and the unjust oppressor would be protected in his iniquity by the moral law.
The conditions under which it is licit to compensate oneself occultly are: (1) What is to be recovered must be owed in strict justice, i.e., not in fidelity, equity, or charity; (2) Recourse to other and legal means for the collection of the debt must be morally impossible, or it must be foreseen that such recourse would be unavailing; (3) What is taken must be substantially of the same order as what is owed. Thus it is not considered licit to take money or its equivalent to compensate oneself for the loss of reputation caused by another; (4) The debt must be certain, i.e., a merely probable claim to indemnification does not suffice; (5) Care must be taken to see that the debtor suffers no loss other than that of the property taken, and that no harm is done to a third party or to the common good.
Although moral theologians agree in admitting the licitness of occult compensation under the foregoing conditions, they hold that it should rarely be practiced and even more rarely counseled. The reasons for their caution are: (1) The bypassing of ordinary legal steps to recover a debt, even when these would be ineffectual, seems to involve an element of social disorder; (2) People are prone to take a prejudiced view when their own interests are concerned and to think that their strict rights have been violated when such is not the case; (3) Occult compensation is generally imprudent because the person practicing it exposes himself to the risk of discovery and prosecution for theft.
Pope Innocent XI condemned a proposition to the effect that domestic servants can secretly steal from their employers to compensate themselves for work that they judge to be worth more than the salary paid them. Nevertheless Innocent XI's condemnation has not been understood by moralists as a denial of the right of employees to compensate themselves under some circumstances. It is generally agreed that if workers not engaged simply out of pity are forced by the employer to work for a wage less than just, and other workers could not be found to do the same work for the same pay, or if they are forced to do work not envisioned in their employment contract, they may legitimately compensate themselves if the employer will not do so. However, if the employee freely enters into a low-wage contract, or if he freely undertakes extra work, he has no claim in strict justice to additional compensation.
Bibliography: d. m. prÜmmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, ed. e. m. mÜnch, 3 v. (12th ed. Freiburg–Barcelona 1955) 2:88–90. h. davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology, rev. and enl. ed. by l. w. geddes (New York 1958) 2:281–284. e. dublanchy, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951– ) 3.l:601–604.
[f. c. o'hare]