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Occult Compensation

Extra-legal manner of recovering from loss or damage

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Compensation, OCCULT.—An extra-legal manner of recovering from loss or damage; the taking, by stealth and on one’s private authority, of the value or equivalent of one’s goods from a person who refuses to meet the demands of justice.

Considered strictly from the standpoint of commutative justice, although this proceeding may have on the surface all the appearance of theft, it is in reality the farthest removed from such. As defined, it implies a debtor who is able, but unwilling, to restore what he holds unjustly and a creditor who has an opportunity to recover possession of what is his own certain due. Since the effect as well as the purpose is solely to make a wrong cease, the transfer brought about by this method of self-protection is manifestly in keeping with equity and right. Thus occult compensation is based on the right of self-defense. It is clear that such dealing-out of justice to oneself without the sanction of public authority may become a course gravely prejudicial to public and social order and open to all manner of abuses and dangers. But the evil is no less real and pernicious, if, while avoiding this extreme, one runs to the opposite, and denies principles which safeguard natural rights of the individual and protect the weak against the constant danger of oppression from the strong. Catholic moralists steer clear of these two extremes and teach that it is licit, under certain conditions and with certain precautions, to have recourse to occult compensation.

In Doctor Bouquillon’s scholarly article in the “Catholic University Bulletin” (1896), II, 50-61, it is proved not only that the doctrine is sound and reasonable, but that “it has been accepted by philosophers and jurists, as far, even, as the terminology in which it has been formulated by our theologians; that it has always been substantially the same since the days of St. Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria, though in the course of time it has gained in clearness, and that when writings capable of pernicious influence have appeared they have been carefully weeded out.”

The requisite conditions may be reduced to three. First, the right of the creditor must be certain. Then, respect for law and order demands that the authority of the law should be invoked whenever it is possible and recourse to established justice does not involve difficulties and losses out of all proportion with the gain to be derived. When laws operating through the regular channels fail to protect and are helpless to remove the evil of injustice, respect for them should not prevent one from taking one’s own by extraordinary means. Finally, provision should be made against the event of a later settlement by the debtor or his lawful heirs, which would necessitate restitution; and every reasonable effort should be made to avoid scandal or other evils of accusations, distrust, etc., to which cause may be given through ignorance of the moral value of such methods. When the danger to the community is thus minimized as far as it is humanly possible, legal justice honored as far as it is entitled to honor and the necessity of justice and right urgent, it is lawful in conscience, according to our accredited moralists, to avail oneself of the theory of occult compensation. It remains, however, that such cases are rare, that it is still more rarely within the competence of the ordinary individual to decide his own case without the advice of a prudent and disinterested counselor, and that occult compensation should never be advised save in exceptional circumstances, on account of its potency for havoc in the hands of the ignorant or unscrupulous. But disregard for any or all of these precautions, while offending against legal, does not violate commutative justice, nor entail the duty of restitution, if the essential right is present.

JOHN H. STAPLETON


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