The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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Catholic Social Teaching
John Schwenkler - 06/06/11

The term “Catholic social teaching” usually refers to the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on matters of economic, political, and social justice. While the teaching of the church on these issues is clearly rooted in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and in traditional Christian philosophy and theology, its modern articulation is embodied in a series of papal, conciliar, and other official documents issued by the church since the late nineteenth century.

Rerum Novarum, an encyclical promulgated in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, represents the earliest official articulation of the major tenets of modern Catholic social teaching. Pope Leo’s letter addresses the plight of industrial society and sets for itself the task of defining “the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor.” While Pope Leo clearly recognized the need for social change to support exploited workers, he was sharply critical of attempts by socialists and Marxists to effect such change by abolishing private property or by encouraging class struggle.

Rerum Novarum then goes on to articulate the central principles of the church’s teaching on social matters. At the heart of this teaching is the idea that justice demands certain virtuous forms of life from all members of society. Workers are to carry out their jobs honestly and effectively; employers are to respect the dignity of their workers by paying them sufficiently and by providing appropriate working conditions; the rich are to recognize that excess wealth should be given to those in need; and the poor ought not look on their material poverty, which is indeed a great misfortune, as a disgrace. Pope Leo argued that Christian spirituality and the teachings of the church must be at the heart of any social renewal: “if human society is to be healed now, in no other way can it be healed save by a return to Christian life and Christian institutions.”

Importantly, Rerum Novarum and the other major social encyclicals stress that the state has a role to play in furthering social justice and intervening in situations where the opportunities to live virtuously are seriously threatened. Leo argued for the importance of appropriately organized workers’ unions, he claimed that the state has a duty to ensure that workers are paid what has come to be called a “living wage,” and he noted that the essentially vulnerable condition of the poor gives them a claim to especial consideration in the eyes of the state. While he took care to note that “the law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief,” and to note the injustice of “excessive taxation,” it is nevertheless clear that Rerum Novarum and the other official documents that follow in its path maintain that the state must play an essential part in helping the church carry out her mission to heal human society.

Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (“On Reconstruction of the Social Order”) emphasizes the importance of avoiding the errors of both “individualism” and “collectivism.” Individualism, wrote Pius, ignores the “social and public character” of the right to property, while collectivism fails to recognize property’s “private and individual character.” Pius emphasized that the public authority, under the guidance of divine and natural law, ought to consider the common good in determining what owners are and are not permitted to do with their property. What is perhaps most remarkable about Quadragesimo Anno is that while Leo had clearly singled out socialism as his primary target, Pius focused his criticisms more squarely on liberalism and capitalism. He argued that “free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life,” and he claimed that the deep economic disparities present in capitalist societies are evidence of grave injustice within liberal capitalist regimes. Importantly, Pius also articulated what has come to be known as the “principle of subsidiarity,” which holds that “[t]he supreme authority of the State ought . . . to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance.”

Centesimus Annus, issued by the late Pope John Paul II in 1991, is the most recent official articulation of the principles of Catholic social teaching. In the course of offering a “re-reading” of Rerum Novarum, John Paul reaffirmed many of its core tenets, noting especially its teaching that “the more that individuals are defenseless within a given society, the more they require the care and concern of others, and in particular the intervention of governmental authority.” Writing just after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, John Paul praised Leo’s prescient critique of socialist political systems. He further contended that the root problem of socialism is its view of “the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socioeconomic mechanism.”

John Paul indicated that the church prefers a political arrangement within which society and the state work together to protect the dignity of workers and ensure that they can find work at living wages and under acceptable working conditions. He argued that the fundamental problem identified by Leo is “an understanding of human freedom which detaches it from obedience to the truth, and consequently from the duty to respect the rights of others.” Thus, he contended that opposing Marxism by setting up free-market economies is appropriate only so long as such economies do not undermine authentic human values or regard the human good purely in terms of material satisfaction. He emphasized, therefore, that we ought to approach the development of poorer countries “in a way that is fully human,” by “concretely enhancing every individual’s dignity and creativity, as well as his capacity to respond to his personal vocation, and thus to God’s call.” Indeed, Pope John Paul claimed that such development does not reach its pinnacle until the members of society turn to God in order to “know him and to live in accordance with that knowledge.”

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