When I was growing up, the world was in a Cold War between the capitalist West led by the United States and Soviet Communism led by the Soviet Union, both armed to the teeth with weapons capable of wiping out all life from the planet. I first was taught that Christianity was anti-Communist (although what was opposed most was the atheism of Marxism-Leninism). Only later did I learn that the Christian faith points to a third way that is neither capitalist nor Communist and resembles what I know as democratic socialism. This came from (mostly papal) social teachings of the Catholic Church.
Catholic social teaching arose just about parallel to the Protestant social gospel movement and in response to more or less the same phenomenon—the appearance in 1848 of a broad socialist labor movement reacting to harsh early industrialization and very savage capitalism. In 1891, taking notice of the ferment of about a half century, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical titled Rerum Novarum.
Papal encyclicals, or circulars, grew out of the early custom of bishops sending a letter to all the churches of a particular area in the ancient Church. The word encyclical is a Latinized form of the Greek enkyklios, meaning “circular,” “in a circle,” or “all around.” Papal encyclicals, issued in Latin, which is still the official language of the Holy See, are usually named after the first two or three words of the document. “Rerum novarum” means literally “of new things,” although in the official English translation it is “revolutionary change”—for many complicated reasons an acceptable rendition.
In this document, Leo takes stock of new things in the political, economic and social spheres and sets out some principles he thought were appropriate applications of the gospel, in particular the subject of his subtitle, Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor. Leo first describes the situation like this:
“... the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.” (RN, 3)
However, Leo is no firebrand. He states that socialists “would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community” and affirms a right to private property, but he limits that right with a reminder that all things in creation were given to humanity as a whole rather than to particular people. He favors a society of harmony and mutual respect between labor and capital, with rights and obligations, and rejects class warfare.
“The proletarian and the worker,” Leo declares, must do a good job, respect the property and person of the employer, refrain from violence and disorder and stay away from “men of evil principles.”
The “wealthy owner and the employer” have many more responsibilities. They must respect workers as people of dignity, not “bondsmen” (unfree servants). Employers must acknowledge that “working for gain is creditable, not shameful” and the source of “an honorable livelihood.” Leo calls it “shameful and inhuman” to “misuse men as though they were things” to be used for profit and valued only for “their physical powers.” Employers are urged to respect workers’ souls and allow them time to fulfill religious duties. They should protect their workers from corruption, from leaving their families or squandering their earnings, and not overburden them or demand work “unsuited to their sex and age.”
On wages, Leo goes on at length, stating first that “to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain” is condemned by human and divine law. “To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven,” he writes. “The rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing.”
Leo directs the government to look after the common good, especially the greater needs of the working class, in what he calls “distributive” justice.
He recognized the need for associations that “opportune aid to those who are in distress, and which draw the two classes more closely” and was the first pope to support one kind of association, stating, “The most important of all are workingmen’s unions.” He saw them as similar to medieval guilds and declared, “It is gratifying to know that there are actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient.”
The encyclical was just the beginning of the development of a broad body of social teaching dealing with people, systems and structures to promote justice and peace, which began to be seen as part and parcel of the Church’s mission. This body of teaching is now vast and has prompted the development of crusades such as the Catholic Worker movement in the United States, begun in 1933 by Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker newspaper. It grew into some 240 communities committed to “nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry and forsaken.”
The development of such teaching was not in a straight line nor particularly well understood by all.
In 1931, on the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno. Pius was most concerned with totalitarian political doctrines that led to atheist Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy.
Pius XI wrote that “The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of ‘subsidiary function,’ the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State.” (QA, 80)
In one major unintended effect, the encyclical spurred some members of the hierarchy and well-to-do Catholics to invoke “subsidiarity,” a word the pope never used, as a catch-all prescription for achieving social justice—usually as a pretext for supporting conservative, laissez-faire policies that relieve government of responsibility for social problems. In fact, Quadragesimo Anno was a direct strike at the one-size-fits-all policies of an all-encompassing dictatorial state such as the Soviet Union and Fascist Italy. The encyclical proposed that, rather than a super-state charged with every minute thing in the nation, economic, social and political problems should be dealt with at the most immediate level of government that is consistent with a suitable solution. It is not a papal ban on regulatory government action nor on national antipoverty programs.
For good measure, Pope John Paul II, who lived under Soviet Communism and understood Leninist Marxism well, proposed a balance. In two of his social teaching encyclicals, the 1981 Laborem Excercens, and Centessimo Anno, issued on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, he made a point of balancing subsidiarity, which he supported in its proper understanding, against solidarity, the notion that we are all responsible for one another.
Separately, and particularly addressing the threat of global war and the worldwide turmoil brought about by vast economic disparity between rich and poor nations, Pope John XXIII in 1963 issued Pacem in Terris. His successor, Pope Paul VI, drew on this letter when he told the United Nations, “the new name for peace is justice.” In 1965 the Second Vatican Council, presided over by popes John and Paul, approved Gaudium et Spes (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), a broad statement of economic, social and political questions from the Christian point of view.
Those who are interested in pursuing the study of Catholic social teaching should check out the 2004 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.