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A Very Brief History of Catholic Social thought



It may be useful to provide a little history of Catholic social thought. The main ideas have been put forward in a series of Papal encyclicals issued over the last 125 years.

Prior to the late 19th century, the Catholic church had tended to criticize modern trends and institutions. Many of these criticisms were gathered together in the Syllabus of Errors put forward by Pope Pius IX in 1864. However, his successor, Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) attempted to define a new relationship between the Church and the quickly changing world around it. That world, especially in Europe and the United States, was increasingly (although very unevenly) characterized by industrialization, urbanization, secular thought, separation of church and state, concentrated wealth, democratic political systems, economic liberalism, and socialist labor movements.

Leo promulgated a series of encyclicals that defined the Church's new attitude. The most famous and influential of these was Rerum Novarum (On the Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor), published in 1891. In it he addressed the problems of the working classes, the poor in general, and the relationship between employers and employees. Basing himself partly on natural law, Leo attempted to define a third or middle way between socialism and economic liberalism. The middle way condemned the socialist view that opposed private property and vastly increased the role of the state, but it also condemned the unregulated market economy that regarded human labor as a commodity and seemed designed to satisfy greed rather than to promote the common good. Leo recognized the legitimacy of private property, but demanded that its use serve the common good. Employers and employees needed and complemented each other as parts of an organic society. Their basic interests did not conflict. (Hence the socialist emphasis on class conflict is mistaken.) He also asserted that it was wrong for employers to take advantage of the dire need of their workers, treating them as "mere instruments for making money." Instead, he condemned the idea that wages are to be set by free contract and clearly asserted that "natural justice" required something more. He urged instead that employers pay a family wage to their employees. Leo also accepted the idea that Catholics should participate in the electoral and parliamentary practices of modern governments. He approved the formation of Catholic political parties and Catholic labor unions.

Another influential encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno (On Reconstructing the Social Order), was promulgated by Pius XI (1922-1939) in 1931 on the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. In this encyclical, Pius responded to the emerging economic problems of the great depression. In some ways, it is a more radical document than Rerum Novarum. The legitimacy of private property and the importance of a family wage are reaffirmed. Both socialism and economic liberalism are condemned. The common good is to be sought. But Pius stressed the concept of "social justice," which has been taken to mean that justice depends partly on the social institutions within which people live. In the words of Catholic philosopher David Hollenbach, "The concept of social justice introduced a positive evaluation of institutional change into the effort to specify the claims of human dignity." Pius went on to recommend a corporatist economic reorganization in which the workers and employers in each industry or profession would form organizations to make decisions on matters of common interest. Class conflict was to be replaced by cooperation within these organizations. Furthermore, these organizations would be largely self-governing. The state would play a secondary role. In the words of historian David J. O'Brien "unlike Rerum Novarum, Quadragesiso Anno was radical, even revolutionary; it was about reconstruction, not reform....The corporatist vocational (or occupational) group system, organized around common, not class, interests, free from both state control and the contentious anarchy of classes and parties, would bring about a society marked by both order and justice."

In 1961 Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) promulgated Mater et Magistra (Christianity and Social Progress). Like Pius XI, Pope John praised Rerum Novarum and reiterated its principle themes. Human labor is not a commodity. Its price is not to be determined by purely market forces. The worker should be paid a wage "sufficient to lead a life worthy of man and to fulfill family responsibilities properly." The right to own private property is derived from natural law. The best way to honor that right is to spread property widely throughout the population. Both unregulated economic competition and the Marxist class struggle are to be condemned. God's intends that the overall supply of goods ensure that "all men may lead a decent life." The task of the state is to protect and advance the common good. It may properly intervene in order to guarantee that the common good is served. At the same time, the principle of "subsidiarity" is to be observed (i.e., in the hierarchy of social bodies, from the individual to the state, functions should be carried out at the lowest level possible). Mater et Magistra addressed "new aspects of the social question." It took a global view of economic issues and stressed the importance of reducing the gap between the developed and underdeveloped nations. It also discussed the importance of economic aid, population increase, global cooperation, and global justice. In short, it added a world wide perspective to Catholic social thought.

In 1963 John followed with Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). In this encyclical the emphasis shifts from economic problems such as low wages and unemployment to a broad concern with human rights. The basis for human rights is to be found in human dignity, which is itself derived from the fact that human beings are made in the image of God. An extensive list of human rights is given. These include a right to life, bodily integrity, food, shelter, medical care, security in old age, work, freedom of belief, safe working conditions, marriage, and more. It is clear that both positive (welfare) and negative (non-interference) rights are included.

The popes have tended to stress continuity of theme and doctrine by praising the encyclicals of their predecessors. Nevertheless, there are changes in emphasis and developments in ideas over time. On the one hand, the idea that human labor is not a commodity has been stated and stressed repeatedly. In contrast, the idea of a Catholic corporatist economic organization is no longer promoted. But new themes concerning the care of the environment, human rights, nuclear war, and freedom of religion have been added.









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