Catholic Social Teaching (CST), though rooted in centuries of reflection supplied by some of the Church’s greatest theologians, is often thought to have begun in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s ground-breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum. While there is a loud ring of truth to this, traditional Catholics should be well aware that the Church’s modern social magisterium began to emerge following the violent rise of liberalism in France in 1789 and the revolutionary upheavals which rocked Europe throughout the 1800s. With the early decades of the 20th century delivering further global unrest through two cataclysmic wars, a worldwide economic depression, and the rise of racialist fascism and atheistic communism, the holders of St. Peter’s Chair issued further encyclicals reminding the world that neither socialism nor unfettered capitalism were just economic options, and that all political authority comes from God.
Today CST is the subject of numerous treatises, scholarly articles, and popular commentaries from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Rerum Novarum, for example, has been subject to three anniversary letters by Popes Pius XI, Paul VI, and John Paul II respectively, all of which have developed the Church’s teaching on a just socio-economic order. Unfortunately, despite calls for the Church’s magisterium to be read holistically and in continuity with tradition, liberals of various stripes have sought to distort and limit CST by reading certain papal pronouncements selectively while marginalizing, or outright discarding, others. The result of this “hermeneutic of selectivity” is a regrettable myopia whereby, on the one hand, socio-political liberals within the Church believe that CST is primarily concerned with “social justice” (an amorphous concept) but not the social rights of Christ the King while, on the other hand, economic liberals such as those housed within the Catholic-backed Acton Institute or the radically libertarian Cato and Mises institutes hold that when it comes to the “free market” and the findings of “economic science,” the Church has no competence to speak.
Both lines of thinking are irredeemably flawed, as are similar views that certain passages found within the documents produced at the Second Vatican Council somehow abolished the teachings contained in Blessed Pope Pius IX’s Quanta Cura and the Syllabus Errorum or Pius XI’s great encyclical on Christ the King, Quas Primas. Without wading too far into the fraught waters of how to reconcile (or not) Vatican II’s declaration on religious liberty with the pre-Conciliar magisterium, it must be recalled that, by way of a specific intervention from Paul VI, Dignitatis Humanae opens with the statement that “it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and of societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” Although that line has often failed to reinforce the Church’s longstanding condemnation of religious indifferentism, it remains a stumbling block for those who wish to maintain an easygoing compromise between the truth of the Catholic Faith and the rickety tenets of religious liberalism—tenets which have not protected the rights of the Church in modern Western society.
Returning now to the flawed thinking with regard to social justice and economic liberalism referenced above, Catholics who remain confused about both would do well to look to St. Pius X’s oft-neglected 1903 motu proprio Fin Dalla Prima Nostra which sets forth directives for Catholic Action. Contra the claims of social-justice Catholics that the Church’s social magisterium ordains a roughly egalitarian society built on a disordered understanding of class conflict, Pius X, citing Leo XIII’s encyclical Quod Apostolici Muneris, reminds the faithful of the following:
“Hence it follows that there are, according to the ordinance of God, in human society princes and subjects, masters and proletariat, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, nobles and plebeians, all of whom, united in the bonds of love, are to help one another to attain their last end in heaven, and their material and moral welfare here on earth.”
Further along in the motu proprio, Pius X recalls the doctrine set forth in Rerum Novarum with respect to workers and owners. Rather than accepting the iron law of economic liberalism whereby the market, unconstrained by regulatory oversight and legal rules rooted in natural justice, is expected to set wages and working conditions in line with abstract notions of “efficiency,” the saintly Pontiff writes:
“The following are obligations of justice binding on capitalists: To pay just wages to their workingmen; not to injure their just savings by violence or fraud, or by overt or covert usuries; not to expose them to corrupting seductions and danger of scandal; not to alienate them from the spirit of family life and from love of economy; not to impose on them labor beyond their strength, or unsuitable for their age or sex.”
“For the settlement of the social question much can be done by the capitalists and workers themselves, by means of institutions designed to provide timely aid for the needy and to bring together and unite mutually the two classes. Among these institutions are mutual aid societies, various kinds of private insurance societies, orphanages for the young, and, above all, associations among the different trades and professions.”
Here again Pius X recognizes different classes within society. Instead of condoning disruptive, even violent, action being undertake to ameliorate this alleged evil, he calls for fresh intermediary institutions built on authentically Christian principles to establish harmony between the classes. That doesn’t mean only the rich and powerful benefit, however. As Pius X makes clear, workers are entitled to just wages to support themselves and their families without being exposed to fraud, violence, usurious lending, or any other corrupting action by employers. These important precepts receive further elaboration in Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno, a towering encyclical which, among other things, slays the myth that in the face of economics, the Pope should remain silent:
“We lay down the principle long since clearly established by Leo XIII that it is Our right and Our duty to deal authoritatively with social and economic problems. It is not of course for the Church to lead men to transient and perishable happiness only, but to that which is eternal. Indeed ‘the Church believes that it would be wrong for her to interfere without just cause in such earthly concerns’; but she can never relinquish her God-given task of interposing her authority, not indeed in technical matters, for which she has neither the equipment nor the mission but in all those that have bearing on moral conduct. For the deposit of truth entrusted to Us by God, and Our weighty office of propagating, interpreting and urging in season and out of season the entire moral law, demand that both social and economic questions be brought within Our supreme jurisdiction, in so far as they refer to moral issues.”
Sadly, Pius XI’s weighty admonition has not stopped ostensibly orthodox Catholics from claiming the right to dissent from CST when it does not align with their preferred hyper-capitalistic ideology. Indeed, even more recent socio-economic encyclicals such as John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus and Benedict XVI’s Caritas et Veritate have been subjected to artful reinterpretation, if not outright scorn, because they continue to express the Church’s long-standing insistence that no legitimate wedge can be driven between economics and morality.
None of this is to say that the post-Conciliar social magisterium is as clear and full-throated as it ought to be. For instance, while Pope Francis’s labyrinthine Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium contains stern rebukes against individualism, materialism, and consumerism, Fr. Franz Schmidberger—rector of the Society of St. Pius X’s seminary in Germany—is right to lament that the Holy Father did not also take the opportunity to remind readers of the importance of the Catholic state and Christian society for acting as bulwarks against those excesses. In fact, one of the primary shortcomings of contemporary CST is its refusal to link its socio-economic prescriptions with the Social Kingship of Christ. Is it any surprise that greed has replaced charity as the animating principle of Western economic life in a day and age when the Gospel has been banished from public life? And yet the post-Conciliar Church remains convinced that there is some sort of middle way which can be charted which will allow it to speak authoritatively on matters of faith and morals while doing so with rhetoric more fit for a United Nations resolution.
Faithful Catholics concerned with educating themselves on the Church’s authentic social magisterium, undiluted by certain questionable lines of thought, would do well to consult some of the classic treatises on the subject. An ideal, albeit time-intensive, place to begin is Fr. Edward Cahill’s The Framework of a Christian State followed by Fr. Denis Fahey’s two-part magnum opus The Mystical Body of Christ in the Modern World and The Mystical Body of Christ and the Reorganization of Society. Moreover, traditional Catholic publishers are continuing to make available new and classic works moored in traditional CST. These may be dark times, but we are not without light.
Maintaining or, rather, restoring the integrity of CST, free of the manipulative hermeneutics of ideologues and the worldly compromises that have become a hallmark of the present Church, is a daunting but necessary task. In a world gone mad with the logic of soulless production and acquisition, there is no time for justice in the marketplace. When the rights of man have displaced the rights of God, the duty of all men and nations to Christ is not merely an afterthought; it is no longer thought of at all. Though the liberalism—political, economic, and religious—which the great Popes of yesteryear warned the world against now reigns triumphant, that does not relieve Catholics of the duty to strive for right order. There will come a time for action, both small and great. For now, clarifying and promoting the principles of that order as found in the Church’s social magisterium is where we must begin.