January 2012 Print

An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine

by John Rao, D. Phil. Oxon

A central theme of Christ’s preaching is the fact that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” What this means is that Christ’s Kingship over the universe does not refer merely to the end times, His future judgment of the world, and His eternal reign in heaven. It means that the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as the God-man Jesus Christ has shaken all of nature out of its wounded, sinful rut, beginning here and now—whether that “here and now” concerns the Roman Empire of the first century or the American Empire of the twenty-first. What, exactly, such “shaking up” entails in a broad socio-political sense is the subject dealt with by Catholic Social Doctrine.

Although this doctrine was a work in construction throughout Church History, the day of its systematic development really dawned only in the nineteenth century. This was because studies undertaken by nineteenth-century Catholic thinkers horrified by the consequences of the French Revolution of 1789 made them realize that the terrible assault on Christian order that it re-presented had far deeper roots. Modern anti-Christian errors, they understood, were the product of a rejection of the full significance of the Incarnation on the part of complacent Catholics, Protestants, Jansenists, and naturalist Enlightenment philosophes alike; a rejection reaching back into the latter Middle Ages. Rediscovering that full significance led them to probe the lessons of the Fathers of the Church, the medieval scholastics, and the mystical, devotional, and liturgical life of the Catholic community, and merge them together into a more effective guide to the practical correction and transformation of the wounded natural world. The centers of rediscovery—German, French, Italian, and Belgian for the most part—were mixed lay-clerical circles, religious orders, university and seminary faculties, and the editorial offices of the journals and newspapers that seemed to spring up everywhere at the time. Eminently Catholic in spirit, this movement of ideas and action could not rest until it had gained the backing of the Papacy for its labors. This, it solidly obtained during the reign of Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878).

It obtained papal support, however, at a time when proponents of a kaleidoscope of political, economic, and social ideas—Right and Left, conservative and liberal, moderate and radical—were all trying to seduce Catholics into their ranks. Under these circumstances, a clarification of truly Catholic as opposed to dubious and non-Catholic principles underlying all socio-political issues was crucial. The end result of this process of clarification is to be found both in the “negative” condemnations of Blessed Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864) as well as in the “positive” work of the whole corpus of Social Encyclicals and related pronouncements of Leo XIII (1878-1903), St. Pius X (1903-1914), Benedict XV (1914-1922), Pius XI (1922-1939) and Pius XII (1939-1958). Here, one finds repeatedly reiterated, in varied forms and with respect to a myriad of practical matters, the three basic themes of Catholic Social Doctrine.

Faith and Grace

The first of these is the need to deal with all human actions with reference to man’s twofold character, both natural and supernatural. Catholics, the Social Doctrine teaches, cannot accomplish anything of temporal value without realizing that nature is the gracious gift of God, that natural Reason must therefore be cherished, and that the pursuit of natural well-being is a positive good. On the other hand, nature is terribly wounded through sin, and men find it difficult even to believe and act upon what their Reason tells them to be true. Faith and grace coming from the supernatural realm give them the courage to do what nature itself dictates. Faith also confirms the complementary relationship of the individual and authoritative community life, a truth that classical Greek and Roman wisdom grasped imperfectly, demonstrating that personal perfection can only take place in a social framework—both natural and supernatural, with participation in the society of Christ and His Church as the center, crown, and guarantor of it all. Through Faith and grace, nature’s strengths become stronger, its fallen misconceptions of its supposed “laws” are unmasked as delusions, and the temporal well-being that it pursues is shaped in a way that aids and does not serve as an obstacle to the perfection of virtue and the attainment of eternal life with God.

A second principle concerns the practical implementation of Catholic Social Doctrine. Here, the guiding rule became the “thesis-hypothesis” distinction. The thesis concerns the Catholic teaching in its full integrity, which clearly allows a great deal of scope to nature and natural Reason, and this with respect to the structures of government, economic order, and social institutions in general. The hypothesis refers to existing historical situations that may be less than optimal for attainment of the thesis and even downright contrary to its precepts. Catholics were told that prudence could compel them to accept the reality of an existing, unpalatable hypothesis—so long as this did not seduce them into considering it as a normative and therefore cause them to abandon their work for the Kingship of Christ.

Urgent Need for Lay Action

That brings us to the third principle: the urgent need for militant Catholic lay action. Opponents of the Kingship of Christ might argue that they were friends of nature, eager to prevent its distortion at the hands of a supernatural “invader.” But these modern naturalists could not even agree on what the nature they wanted to “save” was all about. Some of them insisted upon seeing in nature a mechanism with inexorable laws that reduced the individual human person to a machine part lacking all freedom of action. Others demanded that nature be viewed as a realm of pure freedom and diversity, lacking in all existential meaning and authoritative moral direction. Both groups created political, economic, and social institutions in line with their reductionist principles, and destroyed the individual and the natural social environment in consequence. Ultimately, willfulness was the guiding principle behind those who “chose” to rule the universe through mechanical “natural laws” and those who “chose” to open it to the chaos ensured by granting everyone and everything “natural rights.” The future was crystal clear: either Christ would be King of the universe, with existential meaning and individual freedom protected—or willful, strong men would be King, with tyranny and the eventual destruction of the oppressors along with their victims. The clergy were there to teach, guide, and offer sacramental grace. It was the laity’s task to fight for Christ on the natural level, and to rule over the political and social order. Treating Second Vatican Council as the “liberator” of the laity is to be one hundred years behind the times. Such liberation came with “integrist” popes and lay leaders.

Need to Build a Social Order

Ultimately, the guidance given by the Papacy in the development of Catholic Social Doctrine has been offered in very broad strokes. Hence, one can see in encyclicals of Leo XIII such as Immortale Dei (1885) and Rerum Novarum (1891) a firm insistence on the need to build a State and a social order that can indeed pursue communal and individual well-being, but only with a respect for both, together, and through moral actions that would save rather than damn political leaders, property owners, and workers alike. No government and no economic order is ever permitted to take “might makes right,” “power politics,” “Reason of State,” “national exceptionalism,” “laws of supply and demand,” “economic freedom,” or “inevitable class struggle” seriously. All these principles are equally condemnable by the Catholic thesis, and Catholic lay activists must be on guard against seduction by them in any hypothetical political compromises that they might be compelled to make with their proponents.

On the rational level, men can justly argue whether or not a monarchy, a constitutional system, or a democracy is best suited to a given country’s pursuit of temporal order, as well as its communal and individual well-being. They can rationally militate for a capitalist or a more socially organized corporate economic system. And arguments and militants of extremely diverse types filled the Catholic world, all through the latter part of the nineteenth and the whole of the twentieth century. Into the precise details of 
these arguments and the organizational work 
giving flesh to them, Catholic Social Doctrine, 
qua authoritative Church teaching, could not go.

On the other hand, the broad, supernatural, moral, and thesis-hypothesis guidelines forming that doctrine’s backbone nevertheless still packed an enormous wallop. They struck directly at anyone who insisted that his State and his economic principles could not be corrected and transformed through the teaching and Kingship of Christ. They identified him as a self-proclaimed enemy of God and nature. In fact, the Church rather quickly realized that political parties calling themselves “Catholic” and “Christian” had a tendency to go down this direction, baptizing anything they did as self-evidently orthodox. It was for that reason that, special local problems aside, she favored the work of Catholic Action “lobbies” tied clearly to specific issues of obvious doctrinal and moral importance.

The postwar world has shown the wisdom of this approach, as Christian Democratic parties, using the Council and its spirit as a justification, have themselves presided over the dismantling of Catholic influence over States, economic systems, and individual behavior in general. While the Church often still today reaffirms the main lines of Catholic Social Doctrine in theory—as she does on other doctrinal matters—their teaching has been rendered basically meaningless on the practical level. The Zeitgeist and the spirit of a particular land rules Catholic Social Doctrine as it rules Catholic episcopacies and the laity. Immortale Dei and Rerum Novarum may continue to be praised, but it is Liberation Theology—both that of Marxists and of American Libertarians—Third World Theology and the demands of American exceptionalism that command doctrinal priority in the political and social sphere. If I might paraphrase the title of an article that I wrote for The Remnant some years ago, the scoreboard for Catholic Social Doctrine in any battle with contemporary socio-political “mystiques” would read the following: Zeitgeist—666; Catholic Social Doctrine—0.


Bibliography for Further Study:


A. Arbuthnott, Joseph Cardijn (London, 1966).


F. P. Bowman, Le Christ des Barricades (Cerf, 1987).


G. Cholvy, Jeunesses chrétiennes au xxe siècle (Ouvrières, 1991).


M. Elbow, French Corporative Theory, 1789-1948 (New York, 1948).


E. Fattorini, I cattolici tedeschi dall’intransigenza alla modernità, 1870-1953 (Morcelliana, 1997)


J. Hellman, Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left (McGill-Queens, 1997).


J. Hoeffner, Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler und die Kathholische Sozialbewegung im 19. Jahrhundert (Wiesbaden, 1962).


H. Jedin and J. Dolan, eds., History of the Church (VII, VIII, IX, X, Crossroad, 1981).


A.C. Jemolo, Chiesa e stato in Italia dalla unificazione agli anni settanta (Einaudi, 1970).


S.N. Kalyvas, The Rise of Christian Democracy in Europe (Cornell, 1996).


M. Launay, Le syndicalisme chrétien en France de 1885 à nos jours (Desclée, 1984).


J.M. Mayeur, et al., Histoire du Christianisme (X, XI, XII, XIII, Desclée, 1995-2001).


J.N. Moody, ed., Church and Society: Catholic Social and Political Thought and Movements, 1789-1950 (New York, 1953).


E. Poulat, Les prêtres ouvrièrs (Cerf, 1999).


J. Rao, Removing the Blindfold (Remnant Press, 1999).