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Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

What is Catholic Social Teaching?

by Fr. Paul Pearson


Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes) has become the benchmark for Catholic Social Teaching. In this article, written in 1991, Fr. Paul Pearson of the Toronto Oratory sums up Pope Leo's teaching on issues such as the rights of the family, private ownership, and social justice. He reminds us that our goal is salvation, not material well being.

Larger Work



23 – 26

Publisher & Date

St. Bernard Charities, Inc., Winnipeg, Manitoba, January 1991

One hundred years ago, Pope Leo XIII wrote that what would later be called the Magna Carta of Catholic Social Teaching, the encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes). Ever since that day in May 1891, Rerum Novarum has been the starting point for any Catholic discussion of society and the economy. In testimony to its importance, the anniversary of its publication has been marked by popes of this century with an impressive succession of encyclicals reaffirming and developing the basic teaching laid out by Pope Leo: Quadragesimo Anno in 1931 by Pope Pius XI, Mater et Magistra in 1961 by Pope John XXIII, and most recently Pope John Paul II's Laborem Exercens, marking the ninetieth anniversary.

Even though Rerum Novarum is usually considered a ground-breaking work, Pope Leo XIII did not invent Catholic social teaching. From its very beginning Christianity had spoken about the need to be concerned for the material well-being of our fellow men — caring for the widows and orphans providing for those who could not care for themselves. This concern, which so marked the early Christians, is not social or economic in its nature. It is about social and economic matters, but only as they follow from the truths of our faith and are important for the life of the spirit.

The Second Vatican Council, in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), reaffirms this continuous teaching of the Church. "Christ gave his Church no proper mission in the political, economic, or social order. The purpose which he set before her is a religious one. But out of this religious mission comes a function, a light and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law . . . In the exercise of all their earthly activities, Christians can gather their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God's glory" (#42-43).

The Church must address problems which might, at first glance, appear to be matters for secular authorities, concerns of this world. As Christians living in the flesh and on the Earth, we must do many things which seem very earthbound. But since our goal or end is other-worldly, these earthly actions take on a new importance. They become part of the working out of our salvation and must, therefore, be done in accordance with a higher set of laws, God's laws. We must harmonize all things unto God's glory.

Although good and faithful Catholics might disagree over the particular ways and means by which we carry out this harmonization prudently, the principles governing these means are part of the moral teaching of the Church. St. Augustine, in his City of God, gave one of the first systematic treatments of how our Christianity should influence the way society is structured and governed. Nine hundred years later, St. Thomas Aquinas would write about the natural law, the law built into the way God made the world. St. Thomas' interest in social questions was more than merely theoretical. He often responded in writing to particular problems posed to him by various rulers of the Europe of his day. Pope Leo, a great advocate of St. Thomas (he wrote one of his first encyclicals, Aeterni Patris, encouraging a return to Thomistic philosophy and theology), draws heavily upon Thomas' understanding of the natural law.

When developments of the end of the 19th century presented their own set of problems for society, Pope Leo had a rich and continuous tradition upon which he could draw. The Industrial Revolution was the source of these developments, but it was not the beginning of the Church's teaching on social and economic matters; it was merely the historical occasion for the Church's reflecting upon its traditional teachings and applying those teachings to contemporary problems.

The Industrial Revolution, with its influx of workers from the farms into the cities to find work in the factories, raised new economic problems, and made possible a new sort of poverty. The worker, who on the farm would never have been absolutely without, was now dependent entirely upon the wages he earned. He had at his disposal no land to cultivate, no livestock; he had no investments, because he had nothing to invest. All his earthly needs had to be met from the wages he received in exchange for his labour. The poor man scratching out a living on his tiny plot of land was replaced by the poor man who had only his labour to sell. His very existence depended upon his finding work and receiving a just wage for his labour.

Pope Leo and Charles Darwin

The plight of the poor elicited two opposed responses in Pope Leo's time, Socialism and Social Darwinism. The socialists attempted to solve the poverty of the worker by the elimination of the private ownership of property. The only way to rid society of the scandal of poverty, they said, was for society as a whole to possess all property. Private ownership was merely an instrument of domination by those who already were wealthy. Poverty could be eliminated only by eliminating the private ownership of property. The state would own everything, and distribute to each member of society what he needed.

The Social Darwinists, or Liberals, on the other hand, saw disparity of income as a natural by-product of the economy: some men were merely better at earning money than others. To tinker with this natural inequality would only make matters worse. The way to make the economy as strong as possible was to reward the successful, not to encourage or prop up the unsuccessful.

Theirs was a sort of economic natural selection, hence the name "Darwinism." Darwin had published his Descent of Man in 1871, giving his fullest explanation of his theory of evolution through natural selection or competition. Certain thinkers thought that this same sort of thinking would hold true of economic development as well as biological evolution. According to this application of natural selection to the economic and social orders, the natural forces of the economy should be allowed to run their own course, thus strengthening the overall structure by favoring the strong and discouraging the weak. Society and its economic structure have natural laws built into their very make-up. Violating those laws for the sake of a group of individuals would only serve to weaken the whole.

When workers were faced with unhealthy or dangerous working conditions, or were paid what they thought to be unfair wages for their labour, they had no recourse to civil law. Laws protecting workers and their rights were still in the future. The only path that seemed possible to them was to join newly formed organizations of labourers, which could, by their very numbers, perhaps bring about some changes in the condition of the worker. These organizations of workers, unfortunately, were almost entirely governed according to socialistic principles, inciting the workers to hatred of those who possessed property, and calling for popular uprisings to seize the part of the wealth they said was rightfully theirs. Owners were evil precisely because they owned. Workers could have nothing in common with an employer whose only purpose was to exploit them for his own profit. The conflict between owner and worker was natural and unavoidable so long as private ownership remained.

Pope Leo knew that he needed to intervene and provide guidance about the condition of workers or else risk losing many to socialism. But when Leo responded to the opposing errors of Socialism and Social Darwinism, his response was not new; it was as old as the Church. His response was not economic or social; it concerned morality and getting to heaven.

Leo and the Family

According to Pope Leo and his successors, the reason the condition of workers is a matter that the Church should speak about is that, when we mistreat the worker, we violate the dignity of the man and endanger the stability of the family. This connection between the Christian family and the social teaching of the Church is at least suggested by the fact that Pope Leo XIII, Pope Pius XI, and Pope John Paul II all wrote encyclicals on the family either before or at the same time as they wrote social encyclicals. In 1931, the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pius XI wrote both Casti Connubii (On the Christian Family) and Quadragesimo Anno, his famous social encyclical. In 1981, on Rerum Novarum's 90th anniversary, Pope John Paul II wrote both Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World) and Laborem Exercens (On Human Work). Social Justice in a fundamental sense begins in the home, because society itself begins in the home. Whatever endangers the family is a concern for the Church.

In the opening pages of Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo emphasizes two main threats to the family, threats which stem from a misunderstanding concerning the nature of man and the family — the rejection of private ownership and the subsequent elimination of the family's proper independence of operation. Leo, drawing upon St. Thomas' analysis of the natural law, states that private ownership is not merely a matter of social convenience, an economic convention that could just as well be otherwise; it is part of human nature. ". . . nature confers on man the right to possess things privately as his own" (#10).

Man has the right to life, but if he is to live, he must have access to the material goods necessary to support life. These goods necessary for his own survival should not depend upon the good will or whim of any other person; they belong to each individual by right, since they are necessary to the life which each of us possesses by right.

This right to own the material things of this world is also founded upon the labour we have expended upon them. ". . . since man expends his mental energy and his bodily strength in procuring the goods of nature, by this very act he appropriates that part of physical nature to himself which he has cultivated. On it he leaves impressed, as it were, a kind of image of his person, so that it must be altogether just that he should possess that part as his very own and that no one in any way should be permitted to violate his right" (#15). By exercising the dominion over the earth that God entrusted to us, we make that property our own. They become part of the fruits of our labours, fruits which belong by nature to the labourer since he has given something of himself in the production of them.

This right of ownership, although it applies to each individual, takes on a special significance in the context of the human family. "Rights of this kind which reside in individuals are seen to have much greater validity when viewed as fitted into and connected with the obligations of human beings in family life" (#18). The father has obligations, sacred obligations, to see that his children are "provided with all the necessities of life, and nature even prompts him to desire to provide and to furnish his children, who, in fact reflect and in a sense continue his person, with the means of decently protecting themselves against harsh fortune in the uncertainties of life" (#20). Because of a man's obligation to provide for his family, the right of ownership becomes an essential precondition for life as a family. "Thus, right of ownership, which we have shown to be bestowed on individual persons by nature, must be assigned to man in his capacity as head of a family. Nay rather, this right is all the stronger, since the human person in family life embraces much more" (#19).

Leo and Ownership

This right of ownership, however, is not an absolute one. Since private ownership of property exists in order to protect the right to life, it must sometimes take a second place when life is at stake. The gifts of the earth are there in order to sustain man. If private property stands in the way of supplying the basic needs of man, private property must yield to the more basic right to life.

Drawing again on the writings of St. Thomas, Pope Leo explains our obligation to use what we possess in order to preserve life. "No one, certainly, is obliged to assist others out of what is required for his own necessary use or for that of his family, or even to give to others what he himself needs to maintain his station in life becomingly and decently: 'No one is obliged to live unbecomingly.' But when the demands of necessity and propriety have been sufficiently met, it is a duty to give to the poor out of that which remains" (#36).

With the development of an ever-increasing welfare state, many of us now look to social insurance programs, unemployment programs, and the aid given to Third World countries and feel somehow relieved of this personal responsibility for the sustenance of the poor. We pay our taxes; we have done our part. In Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII addressed the continuing need to live according to the responsibilities that ownership brings. "Although in our day, the role assigned the State and public bodies has increased more and more, it by no means follows that the social function of private ownership is obsolescent, as some seem to think. For social responsibility in this matter derives its force from the very right of private property" (#120). Our responsibility to the poor remains, so long as any one is without enough to live.

The assertion in Catholic social teaching of a responsibility to use well what we own is not a theological justification for a sort of Robin Hood syndrome. The reason behind it is not that the distribution of capital should be equal, but rather that the primary purpose of capital or resources is to provide for the basic needs of man. Equality in ownership is not the end we should have in sight. The goal is that everyone have enough to support himself and his family in accordance with human dignity.

Some inequality, according to Pope Leo, is natural, and to try to structure society in such a way as to eliminate it would be futile. "Let it be laid down in the first place that a condition of human existence must be borne with, namely, that in civil society the lowest cannot be made equal with the highest. Socialists, of course, agitate the contrary, but all struggling against nature is in vain" (#26). This inequality is not evil, so long as those who have less have enough to support themselves in keeping with their human dignity. It must be an inequality within a certain acceptable range.

This acceptable range must be worked for, both by employers and by society as a whole. No employer can, for his own gain, pay wages which are not sufficient to sustain the employee in a way consistent with his human dignity, even if market forces would permit such a wage.

Leo and class struggle

Natural inequality of this sort, within the boundaries of what is necessary for a decent human life, does not lead to an inevitable battle between classes. Strife between worker and owner is neither natural nor necessary. "It is a capital evil . . . to take for granted that the one class of society is of itself hostile to the other, as if nature had set rich and poor against each other to fight fiercely in implacable war. This is so abhorrent to reason and truth that the exact opposite is true" (#28). Class struggle is not a force of nature, but rather the result of not living in accord with the responsibilities that ownership of property brings with it.

The natural law requires that we assure a decent living for all human beings through guaranteeing fair wages and providing for those who cannot provide for themselves, not through forcibly redistributing the wealth in an impossible attempt at economic equality.

It is this assurance of a minimum decent level that gives a family the independence it needs to do the things it must do in order to be a true human family. And thus the first threat Pope Leo saw to the family, denying its right to own, leads to the second, denying its proper independence of action. Private property not only assures that our ability to live will not be determined by the arbitrary decision of another, but also that the way we live will be a matter of our own choice. When God created man, he gave him reason, making him the lord of his own actions. Human beings are human at least in part because they are responsible. Take away their proper responsibility, and you reject much of their proper dignity.

It is precisely this lack of responsibility that makes the modern world so discouraging to live in. Everything important seems to happen on a national or even international level. The more complex the world becomes, the more helpless each member of society is. Even the most personal of decisions, for example, how our children are educated, is decided in such a way to ensure we have as little control over it as is possible. But regardless of the complexity of world affairs, however, the family has certain inalienable rights and responsibilities that no government can justly remove from them.

In Pope Leo's own words: "Behold, therefore, the family, or rather the society of the household, a very small society indeed, but a true one, and older than any polity! For that reason it must have certain rights and duties of its own entirely independent of the State" (#19). He continues, " . . . inasmuch as domestic living together is prior both in thought and in fact to uniting into a polity, if follows that its rights and duties are also prior and more in conformity with nature" (#20).

The present Holy Father has expanded greatly upon the proper independence of the family in society. In Familiaris Consortio, he writes, "the State cannot and must not take away from families the functions that they can just as well perform on their own or in free associations: instead it must positively favor and encourage as far as possible responsible initiative by families (#45). And primary among the functions he describes is the raising and education of children.

At issue in Familiaris Consortio and all the encyclicals leading back to Rerum Novarum is the proper and natural autonomy of the individual and the human family within society, and especially the family, "the first and vital cell" of the Church and society. For the Church to grow and educate its members in the faith, and for society to prosper and develop in a truly human way, the family must be allowed to exercise that freedom which is theirs by natural right.

The protection of this first and vital cell of the Church and society is the driving force behind the Church's defense of the ownership of private property, not some abstract interest in the truths of economic theory.

Leo and Social Justice

Pope Leo frequently repeats an essential proviso for any Christian view of Social Justice, that the problem is not the central one of the Christian message. The ultimate solution to evil does not lie in finding the most advantageous political or economic system. ". . . without hesitation we affirm that if the Church is disregarded, human striving will be in vain. Manifestly, it is the Church which draws from the Gospel the teachings through which the struggle can be composed entirely" (#25).

Human affairs are not an exact science; revision of policy will never wipe out suffering. Human society is not sufficient for the task. "The best course is to view human affairs as they are and at the same time to seek appropriate relief for these troubles elsewhere" (#23). Pope Leo, the man credited with the revival of interest in Catholic social teaching, tells us that, in the end, the real struggle is the struggle to be a good Christian; for this struggle we need a certain minimum of material goods, but those goods will not win the battle for us. Only supernatural means can provide complete relief to our natural sufferings.

Because of his respect for God's creation and the natural law which governs it, Pope Leo would not argue that we should ignore the problem of injustice or poverty — he merely refuses to assign these a primary place. In this refusal he is not alone, for if there is one thing all social teaching of the Church has in common, it is that our goal is salvation, not material well-being. Pope John XXIII, 70 years later would reaffirm the same basic truth: ". . . there can be neither justice nor peace in the world so long as men fail to realize how great is their dignity; for they have been created by God and are His children" (#215).

© St. Bernard Charities, Inc.

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