Some key documents of Catholic Social Teaching
Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” (1891)
Pope: Pope Leo XIII
Summary: Pope Leo XIII highlights the principles necessary to bring about a just society introducing the ‘just wage theory’, these principles include protecting the rights of workers, free association being defended by the state and private property defended but limited.
Backstory: Rerum Novarum was the first of the modern wave of social encyclicals. Leo was acutely aware of the poverty of many workers and of the growth in power of socialist movements.
Quadragesimo Anno – “On the Fortieth Year” (1931)
Pope: Pope Pius XI
Summary: Dictatorship is condemned as the dangers of fascism and communism are exposed – such as increasing child and female labour.
Backstory: This mid depression provoked new thinking as opposed to the previous preoccupation with World War I. The growth of systematic atheism had increased, the modernist crisis arose and there were huge developments in thought. Germany was economically devastated and Russia allowed many of its own people to die – justified as necessary for the good of the state.
Mater et Magistra – “Mother and Teacher” (1961)
Pope: Pope John XXIII
Summary: It states the need for a balance between excessive intervention of the state against the need for state intervention to curb injustices and assist socialisation. It also goes on to advocate worker participation and ownership and marks the beginning of a focus on international poverty rather than its previous concentration on industrialised countries.
Backstory: Communism was still viewed as being a major threat and since World War II there was an increasing concern for poorer nations and international inequalities.
Pacem in Terris – “Peace on Earth” (1963)
Pope: Pope John XXIII
Summary: First addressed to ‘all people of goodwill’ and underlines the rights and responsibilities of individuals. This document also condemns the arms race and racism and advocates resources to be shared in the common endeavour for development.
Backstory: The terrifying threat of nuclear war had become heightened with the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. In addition, the civil rights movement in the US had also exposed divisions of race.
Gaudium et Spes – “The Joys and Hopes” (1965)
Pope: A document of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965), promulgated by Pope Paul VI
Summary: This document underlined the need of the church to be completely immersed in human affairs and for the church to share the joys and hopes of people.
Backstory: Demonstrates the idea that the church needs to ‘interpret the signs of the times’. Although this was a document by the Second Vatican Council rather than an encyclical, it was none the less significant. The Vatican II was a pastoral council which firmly showed the significance of the church in the world rather than it being of spiritual concern only, and this was a ‘constitution’ of Vatican II – voted for by a majority of the bishops and was therefore hugely important for Catholic Social Teaching.
Dignitatis Humanae – “Human Dignity” (1965)
Pope: Another Second Vatican document rather than an encyclical
Summary: Essentially a declaration of religious freedom and the call for all Christians to respect religious freedom, a freedom which must also be permitted by states. The church must be allowed to work freely, but compulsion or force must play no part in a person’s response to God.
Backstory: This was one of the most contentious of all of the Vatican documents with much of the initiative coming from the US church favouring secularism. As a result this was opposed (and still is today) by many conservatives favouring the involvement of the church in the state as was seen in Spain and Italy, and as the church had acted up until the early 20th century.
Populorum Progressio - “The Progress of Peoples” (1967)
Pope: Pope Paul VI
Summary: Pope Paul VI most famously stated that ‘development is the new name for peace’ and he goes onto express dangers of conflict if inequalities grew. The whole area of human development is examined from an integral and holistic viewpoint rather than development just being based on economic factors.
Backstory: This was the concern for the signs of the times (in practical terms) as the Second Vatican had not fleshed out its ideas for development. Paul VI had also travelled widely and now international communications were bringing issues such as global poverty into closer proximity due to newer technologies such as television.
Octogesima Adveniens – “On the Eightieth Year” (1971)
Pope: Pope Paul VI.
Summary: This is strictly an ‘apostolic letter’ rather than an encyclical. Further reference is made in this letter to ‘The Condition of Labour’, and Paul VI lists approximately fifteen key issues presenting problems. Paul VI expresses that a variety of responses should be offered as the Christian solution. He also states that Christians should be called to action to involve themselves in building a just world by analysing their own realities and devising responses in light of the Gospel.
Backstory: The South American bishops had met at Medellin three years earlier and their themes of structural injustice, the option for the poor, conscientisation and liberation permeate the thinking in this document.
Laborem Exercens - “Through Work” (1981)
Pope: Pope John Paul II rights
Summary: Work is the central issue of this document; do women and men participate in God’s creativity and share in its productivity or are they merely cogs? This poses the idea that work should increase human dignity as the economy is made for labour and work is the subject of people. New concepts of solidarity and ‘indirect employer’ emerge strongly in this encyclical.
Backstory: Both capitalism and Marxism are criticised. John Paul had lived through the worst excesses of two regimes (Russian Communism and Nazism) which saw the worker as an expendable resource in the interests of the state. He was highly aware that the exploitation of workers continued, especially in poor areas of the world.
Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – “The Social Concern of the Church” (1987)
Pope: Pope John Paul II
Summary: John Paul who had now been Pope for over fifteen years writes this very thoughtful letter in which the terms ‘structures of sin’ and ‘option for the poor’ strongly emerge (from liberation theology). He goes onto condemn the gap between the rich and poor which can be partially linked to the arms trade.
Backstory: The increase in refugees is a major concern and a result of confrontation. This was written amongst the continuation of the Cold War with the Berlin Wall collapsing later in 1989. This time also saw the severe recession of the mid 1980’s and gaps between the rich and poor widening with ‘turbo capitalism’.
Centesimus Annus – “The One Hundredth Year” (1991)
Pope: Pope John Paul II
Summary: To affirm democracy the excesses of capitalism must be condemned, as well as the ‘idolatry of the market’ and the ‘insanity of the arms race’. Private property is deemed acceptable but for the first time the world’s goods (including intellectual property) are stated as having a ‘universal destination’.
Backstory: The Berlin Wall had just collapsed; arms expenditure globally hovered at around $1,000 billion (one trillion) and there was also the emergence of the super rich individual.
Evangelium Vitae - “The Gospel of Life” (1995)
Pope: Pope John Paul II
Summary: Powerful underscoring of the dignity and value of life; John Paul II condemns the ‘culture of death’ where individual freedom is placed before the rights of others to life -hence the condemnation of the death penalty, abortion and euthanasia. With very moving words to women who have undergone abortion; ‘do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope’. This presents positive images of the promotion of a ‘culture of life’ where human freedom finds its authentic meaning and a culture of the family is the ‘sanctuary of life’.
Backstory: John Paul II is clearly anxious about the development of individualism and its assertion of rights, especially in advanced societies.
Caritas in Veritate – “Charity in Truth” (2009)
Pope: Pope Benedict XVI
Summary: Benedict’s message is directed at a variety of concerns including global poverty, injustice and the arms race. This looks at individuals and organisations through the lens of charity and truth. However, the encyclical often speaks to individuals rather than nations. The individual motivation for charity and the concern for authentic human development are frequent concerns. There are also strong environmental concerns and the concept of ‘intergenerational justice’ is made.
Backstory: This now marked forty years since Populorum Progressio – “The Progress of Peoples” (1967). The global economic and banking crisis of 2008 had a major disproportionate effect on the poor of the world, and the issue of the environment had moved up the agenda as better evidence of degradation was consolidated.
The range and depth of Vatican documents goes beyond those listed here, to read more please see the main principles page.