The history of Catholic Social Teaching and its origins

2,000 Years of Catholic Ethics by Rob Esdaille

At its core, Catholic Social Teaching is simply the attempt to spell out the ethical consequences of the confession, “Jesus is Lord,” for the way in which we live. It is important to note that it is faith which is the starting-point for this reflection, not simply concern about particular issues facing society.

Such reflection has been a feature of Christian faith since the first Easter. The first believers in Jerusalem had to learn how to relate their new faith to the faith of Judaism (Ac 2.42-7) and how it should change their attitudes to property (Ac 4.32-7), to their pagan neighbours and to their persecutors. They had to come to terms with the ways in which paganism underpinned so much of public life, from the food in the markets (Ro 14.1ff) to the worship of the emperor (1 Tim 2.1-4). And they sought to make sense of their experience of the equality of all believers within the stratified and slave-owning society they knew (Gal 3.25-8; Col 3.11).

Later on, in the High Middle Ages, Catholic theologians were key players in the attempt to restrict the violence unleashed by warring princes, developing what became “The Just War” theory, with its various checks and balances.

St. Francis is now remembered for rethinking our relationship to the natural world. During the colonisation of the Americas Spanish, Dominican and Jesuit theologians upheld the dignity of the indigenous peoples whose lands were being invaded (Think of the film, The Mission), and laid the foundation for much of the modern concern for human rights. Whatever the limitations of their approaches, they made a serious attempt to think systematically about the moral value of human actions.


Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” (1891)

However, these rich insights and sometimes sophisticated approaches did not become known as ‘Catholic Social Teaching’ until a series of papal Encyclical Letters on ethical issues was published, beginning in 1891. In that year, Pope Leo XIII wrote the Encyclical Letter, Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” addressing the new issues facing European society as a result of the Industrial Revolution and the social transformation this brought about.
On the one hand, he expressed moral outrage at the disparity between “the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses” (paragraph 1), many of whom lived in conditions little better than slavery. On the other hand, Pope Leo upheld the right to private property and rejected Marxist belief in the inevitability of ‘class-struggle’. He upheld the dignity of human work and, despite his desire to avoid violent revolution, laid down the basic principle of the priority of Labour over Capital: in other words, people are more important than property and everyone has a right to the basic necessities of life and a just wage (paragraph 34).

Moreover, he identified the role of the state as the promotion of both ‘public well-being and private prosperity’ (paragraph 26). This aim became known in later Catholic teaching as promoting the Common Good. It is the principle that the rights of one group cannot be set aside for the convenience of the majority. It demands of the state a special concern for the protection of the rights of the poor (paragraph 29), a theme much developed by Liberation Theologians in the last 40 years. Moreover, Leo acknowledged the legitimate role of Trade Unions as defenders of the working class.

A concern for the dignity and value of the human person, and for the poor in particular, has proved to be an enduring feature of Catholic Social Teaching since the time of Pope Leo. But the real importance, historically, of Rerum Novarum – “Of New Things” was the new willingness of the Pope to engage with the rapid changes happening in contemporary society, drawing on the riches of Catholic Tradition to identify the moral issues involved. This is the core of all later Catholic Social Teaching.


Catholic Social Teaching In The Age of the Dictators

It wasn’t until 1931 that another ‘Social Encyclical’, Quadragesimo Anno – “On the Fortieth Year”, was published, by Pius XI. By this time, Mussolini was in power in Italy and the fear of Soviet Bolshevism hung over the West, which was in the midst of ‘The Great Depression’. Much of the letter was a summary of Leo XIII’s argument and much of the argument seems outdated, but a few points retain their immediacy and relevance. The Pope criticises the failure to pay men a living wage able to support a family (paragraph 71) and blames this partly on those (as we would now say) consumers who unreasonably force down prices (paragraph 72). He points out that both wealth and “immense power and despotic economic domination,” are concentrated in the hands of a few (paragraph 104), and he hits out both against the irresponsible behaviour of some banks and the damage done by those who promote illusory desires through marketing (paragraph 132).

The principal idea for which the Encyclical is remembered today is that of Subsidiarity (paragraph 79-80): decision-making and social organisation should be kept as close to the grass-roots as possible. But Quadrogessimo Anno – “On the Fortieth Year” can also be seen as recognising the structural nature of injustice, the forces in society which pervert people’s intentions and distort social order – an idea not fully developed until the Pontificate of John Paul II; and Pius XI offers the beginnings of a spirituality of justice, centred on the four virtues of justice, courage, prudence and the love of Christ.


Good Pope John – Joy & Hope

The War-Time Pope, Pius XII, preoccupied with maintaining the outward neutrality of the Catholic Church, said relatively little on questions of economic order and, as the Cold War took hold, seemingly felt unable to criticise Western Capitalism, lest he give succour to Communism. So it was John XXIII who issued the next important statements of Catholic Social Teaching (as well as calling the Second Vatican Council). What was new was the more optimistic tone, and greater willingness to engage with the contemporary world. Mater et Magistra – “Mother and Teacher” (1961) is the first encyclical to be addressed to a global Church, rather than to purely European concerns. Thus, there is a lengthy treatment of the duty to provide both development and emergency aid (paragraph 84-157) and of the then-impending population explosion (paragraphs 99-185).

In accordance with its envisaged global audience, the Encyclical closes with an appeal to international cooperation founded on a moral order (paragraphs 200-211) and a prolonged exposition of the Christian vision of our humanity as creatures, bearing the image of God (paragraphs 219). From here onwards the dignity of the human person was to become a central tenet of Catholic Social Teaching. Moreover, Catholics are called actively to seek responses to the challenges of the day (paragraphs 236). Ethics has to be lived both by our own individual conversion of heart and by changing structures, so that all can share in the riches of the world.

John XXIII’s other social encyclical, Pacem In Terris “Peace on Earth” (1963), “on building peace throughout the world on truth, justice, love and freedom,” was written as he lay dying and shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was the first such letter to be addressed “to all men of goodwill”: The argument is based on his Catholic understanding of human nature and on the inalienable “fundamental rights and duties” planted therein by God (paragraph 9). Here the Church embraces fully protection of Human Rights (paragraph 143) and freedom of conscience, before applying these concepts to economic and political life. John XXIII’s treatment of the matter introduces an important insight: every individual human right creates corresponding duties towards society (paragraphs 22, 28). Later papal letters on social ethics generally follow John XXIII’s method of surveying developments in contemporary society to detect what he calls the ‘signs of the times’, indications of the action of the Holy Spirit in our world. The conclusion of his reflection is a denunciation of the arms race and a call for disarmament (paragraphs 93, 113).

John XXIII’s approach to social ethics – the effort to discern the action of the Holy Spirit in our world – was picked up by the Second Vatican Council in its final document, Gaudium et Spes – “The Joys and Hopes” (1965), the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. This begins with a meditation on our shared humanity, with our doubts and fears and hopes and longings. Only in the Crucified and Risen Christ, say the Council Fathers, do we find the key to understand ourselves and to answer the challenges of the present day. This is what Catholic Social Teaching is about: it does not seek to provide final, closed answers, derived solely from the Revelation once given through Christ. Rather, it seeks to mediate between that founding event (the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth) and our contemporary experience, moving between the two in search of illumination, wisdom, right living and justice.

Later in the 1960s, Pope Paul VI offered his own major contribution to Catholic Social Teaching, Populorum Progressio – ‘The Development of Peoples’ (1967), in which he argued that “Development is the new name for peace” and challenged the ideology of ‘progress’ which fails to meet the legitimate aspirations of the poor. All people are called to fulfilment and to a sharing in the good things of the earth – and all other considerations in economics must be subordinated to this principle (paragraph 22). Here the Church claims to be not an expert in economics but “an expert in humanity” and a voice for the voiceless (paragraph 13), placing three values at the centre of its life – solidarity, social justice and charity.


John Paul II – Solidarity, Social Sin and Jubilee

As might be expected, Pope John Paul II’s long pontificate saw a whole series of profound, if sometimes difficult, Social Encyclicals, founded on his ‘Personalist’ philosophy (putting the infinite value of the human person centre-stage), beginning with Laborem Exercens – ‘On Human Work’ (1981), in which he begins to explore the theology of Solidarity, so significant for his Pontificate and for the events then unfolding in Poland and across Eastern Europe.

Another milestone was Sollicitudo Rei Socialis – “The Social Concern of the Church” (1987) which offered a critique of both Capitalist and Communist economics and introduced the concept of structures of Sin (section 36) to describe social systems and market mechanisms which cause evil (e.g. ecological damage, increasing inequality, social exclusion) even though no one set out directly to cause harm when they were devised. This was also the first Papal letter to commit the whole Church to ‘the option or love of preference for the poor‘, in imitation of Christ and living out of our social responsibilities (paragraph 42); and it began tentatively to formulate a response to the ecological crisis (paragraph 34).

The commemorative letter to mark the centenary of Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical Centesimus Annus – “The One Hundredth Year” (1991) provokes both a reflection on the collapse of Marxist ideology in Europe in 1989 and prescient warnings against an ‘idolatry of the market’ and a culture in which ‘having’ is more important than ‘being’.

Lastly, Pope John Paul’s letter in preparation for the Third Millennium, Tertio Millennio Adveniente (1994), took up the biblical concept of Jubilee to explore the necessity for a deep conversion of both the Church and Society in preparation for the new century. This included both acts of repentance by the Church community and an insistence on the Church’s need to proclaim Good News to the Poor.


Benedict XVI – Love, Hope and Truth

With the election of Pope Benedict XVI, a new page has been turned in Catholic Social Teaching. His social encyclical, Caritas In Veritate – “Charity in Truth” (2009) should be read in the light of his two earlier letters, Deus Caritas Est – “God is love” (2005) and Spe Salvi – “In hope we were saved” (2007): It is God’s love which is the basis for our ethical response and it is Christian hope in God which motivates our actions for justice.

According to Pope Benedict, reality is essentially encountered as a gift and so our response to the reality of the world should have the same quality of ‘gratuitousness’. What might, at first sight, seem to be very dense and rather abstract reflections on the nature of Christian charity then take flesh as very concrete requirements for the ordering of the economy: proper human relationships don’t stop at the level of ‘contractual obligations’, but are characterised by love, warmth, understanding: “charity transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving” (paragraph 6).

Proper human living – and hence proper economics – seeks “relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion.” Only this commitment to charity (expressed in economic life through the not-for-profit, cooperative and voluntary sectors) is capable of producing real development that promotes the Common Good. Moreover, respect for Truth and for our own nature as moral beings requires that the ‘free market’ be brought under ethical direction and regulation (paragraph 36). Finally, the concept of justice is extended to include inter-generational justice – our duty to those who will inherit stewardship of the earth from us (paragraph 48), and we are called to accept our finitude and mortality. Only in embracing our dependence on God can we find the wisdom to direct authentic development, ‘doing love in truth’.


Beyond The Social Encyclicals

This very brief sketch of the papal ‘Social Encyclicals’ of the last 120 years cannot hope to provide an adequate guide to the riches of Catholic Social Teaching, although the key concepts can be seen as they emerge – the priority of Labour over Capital and the promotion of Human Dignity; seeking the Common Good, on the one hand, and promoting Subsidiarity, on the other; the discernment of the action of the Spirit in our world and the denunciation of structural injustice; the different factors prompting Catholic Christians to get involved in building up society – a concern for Justice, a commitment to Solidarity and the sheer demands of Love; and so on. (These themes have been developed more systematically in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, published by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2004).

However, alongside the papal documents should be placed the teaching documents and initiatives of the local churches. Most striking and most influential are the Latin American Bishops’ Conference (CELAM) gatherings at Medellín (1968) and, Puebla (1979) which gave currency to the term, ‘option for the poor’. But the USA Bishops’ (USCCB) documents on The Challenge of Peace (1983) and Economic Justice For All (1986), like the English & Welsh Bishops’ Conference The Common Good (1997), are good examples of how the ethical principles developed by papal theologians have been (and must be) applied in different local situations.

This is as it should be, for Catholic Social Teaching is not principally a fixed block of doctrine or received wisdom from the past. Rather, it is a way of reflecting about the world today, viewing it as God’s world, entrusted to us, and viewing all others as our brothers and sisters. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” asked Cain (Gen 4.9). “Yes,” says Catholic Social Teaching. That is our task and our gift.