Actual Catholic social teachings part I

A lot of people speak of Catholic social teachings, with many suggesting the Church specifically endorses a third way between capitalism and socialism, some thinking it specifically endorses distributism and again others seem to think it leans left and is basically social democracy.

Catholic social teachings were mostly well defined and formulated before Vatican II (like all other teachings) and the 2 well known encyclicals were Rerum Novarum from Pope Leo XIII in 1891 and Quadragesimo Anno from Pope Pius XI in 1931.

Rerum Novarum is still referenced today as the famous starting point for Catholic social teachings. Yet it preached moderate right-wing economics. That would in fact remain dominant under the next 2 popes as well.

Rerum Novarum can best be described as Conservative Capitalism (as opposed to liberal capitalism). It accepted the legitimacy of (Catholic) trade unions and reject the hypocrisy of (certain) liberals who wished to limit freedom of association for unions.[1] (Subsequent popes would allow authoritarian corporatist anti-communist regimes to deem them unnecessary.) He did not acknowledge a right to strike however.[2]

But Rerum Novarum consistently and indiscriminately condemned socialism (as understood in the nineteenth century)[3] while not condemning capitalism in and of itself. Private property was firmly defended, although the concept of a free market wasn’t explicitly dealt with. Workers taking property in the name of equality was condemned. Instead it was advocated that they’d acquire property themselves through honest work. Rerum Novarum accepted the wage system as legitimate. Class struggle was rejected and natural inequality taken as a given.

The documented reflected a paternalistic and rather conservative spirit, that rejected laissez-faire and unbridled capitalism in favour of something more moderate and humane.[4] It lamented the attacks on Catholic institutions that had cared for the poor, carried out by progressive liberals.

The state was not given an important role in (re)distributing, nor was it even suggested that all people should be self-employed or self-sustaining. Rerum Novarum acknowledged that wages were generally freely determined as well. Sufficient wages were treated as a matter of justice but action by unions was preferred over state interference.

Pope Leo XIII proclaimed a Traditionalist Conservative view of the role of the state in promoting religion, the traditional family, traditional morals and so on. He supported moderate taxes and the government ensuring a healthy economy that would thereby benefit the poor without too much need for special measures.

Rerum Novarum 32

This is the proper scope of wise statesmanship and is the work of the rulers. Now a State chiefly prospers and thrives through moral rule, well-regulated family life, respect for religion and justice, the moderation and fair imposing of public taxes, the progress of the arts and of trade, the abundant yield of the land-through everything, in fact, which makes the citizens better and happier. Hereby, then, it lies in the power of a ruler to benefit every class in the State, and amongst the rest to promote to the utmost the interests of the poor; and this in virtue of his office, and without being open to suspicion of undue interference – since it is the province of the commonwealth to serve the common good. And the more that is done for the benefit of the working classes by the general laws of the country, the less need will there be to seek for special means to relieve them.

Barebone limitations were allowed to prevent women from working certain professions (even the Supreme Court upheld that during the Lochner era) and to prevent damage to family life, religious observance, the safety and basic human dignity of workers.

Rerum Novarum 36

If by a strike of workers or concerted interruption of work there should be imminent danger of disturbance to the public peace; or if circumstances were such as that among the working class the ties of family life were relaxed; if religion were found to suffer through the workers not having time and opportunity afforded them to practice its duties; if in workshops and factories there were danger to morals through the mixing of the sexes or from other harmful occasions of evil; or if employers laid burdens upon their workmen which were unjust, or degraded them with conditions repugnant to their dignity as human beings; finally, if health were endangered by excessive labour, or by work unsuited to sex or age – in such cases, there can be no question but that, within certain limits, it would be right to invoke the aid and authority of the law. The limits must be determined by the nature of the occasion which calls for the law’s interference – the principle being that the law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief.

Pope Leo XIII allowed for welfare provided by the state, but only in extreme cases. Other than that, caring for the poor wasn’t a matter of natural law, but Christian charity. An important duty but not one of natural justice.

Pope Saint Pius X would repeat in Fin Dalla Prima that the plight of the workers was generally a matter and not charity on the literal sense and Pope Benedict XV argued workers could improve their lives through honest work instead of socialism.[6]

None of them rejected capitalism, or proclaimed a third way, but neither were they pure libertarians or worshippers of the free market. They did not glorify financial success in the way that many Calvinists or evangelicals do.

A more detailed critique of extreme Capitalism would only come with Pope Pius XI.


  1. Rerum novarum, p. 51
  2. Ibid. p. 36
  3. Ibid. p. 4
  4. Religion and Politics by John T. S. Madeley
  5. Ibid. p. 4, p. 22
  6. Option for the Poor & for the Earth: From Leo XIII to Pope Franicis by Dorr, Donal

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