Catholic social teaching has been called the “Church’s best kept secret”, and with good reason. The two foundational encyclicals (Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum [RV]and Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno [QA]), other encyclicals on social topics, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church provide a cohesive vision for society. In addition, we have the writings of those who developed the theology of the Church’s teaching as well as those instrumental in composing the encyclicals. Pope Leo relied on Fr. Luigi Taparelli and Fr. Matteo Liberatore; Pope Pius XI requested that Fr. Oswald von Nell-Breuning write the initial draft of Quadragesimo Anno; Nell-Breuning and his colleague, Fr. Joseph Husslein, both wrote book-length commentaries on the encyclicals.
Taken together, these very clearly present the basic ideas of Catholic Social Teaching. Yet, much of this teaching is forgotten, simply ignored, or even misrepresented.
Even the term “social justice” has been redefined to bear little resemblance to Church teaching. Thankfully, authors such as Michael Novak and Paul Adams, as well as Thomas Behr, presented correctives to the unorthodox definitions. In authentic Catholicism, justice is one of the four cardinal virtues (the others being prudence, fortitude, and temperance) and is giving each his or her due (CCC, 1803, 1807). It has absolutely nothing to do with wealth redistribution by government or equality of outcomes. It is rooted in Scripture which reveals that God made us to be in His image and likeness (Gen 1: 26-27). God is good and we are called to be like God, so we are called to be good by living the virtuous life (CCC, 1803).
The Catechism says that virtue occurs when a person “pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.” (CCC, 1803, emphasis added). It must be done with free will. The government cannot mandate it because compulsion eliminates free will.
A complementary idea to social justice is the common good, which is the “sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (Compendium, 164; CCC 1905-1912). This involves willing the flourishing of others because they are made in the image of God. Ultimately, it is helping others get to heaven.
Medieval Europe developed institutions supporting the common good. Responsibility for the wellbeing of the fief rested with the lord. Peasants and other commoners worked together for the good of the local community through the parish. Religious orders supported the surrounding communities through their activities. While there were many abuses, people knew they had obligations for the welfare of others.
The French Revolution began a process in Europe of sweeping away these institutions. Charitable organizations such as Catholic hospitals, educational institutions, and poor relief were suppressed. The guilds were banned. The wiping out of these social supports left the peasants and landless workers defenseless against the more powerful. Pope Pius XI commented that, “following the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State” (QA, 78). This presented a practical challenge to Catholics because the institutions that provided a way for people act in virtue were now gone.
In response, Fr. Luigi Taparelli coined the term “social justice” to highlight the necessity of social structures to help us live out this vocation, and his definition is accepted by the Church (Compendium, 201; Divini Redemptoris, 51). The virtue of social justice is habitually acting in civil society in a way that leads to the flourishing of others. Therefore, the solution to economic injustice is not in redistributing goods and privileges but in “the Christian reform of morals” (QA, 15, 97).
Social justice, then, is an orientation of the existing virtues to the common good. The voter relying on prudence in deciding for whom to cast the ballot or the soldier exhibiting fortitude in the defense of his country are practicing social justice.
How can a person create the social conditions for the flourishing of others when there is nothing other than state organizations? Fr. Taparelli argued that mediating organizations, or associations, are needed to fill this societal hole. Closely linked to social justice and associations is subsidiarity, the principle that decision-making should be made at the lowest possible level with support from higher levels only if necessary (QA, 79). Associations provide the means for people to do good and build character through repeated virtuous action. In addition, common sense tells us that those most affected by a decision know their own situations most intimately and are able to best advocate for themselves, which makes for better decisions. Social justice, subsidiarity, and intermediary associations are the means through which people act justly for the common good (Compendium160-162).
Pope Leo XIII applied Taparelli’s associations to the question of the working poor and called for a wide variety of organizations (RN, 56, paragraph numbers follow that of the Vatican website). In addition to vocational groups, he listed “societies for mutual help; various benevolent foundations established by private persons to provide for the workman, and for his widow or his orphans, in case of sudden calamity, in sickness, and in the event of death; and institutions for the welfare of boys and girls, young people, and those more advanced in years” (RN, 48, 49).
The United States has seen many associations much like what the Pope mentioned. In the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about them. David Beito documented the role of fraternal and benevolent societies in much of our history. We have seen the growth of organizations such as the Rotary Club, the Hibernians, and the Knights of Columbus. Others established YMCAs, libraries, church ministries, colleges, credit unions, and hospitals. Many of these explicitly set out to develop virtue in their membership. Two European initiatives that particularly impressed Pope Leo were the Societies of Catholic Workers circles and that of the Harmel textile company (see RN, 55).
In addition, the encyclicals provide detailed descriptions of how subsidiary works in the real world. For example, on the topic of wages, Pope Pius writes that if employers are unable to pay an adequate compensation then, “social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman.” (QA, 71). Given the encyclical’s emphasis on vocational associations, the phrase “changes be introduced” does not refer to government action. In fact, Pius XI explicitly excludes government mandates because in this situation, “both workers and employers strive with united strength and counsel to overcome the difficulties and obstacles and let a wise provision on the part of public authority aid them in so salutary a work.” (QA, 73, emphasis added). The government is to get involved when all else fails and then only in a supporting role.
More generally, the Catholic proposal on the question of the working poor is to provide enough income for modest savings and property ownership (RN, 5, 46). Wealth provides protection and reduces dependency on the state (RN, 37). This also creates a more equal distribution of wealth and power (since power comes with wealth), less unrest and a strong society (RN, 47). In short, the proposal is establish associations that help workers become capitalists.
Many took up Pope Leo’s call (QA, 31). The French created compensation funds, which are independent organizations accepting contributions from employers. They supplemented the incomes of those with dependent children, provided maternity and nursing benefits, and gave aid for aged parents. They also visited homes not only to verify the needs but also to offer various forms of assistance. The first funds opened in 1916 and spread so rapidly that by 1924 1.1 million workers in 9,300 establishments were covered by 151 funds. Throughout the 1920s similar funds appeared in many other countries.
The concepts of social justice, subsidiarity, and intermediary associations are still the teaching of the Church (CCC, 1882; Compendium 151, 185-187; Centesimus Annus 7, 48; Laborem Exercens 20; Caritas In Veritate, 25; Laudato Si’, 157). Unfortunately, in the US, as in Europe, the Catholic proposal had been highjacked and removed from the public square.
The challenges that Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI faced—big business and government suffocating traditional social institutions, socialism, attacks on the Church and family, materialism—are still with us. A century ago the Church proposed its own version of a Great Reset. In fact, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical is officially titled “On Reconstruction of the Social Order”. Not coincidentally, Husslein’s book, which was approved by Pius XI, bears the title of “The Christian Social Manifesto” with the obvious reference to the communist proposal.
The Catholic Great Reset is based on the human person. In willing the good of another, one must first know and understand the other person. In doing this we learn about ourselves and develop compassion and a sense of purpose in life. Participating in associations cultivates the skills of leadership, cooperation, initiative, and creativity, which translate well for living in a democracy. This also provides the ability to constructively do good and, hence, removes the appeal of radicalism. It is through associations that the marginalized truly participate in the activities of society. One of the best ways to protect the dignity of people is for them to have a direct voice in matters that affect them.
Most importantly, this Catholic proposal to “build back better” brings us closer to divine beatitude (CCC, 1803). Subsidiarity bereft of the beatific vision, a life of grace, and the need for evangelization reduces to a variant of conservative ideology. Many today conflate subsidiarity is with “small is beautiful” or federalism. We need to reclaim the gift the Church has given us and make sure it is no longer a secret.
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