The Great Reset, Catholic Style

A century ago the Church proposed its own version of a Great Reset, rooted in Catholic social teaching. But much of this teaching is forgotten, simply ignored, or even misrepresented.

(Image: Peter Herrmann/Unsplash.com)

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.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Theodore Misiak 1 Article
Theodore Misiak has a Ph.D. in Economics and many years of experience in both business and academia.

23 Comments

  1. In our complicated and globalized world (not to be conflated with “globalism” as an ideology), it’s difficult sometimes to tell what is an intermediate association (subsidiarity) and what is not. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (New York state) told how he once was awakened at 2:00 a.m. by a tenement renter in New York city who was cold and wanted the heating system fixed. Asked why he didn’t call the building manager, the caller said that he didn’t want to go all the way to the top until he had first tried other actions closer to home.

    The further temptation today, even in the Church, is to highlight the urgency of the common good (versus individualism and selfishness) while remaining silent on actions involving intrinsic evil (or, at least, the primacy of the interior life, partly as the taproot for moral actions large and small).

  2. Essentially Fr Tapiarelli commenting on Pius XI on subsidiarity emphasized the moral coherence of a proportional distribution of power from State to the public forum. Insofar as social justice the State has an obligation to protect inherent rights. Not to create and protect them like transgender. As an opinion it has the benevolent interest in protecting the welfare of the poor with programs like Soc Sec and Medicare. Govt whether national or world seeking to implement an equal salary, a cryptic form of Marxist ideology that is detrimental to free enterprise both corporate and individual unjustly penalizing those with higher achievement. Subsidiarity in the mold of Leo XIII and Pius XI would prevent this. Lacking its implementation has resulted in the State, by a progressively Marxist ideological drawing of virtually all power to itself particularly evident in the Biden Administration diminishing the Constitutional sovereignty of religious expression. And in the process the democratic function of government. This unconstitutionally realized by imposition of its own ideological and moral dogma blatantly replacing Constitutionally protected religion. Religion obviously the institutional barrier to such a remake of government. The unjust prevarication to achieve this is a redefinition of humanness by sexual deviants given legally protected license under the banner of liberty. The Administration should, must in fact be challenged in the courts [and certainly the ballot box] on these issues because they radically transform America into a grotesque godless autocracy.

  3. The FR definitively was not a measured response to corruption. More of a very tragic societal temper tantrum from not having a working representative republic. Could never happen in the USA, well at least certainly not in the RCC, thank God.

    • The French Revolution was the first true revolution [America was actually a war of independence retaining much of its British heritage] completely reversing the order of State the product of a culture to the State as the determinant of culture. Robespierre former legal advocate for the poor devotee of Rousseau set the political tone. Egalitarian in theory radically socialist rather than religious with absolute control by the State it became the blueprint for Karl Marx and the irreligious socialist variations that followed. Today America is being transformed by Executive power alone absent of interaction with the Judiciary and Legislature from a Republic founded in context of British parliamentarinism toward a republic more akin to Robespierre’s Jacobin model.

      • I respectfully, partially disagree with Fr Peter Morello, PhD, when he writes in his comment that “The French Revolution was the first true revolution [America was actually a war of independence retaining much of its British heritage].”

        The American Revolution was truly revolutionary and radical in one sense: It led to the current U.S. Constitution which mandated “no establishment of religion” and “no religious test” for governmental office holders.

        No government before had ever established such neutrality on the issue of religion.

        That’s why Pope Leo XIII in 1899 condemned this aspect of the U.S. Constitution in the encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae.

        By contrast, when the nations of Latin America overthrew Spain’s colonial rule in the 1800s, most of the new republics adopted constitutions that explicitly established the Christian religion as the officially true and favored religion.

        Why the difference?

        The difference was that the Catholic Church was a major force in Latin America, but not in United States during its War of Independence and in the years after when the U.S. Constitution was being drafted.

        Also, many of the U.S. Founding Fathers were very much influenced by the radical anti-Catholic “Enlightenment” philosophy of Freemasonry.

        President George Washington had himself painted as we wore his full Masonic regalia. All the governmental buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C. have cornerstones bearing Masonic symbols and a Masonic declaration.

        The Masonic fraternal organizations seem to be in decline now.

        But the revolutionary spirit of the philosophy of Freemasonry is enshrined in our culture and in our Constitution.

        This is found in both the Progressive Movement and in the Conservative Movement, and accounts for why the true meaning of Social Justice, as defined in Catholic Social Teaching, is hardly ever heard or known in either of these movements.

        Both Liberals and Conservatives have been hypnotized and deranged by various false, ungodly, and idolatrous conceptions of “Liberty,” and, alas, these false, ungodly, and idolatrous beliefs are dictated by the U.S. Constitution itself (as noted above in this comment).

        This is how we ended up with these violations of the Social Justice:

        –President Polk’s use of fraudulent claims to justify his 1846 invasion, occupation, and annexation of northern states of the Republic of Mexico. (President Polk’s fraudulent claims were endorsed by a majority in Congress, though a minority, including a young congressman representing Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, strenuously condemned the fraud of President Polk.)

        –President Trump’s attempt to use fraudulent claims to overturn the 2020 President election results.

        –These infamous Supreme Court decisions:
        -Dred Scott v. Sandford
        -Plessy v. Ferguson
        -Lochner v. New York
        -Roe vs. Wade
        -Obergefell v. Hodges

        I commend Catholic World Report for upholding and promoting the true Catholic sense of Social Justice. But I think the state of affairs is worse than this article suggests.

        Catholics in the Progressive Movement tend to ignore the Catholic teaching on Subsidiarity.

        Catholics in the Conservative Movement tend to ignore the Catholic teaching on Solidarity.

        Notice that this article and its attendant comments (except this one) make no mention of the word Solidarity, but six times this article uses the word Subsidiarity, and the comments that I see use Subsidiarity seven times. But in the mind of the Church, those two Catholic principles are meant to be used in tandem, in a rightful balance, in a proper harmony (along with the other beautiful, good, and true principles of Catholic Social Teaching).

        There does exist the American Solidarity Party, which makes Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Pro-Life Teaching the basis of its platform.

        But the American Solidarity Party is generally ignored by both Catholic Conservatives and Catholic Progressives, for obvious reasons:

        –Progressives have zero tolerance for Catholic Pro-Life Teaching

        –Many or most Conservatives have little tolerance for acknowledgment and integral applications of authentic Catholic Social Teaching.

        And so, the “culture war,” consisting of competing but equally false American conceptions of “Liberty,” goes on and on and on.

        Alas, the bishops and the popes are themselves now too theologically divided among themselves to provide the leadership necessary to remedy for this situation within the Church.

        So, what can we do? I guess what we are doing: Write comments on the Internet! And pray to God! And keep on striving to exercise Hope, Faith and Charity in a corrupt, hating, and lying world!

        • Also a young officer Ulysses S Grant serving under general Winfield Scott during the Mex Am War was against the war on moral grounds noted in his Memoirs. I disagree with your allegation of Pres Trump’s “fraudulent claims” to overturn the election, because there is substantial documented evidence of fraud during the election. Justices who reviewed the litigants denied the claims on technicalities. Time and the immense implications of taking up the case were factors. Otherwise very informative.

          • Dear Father Peter Morello, PhD: Thank you very much for your further comment and reply. I have so much respect, admiration, and appreciation for your service to God and the Church, Fr. Morello!

  4. To my mind, the Amish have the best model of subsidiaries around. I don’t hear of too many of them going homeless or starving.

  5. Thank you for this fine summary of Catholic social doctrine. The main reason for this accurate version being such a secret is that virtually no institution in the Church ever presents it today. Plenty of bishops, priests and lay bureaucrats talk endlessly about social justice, but always in a way that portrays it as indistinguishable from standard leftism, even Marxism. Whatever its flaws, generic conservatism comes much closer to the truth than what the Vatican and the USCCB pump out.

    • I have yet to hear of a bishop or priest who is not pro-tax increase “on the rich” if “the poor” are the supposed beneficiaries.

  6. The secular world’s promises are off quite a bit from the Church’s past teachings. “Shacking up,” for instance, is not even considered off beat at all – not a surprise. Look at the commercials these days for people buying homes or other major ticket items; all kinds of relationships.

  7. Women flooding the labor market in past decades have depressed wages for sole breadwinners, among other disastrous effects. When women come home to school their children and care for granny, they not only strengthen their husbands value to his employer(he is more reliable if he has backup at home when the school closes), but new sahms collectively open jobs and bump the wages for all sole breadwinners. Win. Win. Win. Win. Win.

  8. Thank you for an excellent article about social teaching, long a focus of in my studies and one of my favorite sources is the two-volume study by Fr. Rodger Charles S.J.: Christian Social Witness and Teaching: The Catholic Tradition from Genesis to Centesimus Annus.

  9. “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.”

    Voting is an act of legal justice or that which the citizen owes the state. The soldier defending his country is also performing an act of legal justice.

    “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.”

    This advice was based on the idea of labor unions or just workers themselves working together with employers. The way that I understand it, government was supposed to be the final settler in unresolvable disputes NOT a bystander. A good example of this in operation now is the lawsuit. It is possible for justice to be served by a settlement and therefore a trial isn’t always necessary. However, without the possibility of a trial, there isn’t any reason for the guilty party to try to resolve the issue.

    Whatever the actual implementation of CST is, it is clear that the government can play an active role. This is because it was explicitly stated in RN that the right to a job is a NATURAL RIGHT. Whenever rights are involved, so is justice AND the state. I have a book on moral theology in which it is explicitly stated that people have a right to a job.

    Theodore Misiak would do well to read “Man and the Economy: Understanding Capitalist Economics and Catholic Social Teaching.”

  10. Actually, Msgr. Taparelli took over the term “social justice” in the late 1830s that was just coming into vogue among socialists, although others were using it, too. He meant by it the indirect effect on the common good by the practice of individual virtues, a principle not a virtue per se. In the early 20th century, before his election Pius XI studied Taparelli’s concept and realized that social justice could be defined as a particular virtue. He returned to Aristotle’s term legal justice to describe the indirect effect on the common good, and redefined social justice from a general virtue to a particular virtue. See
    https://www.cesj.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/introtosocialjustice.pdf

    • I have doubts about whether there is such a thing as social justice. From what I can tell based on some of the PDF (Which I appreciate), social justice is the establishment of a just system. That isn’t very difficult. It comes down to just laws.

      The parameters are simple. Wages, prices, and hours must be set so that workers can be occupied to the advantage of the customer but to no significant disadvantage to himself and earn a sufficiently comfortable living and the company can break even given the current and planned demand for its products and services.

      Distributive and commutative justice is involved with setting wages and prices. Wages must based primarily on financial need and one’s job responsibilities (i.e. manager vs. not), and prices must be set to allow a company to break even and perhaps make a modest profit. There is a gamble involved here.

      Then there is the fact of competition. Somehow that needs to be controlled. It may be that tightly regulated monopolies would work.

      • With all due respect, I think you missed Father Ferree’s (and Pius XI’s) point: social justice is not a substitute or replacement for the individual virtues, but the particular virtue directed to the reform of institutions. By targeting institutions, the idea is not to directly benefit the individual human person (or even large numbers of individuals), but to make it possible for the individual virtues to function properly. The ideal is that each one provides for his or her own needs through his or her own efforts. If anything is lacking, charity makes up the difference, with assistance by duly constituted authority in what Leo XIII called “extreme cases.” If the system is unjustly structured so that this is not possible, social justice demands that people organize and reform the relevant institutions so that it is once again possible. State action to relieve individual distress, especially if widespread, is often essential as an expedient, but it is not a solution, and should not be used as such, as exercising that degree of control over people’s lives is an offense against human dignity. This is more fully explained in “Economic Personalism,” which is available as a free download as well as in hardcopy:
        https://www.cesj.org/economic-personalism-book/

    • Wow! Thank you Michael D. Greaney. That is really important information that you have provided, information that I’ve never seen before. Thank you Catholic World Report, for making this known.

  11. The way conservative Catholics in the U.S. has read only St. Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and set aside his social teaching in Populorum Progressio, and similarly by not receiving Pope Francis social teaching in Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si, has truly maintained the social teachings of the Church a “best kept secret”! Sad. Bad.

  12. What is ‘sad’ and ‘bad’ is your unalloyed cheerleading of this pope who refuses to answer the formal questions of his Amoris laetitia exhortation and thereby bringing about the schism of the German church.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. TVESDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

Leave a Reply to Kathryn Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*