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Our Best Kept Secret

Our best kept secret


“The best kept secret in the Roman Catholic Church”. That is how the Church’s social teaching has frequently been described. Many people have forgotten, or have not even known, that the Catholic Church has a considerable body of teaching on social, economic, political and cultural matters. During the generally quiet period of the holiday season, when there is not much ‘news’, it seems opportune to use the free space to recall some elements of our social teaching.

In the first place the Church inherited a wealth of social teaching from the prophets of the Old Testament. Jesus Christ built on this, calling for justice and demonstrating the importance, value and worth of every person, upholding the dignity of the poor and dispossessed, and freeing people from oppression. His teaching was developed by early Christian writers and continued to be developed over the centuries.


   Pope Leo XIII

Rerum Novarum

In 1891 a new phase began in Catholic social teaching. The Industrial Revolution saw the introduction of steam power and new machinery which opened up totally new possibilities of industry. People with money built and equipped factories and employed workers often on low wages, in miserable conditions and with hardly any rights. Against the enormous power and profits of the owners, there arose a strong socialist struggle for better working conditions and, influenced by Marx and others, leanings towards class war.

In 1891 Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical letter on “Capital and Labour”. It is known as Rerum Novarum from the first two words of the document: he was writing about the “new developments”. He was greatly influenced in this work by Cardinal Manning who was then Archbishop of Westminster.

The encyclical defended the right to private property and ownership, but also supported the right of workers to form labour unions for collective bargaining. He insisted on the workers’ right to a just wage and to decent working conditions. He added that the Church is not “so preoccupied with the spiritual concerns of her children as to neglect their temporal and earthly interests”.



   Pope Pius XI

Quadragesimo Anno

That means “The Fortieth Year”. Pope Pius XI wrote this document to further develop Leo’s teaching in 1931, when the great depression was shaking the economic and social foundations of society worldwide, and the rise of Communist totalitarianism was threatening social stability. He strongly criticised the abuses of both capitalism and communism and sought to update Catholic social teaching to reflect the changed circumstances of his time. He proposed an understanding of private property as a qualified right, which allowed him to advocate greater co-operation: labour and capital need each other; wealth must be distributed in such a way as to satisfy the needs of all. He called for the reconstruction of the social order in a manner that would foster harmony between classes of people.



    Pope John XXIII

During these weeks of the holiday season spare space is being used to outline some of the major steps in the development of the Catholic Church’s social teaching. Today we present the two social encyclicals of Pope John XXIII, focusing on the increasing gap between rich and poor nations and the threats to world peace.

Mater et Magistra

In this 1961 encyclical Pope John XXIII builds on previous papal teaching to address “new aspects of the social question”, and recommends means for the “reconstruction of social relationships in truth, justice and love.” John also put the Catholic social teaching on a new international level.

He noted the new political, social, and economic developments that had made this necessary: economic and scientific developments; the discovery and development of atomic energy, automation, synthetic products; the conquest of outer space; new speed of transportation and improvements in communications; improvements in education and increased social mobility; the imbalances between more developed and less developed parts of the world.

He taught that the state should support and encourage private initiative and enterprise and urged that, where possible, workers should acquire shares in the firms that employ them. He outlined various means of support for the ailing agricultural scene of the time. But perhaps his greatest impact was in drawing attention to the growing inequality between rich and poor nations. He urged that countries with more than enough food must share it with those that have too little – “to destroy or squander goods that other people need in order to live is to offend against justice and humanity.”

He criticised some contemporary ideologies for their failure to respect the true nature and dignity of the individual person. Catholic Social Teaching, he insisted, “rests on one basic principle: individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution”. There is an increasing need, he said, for mutual understanding and co-operation between peoples who adhere to “different or radically opposed concepts of life”, and that can only be possible when they begin to recognise a “moral order which is transcendent, universal, absolute, equal and binding on all”.


Pacem in Terris

In 1963 came his peace-encyclical, addressed to “all people of good will”. After two world wars, the world was once again on the brink of war. Only two years earlier, in 1961, the Soviet regime in East Germany had erected the Berlin wall as a symbol of control and total opposition to Western influence. Only six months earlier, the Cuban missile crisis had brought the world to the edge of war. The "cold war" was at its height and it was feared that even an accident might set off a nuclear holocaust.

 The Pope wrote that conflicts "should not be resolved by recourse to arms, but rather by negotiation" and set forth principles for that. In the first section of the document he wrote of a new awareness of human dignity and inalienable human rights: “every man has the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the means which are suitable for the proper development of life...” The second section addresses the relationship between individuals and the state, and next the need for equality amongst the nations. Finally, because the world was becoming increasingly interdependent and global, he insisted that the well-bring of humanity, “the universal common good”, had to be worked out on an international plane, with an internationally accepted authority established by consent of nations. Its main objective should be the "recognition, respect, safeguarding, and promotion of the rights of the human person."



   Second Vatican Council 

During these weeks of the holiday season spare space is being used to note some of the major steps in the development of the Catholic Church’s social teaching.

 Today we outline the final document of the Second Vatican Council on “The Church in the Modern World”. This Council (1962 – 1965) reflected a truly world Church. Bishops from virtually every nation in world had assembled to discuss the nature of the Church and its mission to and in the world. They were able to draw on universal experience. 

 On December 7, 1965, the Council agreed the document, also known as Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) from the opening words of the Latin text. Its tone is clear: “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well”. The Son of God redeemed the world by involving himself in the human situation by becoming one of us. The Church now continues his presence and involvement in the world. The Church’s mission is to witness to the love and compassion of God in the here and now. Divine love and compassion call us to work for justice, peace and healing in the world.

 Gaudium et Spes is in two parts. The first part contains four chapters dealing with the dignity of human persons, the human community, humanity’s activity in the universe and the role of the Church in the modern world:

Our dignity as human beings flows from our creation in the image of God and our vocation to communion with God. Reverence for the human person obliges respect for every person, including those who think and act differently. Never before in history has it been more urgent to recognize the interdependence of the peoples of the world. Advances in the empirical sciences, in technology and in the liberal arts indicate great progress but also demand great vigilance. As our power increases, so does our responsibility both as individuals and as members of the world-wide human community. The Gospel message obliges Christians to support everything that contributes in an authentic way to the greater good of humanity. Lay members of the Church, as citizens of the world, are especially suited to bring the Christian message into the ‘marketplace’.


Part two of Gaudium et Spes focuses on questions and problems of special importance in today’s world (i.e. 1965). Its five chapters deal with the dignity of marriage and the family; the development of culture; economic and social life; the political community; and fostering peace and establishing a community of nations:

The chapters on marriage and the family and on the international community have had a major impact on the life and teaching of the Church since the Vatican Council. The chapters on culture and on socio-economic issues echo and develop many of the themes contained in the social encyclicals we have already described. Its final chapter, on fostering of peace in the world, recognised the need for a fresh reappraisal of war to take account of modern weapons. Peace is not merely the absence of war, but an enterprise of justice based on truth and love.


Gaudium et Spes concludes with an appeal to all people of good will, whatever their culture, race or religion, to join together “to fashion a world better suited to the surpassing dignity of humanity, to strive for a more deeply rooted sense of universal fellowship, and to meet the pressing appeals of our times with a generous and common effort of love”.



   Pope Paul VI

From Pope Leo XIII to Pius XI, and on to John XXIII and then through the final document of the Second Vatican Council, the story of the development of Catholic Social Teaching moves on today to two documents of Pope Paul VI.


Populorum Progressio

In this 1967 encyclical on “The Development of Peoples”, Pope Paul VI speaks on behalf of the millions of people of developing nations, the peoples of the third world, as he explores the nature of poverty and the conflicts it produces. He expands on previous Church teaching about the gap between rich and poor, to reflect on the ever-widening inequality and growing tensions between wealthy and impoverished nations. He invites universal examination of the economic, social, cultural and spiritual aspects of the problem for what is at stake is genuine human development, the whole good both of persons and of peoples.

He supports his call for development with the claim that God intends the earth and what it provides for the good of all. Every person has the right to what is needed for life; all other rights must be subordinated to this. But the growing gap between rich and poor nations inhibits God’s intention from being realised. Unbridled profiteering and unfair competition become a form of tyranny; hence the need for trade between nations to be regulated by principles of social justice. Indeed he insists that justice and international development are inseparable. Immediate aid for poor nations is needed. Then there must be genuine collaboration among the nations moving towards a more effective form of world solidarity.

Pope Paul insists that peace is intimately bound up with economic justice. Peace is not just the absence of war, but a quality of relationships between persons and nations. Extreme disparity between nations threatens peace. For this reason he suggests that “the new name for peace is development”.


Octogesima Adveniens

In this 1971 letter of Pope Paul VI, commemorating the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, he touches on many topics. He notes afresh the flagrant inequalities in the economic, cultural and political development of nations, and the yearning for greater justice, but he also addresses some wider social problems: the sense of isolation created by greater urbanisation, and needs of the “new poor” on the fringes of society; the equal rights of women to participate in social, cultural, economic and political life; the injustice of discrimination on grounds of race, origin, colour, culture, sex or religion; the responsibility of all to protect the environment – these are just some of the topics addressed.

He reflects on Marxism and on Liberalism as two contemporary ideologies which go against a Christian concept of humanity: the first having led to totalitarianism and violence, the other being rooted in reckless autonomy of the individual. Catholic social teaching is developed by reflecting on the changing situations of the world and seeking to apply Gospel principles to it. But that teaching needs to be lived, to be applied in practice not just in theory. . “It is not enough to recall principles, state intentions, point to crying injustice and utter prophetic denunciations; these words will lack real weight unless they are accompanied for each individual by a livelier awareness of personal responsibility and by effective action. It is too easy to throw back on others responsibility for injustice, if at the same time one does not realize how each one shares in it personally, and how personal conversion is needed first”.



   Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II issued twelve encyclicals and many other documents and addresses touching on an enormously wide range of topics, yet always providing a depth of thought that is wonderfully challenging. Central to all his teaching is the fact of God’s dwelling in every human being and so in human society as a whole. His personal background, a poor orphan, living under a dictatorial regime, pressed into forced labour while secretly studying to become a priest, all of this made him utterly alert to the fundamental importance of that truth. The reality of God’s presence in the life of all human beings is the basis of his insistence on human rights and the rights of workers, on the distribution of goods, on the sacredness of life and the need for a civilisation of love. He wrote as a caring pastor very much in touch with his times, as a respected theologian and philosopher, but mostly as a passionate believer in the divine presence in everyone.

Below, mention is made of just four of his encyclicals which are most explicitly related to social issues.


Laborem Exercens  

This letter on the Dignity of Work starts with the proposal that human beings share by their work in God’s work of creation. During a time of massive and speedy change through increased automation and new technology more attention must be given to the person who works. From this perspective Pope John Paul discusses the enduring conflict between capital and labour, the rights of workers, wages and benefits, the importance of unions, disabled persons and work, and the growing issue of work and emigration. The world of work needs to be restructured according to principles that put persons before profits.


Sollicitdo Rei Socialis 

Updating and extending Pope Paul VI’s “The Development of Peoples” this encyclical On Social Concern stresses that the inequalities between North and South are growing, despite the fact that the goods of this world are created and meant for everybody. The burden of debt incurred by developing nations is denounced. Greed, power and the consequent “structures of sin” have to be replaced by solidarity and by respect not only for each human person, but also for our environment. The church is committed to work for justice and for a preferential love for the poor on national and international levels.


Centesimus Annus

Marking the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum, this encyclical repeats its main point: human persons must be respected since they are created in God’s image and charged with God’s life. Overlooking this fact led to the brutalisation of the work force in Pope Leo’s time, to the horrors of two world wars, the holocaust, the recent dictatorships of Eastern Europe, and the gap between rich and poor. The dramatic break-up of atheistic communism in 1989 was due to its disrespect for the dignity and the consequent rights of the human being. Appeal is made for a new and just social order where all human rights are respected.


Evangelium Vitae

This encyclical on The Gospel of Life insists that the commandment “you shall not kill” is an absolute and applies this absoluteness to the issues of abortion and euthanasia. The Christian “culture of life” is explained as opposed to the “culture of death” which allows abortion and euthanasia. The future of humanity depends on the rediscovery of our human dignity. The Gospel of Life must be celebrated in our love for each other. It is not only for Christians; it is for everyone.



   Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Over the past few weeks we have drawn attention to some of the major documents which have contributed to the  gradual development of that wealth of material which constitutes the corpus of Catholic Social Teaching. Of course, these major documents are not the only source of this body of teaching. There have been many other contributory elements, notably among addresses and letters of Pope Pius XII and other Popes, documents of various Vatican Offices, the writings of Episcopal Conferences and of various organisations with specialist knowledge and concern. Drawing from all these varied sources, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has now produced for the first time ever a large “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”.

 Published in 2004 (the English edition in 2005) this compendium brings together in one book of 430 pages an authoritative summary of the Church’s social teaching. It is a weighty document, drawing together “theological, philosophical, moral, cultural and pastoral considerations of this teaching … as they relate to social questions”. Its very breadth and depth and complexity make it hard to express in a few lines any meaningful summary of its content. It starts with the God-given dignity of the human person and the fundamental principles which the Church believes should underpin our approach to social issues. Its following chapters include reflection on human dignity, human rights, the family, the world of work, economic life, the political community, the international community, safeguarding the environment, and the promotion of peace, followed by a call to action in building a “civilisation of love”.



   Pope Benedict XVI

"Deus Caritas Est"

Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his first encyclical, “God is Love”: 

“The Church cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply..”

In other words the Catholic Church will continue to speak out on matters of social concern, and to act in bringing the light of faith into contact with the changing circumstances of the world.


 Caritas in Veritate – Love in Truth.

 In June 2009 Pope Benedict released his new encyclical letter on Social Matters. It stands in continuity with a long line of Catholic Social Teaching and relates to the present problems that face the world in our time.

Pope Benedict has set out to discern the implications of the central Gospel message for a world in economic and social disorder. He is not seeking to be either economist or politician, but a Christian theologian applying Gospel values to the present situation. He argues that charity is at the heart of the Church’s social doctrine where every responsibility and every commitment spelt out by that doctrine is derived from love. Hence his opening sentence: “Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity.”

He applies this concept of a way of living rooted in God’s love and truth to the whole consideration of social, political and economic structures. “Charity is at the heart of the Church's social doctrine”, he says, and later insists: “Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power”. In contrast the Church’s social teaching seeks “to promote the good of every person and of the whole person”. The common good must have priority over individual greed.



Through these accumulated teachings several key principles have emerged which should guide us in our Christian reflection on social matters:

the dignity of the human person - this is the foundation of a moral vision for society

the common good – the way we organise society should serve, not crush, the well-being of people in community.

rights and responsibilities – everyone has the right to life and to life essentials, plus responsibilities relating to others.

option for the poor – in a society divided between rich and poor, the needs of the poor and vulnerable must come first.

the dignity and rights of workers – workers are be treated as persons with rights, not to be used as tools. 

the primary role of government is to protect human rights within society and to foster the common good.

solidarity – we are one human family, despite any  national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences

the promotion of peace is integral to Gospel living, and is very closely related to working for justice

stewards of creation – created in the image of God we are called to protect people and the planet.