15 December, 2022

Real and Ideal in Catholic Social Doctrine


Capitalism and communism are equally representative forms of this tendency of the world today not only to ignore Christianity, but to supplant it. To speak more precisely, the civilization of capitalism, as it was developed during the nineteenth century through the application to industry of the discoveries of experimental science, has created the ideal of an increasingly daring scientism trying to achieve by means of purely human efforts that reconquest of Paradise which is part of the eschatological expectation of believing Christians.[1]
- Louis Bouyer

One of the difficulties affecting our contemporary understanding of the Church's social doctrine is our failure to understand that doctrine in the context of the gigantic shift in Western civilization that reached its climax between, roughly, the middle of the 18th and the middle of the 19th centuries. Catholic social teaching in its modern form originated as that shift was becoming consolidated, and as a result that teaching simultaneously harks back to another and lost era as a kind of ideal, and at the same time offers necessary moral guidance for those living in the reality of the new type of civilization.

Although mankind has obviously engaged in economic activity since Adam and Eve tended their Garden, the 18th-century notion of the economy as pretty much a self-regulating market, separate from the rest of human life, was entirely new in human history. As Christopher Dawson wrote concerning this immense change in outlook, "Economic activity was no longer regarded as a function of society as a whole, but as an independent world in which the only laws were the purely economic ones of supply and demand, and of the relations between population and capital."[2] 
No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of some sort; but previously to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets.... Though the institution of the market was fairly common since the later Stone Age, its role was no more than incidental to economic life.[3] 
But even more than the conquest of the economy by purely market forces was the conquest of society itself by such market relations, for now "society was made to conform to the needs of the market mechanism."[4] Although contemporary man tends to take this new state of things for granted, it was not yet so in the 19th century, when the memory of a different way of life was still fresh. Thus the famous final condemned proposition of Pius IX's 1864 Syllabus of Errors, "The Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile and adjust himself with progress, with liberalism and with recent civilization," although often condemned as the utterance of a retrograde reactionary, was actually the statement of a holy pontiff alarmed at the new type of civilization which classical liberalism and its offspring, capitalism, were creating in Europe.

If we grasp this background it is possible to understand better what the Church's modern social doctrine meant in the context of these immense changes which had occurred in our civilization, and to recognize a certain twofold emphasis which lies within that doctrine, and hence a certain tension which at times can seem to constitute a conflict or contradiction.

This tension appears with Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891), the first of the modern social encyclicals, with its frank and devastating description of the new civilization:
The ancient workmen's Guilds were destroyed in the last century, and no other organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws have repudiated the ancient religion. Hence by degrees it has come to pass that Working Men have been given over, isolated and
defenseless, to the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition. (no. 3)
These words surely echo his predecessor, Pius IX, and make clear his disdain for the new social order that had so recently triumphed. At the same time, however, the popes were not primarily indulging in a nostalgic reminiscence of the historic Christian civilization of Europe. They wrote with the chief aim of responding to the demands for moral guidance on the part of their contemporaries, Catholics as well as non-Catholics. Thus the main thrust of Rerum Novarum and of the other papal social documents has always been to offer moral guidance for the actually existing economies of their times. Such guidance can appear to constitute acquiescence toward the modern social order, but it is not acquiescence, rather a determination to offer realistic moral direction for the contemporary world. Even the most ambitious of these papal documents, Pius XI's 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, whose official title was "On Reconstructing the Social Order and Perfecting it Conformably to the Precepts of the Gospel," necessarily took as its point of departure the existing economy of the early 1930s and only offered a sketch of what a reconstructed and perfected social order would look like.

When we read any particular document of the Church's social magisterium, we do well to keep in mind these two points, their intention to be relevant to the real and immediate situation for which they are written, but at the same time what is always in the background, the ideal of a culture which had not yet been conquered by market forces and in which the economy, by being firmly embedded in social relations, fulfilled its purpose of serving human life as a whole. The lack of recognition of these two aspects of Catholic social doctrine lies behind some of the difficulties experienced by many moderns in understanding it. Let us look at a notable example, the Church's attitude toward both socialism and capitalism and at the philosophical systems that underlie each.

One of the points most contested among Catholics today is the question of the Church's stance toward capitalism. Does the Church condemn capitalism or specifically recommend it or is she neutral toward it? Although fundamental to any attempt to answer this is the question of what exactly we mean by capitalism, few writers on the subject seem to feel any need to define it. But if we begin with the only definition of capitalism given in the papal social encyclicals, we will be able not only to see what capitalism has historically meant for the Church, but what this means for the approach that Catholics ought to take toward contemporary economic questions.

In Quadragesimo Anno, no. 100, Pius XI speaks of capitalism as "that economic system in which were provided by different people the capital and labor jointly needed for production." And he goes on in the next section to say that "it is not vicious of its very nature." Thus if we understand capitalism to mean what Pius XI means, then we can certainly say that the Church does not condemn it as such. But as Pius immediately goes on to say,
it violates right order whenever capital so employs the working or wage-earning classes as to divert business and economic activity entirely to its own arbitrary will and advantage without any regard to the human dignity of the workers, the social character of economic life, social justice and the common good. (no. 101)
In other words, capitalism, the separation of capital and labor, is not wrong provided that the many prescriptions contained in the Church's social doctrine are obeyed. The mere technical arrangement of one man owning capital and employing others to work for him is not in itself unjust. That is one side of the question, the side designed to give moral guidance to the pope's contemporaries. But in view of the twofold nature of Catholic social doctrine, on the one hand responding to contemporary questions and situations, on the other always keeping in mind the Christian social order that once existed, there is more to be said than merely that the Church neither condemns nor recommends the capitalist organization of industry. To understand this, let us look at the treatment of socialism in the same encyclical.

As part of his survey of the contemporary economic scene in Quadragesimo Anno Pope Pius noted that socialism had "for the most part split into two opposing and hostile camps," (no. 111) that is, into Soviet communism and what he termed "mitigated socialism." When considering the stance which Catholics should take toward this moderate socialism, Pius stated that its economic program, considered simply as such, frequently resembles that of the Church, "for it cannot be denied that its programs often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers," (no. 113), and "it may well come about that gradually the tenets of mitigated socialism will no longer be different from the program of those who seek to reform human society according to Christian principles" (no. 114). If this is so, then the question naturally will arise, can a Catholic consider himself a socialist of this moderate type, can a Catholic in fact be a socialist? And Pius' answer is well known, a clear negative. But not, be it noted, because of the socialist's economic programs, which "often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers." Rather, because in contrast to the Christian view socialism conceives society in an essentially this-worldly manner.
Socialism, on the contrary, entirely ignorant of or unconcerned about this sublime end both of individuals and of society, affirms that living in community was instituted merely for the sake of advantages which it brings to mankind. (no. 118)
The point to remember here is that Pius XI condemned socialism primarily because of its materialistic attitude toward life and society. Now let us consider a parallel teaching on capitalism.

One of the key papal social writings of recent decades is undoubtedly St. John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991). Often wrongly hailed as embodying a fundamental shift in papal teaching on the economy - something which ipso facto is impossible - John Paul in fact offers a remarkable instance of the twofold emphasis in papal social statements. This concerns the relations between capitalism and atheism. In no. 13 of Centesimus St. John Paul first discusses socialism, and notes what his predecessor had noted:
we have to add that the fundamental error of socialism is anthropological in nature. Socialism considers the individual person simply as an element, a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socio-economic mechanism... [T]he source of this mistaken concept of the nature of the person and...of society...is atheism.
But Pope John Paul develops these reflections in an unexpected manner.
The atheism of which we are speaking is also closely connected with the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which views human and social reality in a mechanistic way. Thus there is a denial of the supreme insight concerning man's true greatness, his transcendence in respect to earthly realities, the contradiction in his heart between the desire for the fullness of what is good and his own inability to attain it and, above, all, the need for salvation which results from this situation.
Now who were those Enlightenment rationalists who viewed "human and social reality in a mechanistic way"? None other than the early capitalist theoreticians such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo. In other words, just as socialism, considered as a doctrine, is contrary to the Faith, while socialist economic proposals "often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers," similarly the liberalism that always has underlay capitalism is rooted in atheism and hence condemned, even though the mere separation of ownership and work, what Pius XI identified as the keynote of capitalist enterprise, can be morally acceptable. In both cases the broader philosophic movements that gave birth to these economic doctrines stand condemned by the Church, and for exactly the same reason. John Paul II's comments on capitalism and atheism both put in context his remarks in the same encyclical about capitalism and a free economy and are one more example of this double aspect of Catholic social teaching. In no. 42 of Centesimus, John Paul asks the question whether "capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society."
The answer is obviously complex. If by "capitalism" is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative.... But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality and sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
That the usual understanding of this passage is simply a misunderstanding, or in some cases perhaps deliberate disinformation, is made clear by other passages, such as John Paul's demand that "the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied (no. 35), or that "there is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems,...and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces" (no. 42). But in any case, John Paul's qualified endorsement of capitalism is contrasted in the same encyclical with his pointing out that the mechanistic approach to economics put forward by "the rationalism of the Enlightenment" is rooted in atheism. Thus again, as did Leo XIII and Pius XI, John Paul II both gives immediate ethical guidance to his contemporaries about how to deal with the concrete and usually less than ideal economic choices that are presented to them, and points toward a Christian social ideal, based on a different anthropology. The Church's acceptance of capitalism as not inherently unjust and her recognition that socialist economic programs "often strikingly approach the just demands of Christian social reformers," in both cases prescind from the fact that the philosophical roots of both systems are rooted in error. Given certain safeguards their economic proposals can be acceptable; their philosophical presuppositions can never be.

Hilaire Belloc nicely captured this necessarily twofold Catholic attitude toward the social order when he wrote:
On the one hand, no one will doubt that Catholicism is in spirit opposed to Industrial Capitalism.... It is demonstrable that historically, Industrial Capitalism arose out of the denial of Catholic morals at the Reformation. It has been very well said by one of the principal enemies of the Church, and said boastfully, that Industrial Capitalism is the "robust child" of the Reformation....
Yet in their desire to give guidance to those who must live and work within today's economy, the popes do not condemn those things that are not in themselves unjust, even when they arose from a historical spirit opposed to the Faith. Thus Belloc continues,
Yet...there [is] no doctrine which can be quoted to contradict any one of the necessary parts of Industrial Capitalism.…

No one can say that it stands condemned specifically by Catholic definition, for what is there in Catholic morals to prevent my owning a machine and stores of livelihood? What is there to prevent my offering these stores of livelihood to destitute men on condition they work my machine, and what is there in Catholic morals to forbid my taking a profit upon what they produce, receiving from such production more than I lay out in the sustenance of the laborers?[5]
Christians, of course, like everyone, must always live in the present, in the real world. But that does not mean that we should or can forget the past. For, to quote Quadragesimo Anno again:
At one period there existed a social order which, though by no means perfect in every respect, corresponded nevertheless in a certain measure to right reason according to the needs and conditions of the times. (no. 97)
We obviously no longer live in such a social order. We can, however, look to that social order - even though "by no means perfect in every respect" - as the ideal toward which we strive. The fact that such a society once existed should give us hope and inspiration that Catholics, if we are true to the Church's authority and vision, might recreate such a civilization again. Even while we make do with what we have, we should not forget what we once had and the mandate to try to rebuild that. That is the only way to exist as Catholics, the only way to make the Church of Jesus Christ and her teachings supreme in our intellects and in the whole of our lives.

1: Liturgical Piety (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, c. 1955), p. 262.

2: "Christianity and the New Age" in Essays in Order (New York: Macmillan, 1931), p. 236.

3: Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon, c. 1944), p. 43.

4: Ibid., p. 201.

5: Essays of a Catholic (Rockford, Ill.: TAN, [1931] 1992) pp. 220-21.

Title photo "Bernburg (Saale), town square, Mary´s Church and former town hall of the lower city" by Dguendel.  Licensed under GNU Free Documentation License.


  1. The Amish are the only Christian group I know of that are actually putting into practice Christian virtue in their economic life, I wonder if a collaboration between catholics and Amish in that regard could be enacted.

  2. There are a few places in the world where Catholics are seeking to practice Christian virtue in their economic affairs, but in general, yes, the Amish do offer us an interesting and inspiring model.

    Thomas Storck


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