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Catholic Social Thought

Catholic Social Thought: A Documentary Heritage by David J. O'Brien and Thomas A. Shannon (Orbis Books)  This classic compendium of church teaching offers the most complete access to more than 100 years of official statements of the Catholic Church on social issues.
With documents ranging from Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891) to Pope Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate (2009), this is the single most comprehensive collection available of the primary documents of Catholic social thought. Along with the complete texts of every essential papal encyclical, this volume also includes the important documents of the American bishops on peace, the economy, and racism. Every document is preceded by an introductory essay and helpful notes, making it an exceptional reference and teaching tool.
This updated and expanded edition of a classic reference work remains an indispensible tool for scholars and students, religious and lay people, and everyone concerned with the official statements of the Catholic Church on social issues and world peace.

Since 1978 when our previous collection of many of these documents, Renewing the Earth was published by Doubleday, a great deal has happened in the Roman Catholic Church. For one thing, Pope John Paul II deepened the theological and cultural foundations of Catholic social teaching. He also broadened its reach by his courage and truthfulness, commanding attention as he traveled the globe, moving among the powerful and the powerless. At the same time, the pope and his curia challenged some developments of Catholic social theology, particularly in Latin America; they even more forcefully attempted to control the application of Catholic teaching in concrete political contexts. Where once there was a more or less top down character to Catholic social teaching, as local churches and apostolic movements attempted to apply official doctrine to specific problems, there is now sharp debate, sometimes between Rome and local churches, about poverty and politics, about markets, economic growth, political pluralism, and many other issues.

Another major development since 1978 has been the vigorous development of American Catholic social thought, most notably in pastoral letters from the American bishops on such crucial subjects as racism, nuclear weapons and the economy. These pastorals make original contributions to the developing tradition, not only in their content but in their increasingly democratic method of preparation and presentation. They have won considerable attention not only within the church but in the larger society as well.

The centennial of Rerum Novarum in 1991 occasioned publication of a new collection of the basic documents, including the last social encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, and the major pastorals of the United States bishops. In this new edition, published in 2010, we have added the latest social encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI, while also rectifying the unfortunate omission from the earlier edition of the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter on racism, "Brothers and Sisters to Us."

In selecting documents we have tried to present the central elements of church teaching as well as contemporary appropriation. We have confined ourselves in this text to papal, conciliar, and North American documents, as the Latin American and other global materials are available elsewhere.

The year 1991 marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pope Leo XIII' s great encyclical on social questions, Rerum Novarum. Leo's letter initially received only limited attention in the United States, as most educated Catholics, like other Americans, found little serious fault with the nation's economy. Later, during the progressive era of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, a few Catholic reformers, led by John A. Ryan, drew on the encyclical to encourage Catholic support for social reform. This effort reached its climax with the publication, in the name of the hierarchy, of the quite radical "Bishops' Program of Social Reconstruction" in 1919.

In the 1930s, when the great depression shook popular confidence in American capitalism, a significant number of priests, religious, and lay people found support for union organizing, social action, and New Deal politics in Catholic social teaching, now supplemented by Pope Pius )I's 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. Influenced by Ryan, the bishops championed the cause of reform while America's largely blue-collar Catholics became solid backers of unions, moderate social welfare programs, and measured government intervention in the marketplace, what came to be called "bread and butter" liberalism.

Nevertheless, the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius XI were too rigid in their theology, too rooted in preindustrial and to some degree antidemocratic ideologies to be directly useful to Americans, at least without the drastic shifts provided by interpreters like Ryan. With Pope Pius XII' s endorsement of democracy and human rights, and especially with publication of Pope John XXIII' s Mater et Magistra in 1961, that began to change. The teachings of Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI, and Pope John Paul II have much in common with those of the earlier popes, but they are informed by more flexible approaches to scripture and tradition and by a more positive assessment of the modern world. Leo XIII and Pius XI were filled with charity and passion for justice, but these qualities were smothered by triumphalist ecclesiology, antidemocratic political values, and a conservative, even negative understanding of natural law. The modern documents, in contrast, communicate a vision of the church as servant to humanity, a renewed concern for the human person and human rights, an increasing emphasis on popular participation, and a more open and humble acknowledgment of the historically conditioned character of human life and consciousness. The social teachings of the modern church also reflect the ideas and perspectives of the emerging Christian communities of the Third World. Still somewhat

European-centered, the documents are nonetheless far more universal in origin, spirit, scope, and impact than ever before.


Catholic social teaching, like everything else Christian, begins with the person and message of Jesus. Jesus offered no specific economic message, of course; instead, he proclaimed the advent of the kingdom of God and the redemption of people from sin. The toil and suffering that marked the lives of most people, especially the poor, was not the ultimate reality. There was another, superior reality of grace and redemption, joy and love. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus confirmed this message and thus offered new meaning, a new vision of history and of human possibility. That good news, carried haphazardly by a remnant of quarrelling people, gave form and substance to humanity's dreams in a considerable portion of the world.

Still, the turbulent life of Christ's followers over two millennia demonstrates that his legacy was at least ambiguous. For believers, the kingdom of God had indeed arrived, yet even the most committed experienced its new life only imperfectly. The kingdom was present and the Holy Spirit continued Christ's work, yet in some sense the kingdom was not yet here but beckoned from the future. Jesus had taught his followers to pray that God's kingdom would come on earth, yet he also taught that his kingdom was not of this world but somehow apart from it Today, as in the days following Christ's ascension to the Father, Christians live amid the mysteries of human life, knowing God as "through a glass darkly," trying to live by Christ's teachings completely, here and now, and at the same time trying to live as responsible workers and citizens. Then as now it is no simple matter.

The early Christian community expected the Lord to return quickly. As a result they practiced a heroic ethic of uncompromising love, which allowed no adjustment to the demands of worldly life. But as Christianity spread through the Mediterranean world, millennial enthusiasm waned. With more members, the church drew closer to the society around it but kept its zeal for equality and justice to itself. Christians cared for one another and for the Christian poor, practicing a charity whose purpose was not to heal social wrongs but to awaken and express a spirit of love. There was no perception that Christians could or should make a specific contribution to the larger society. Although hope for the early arrival of the kingdom had faded, its anticipation still separated Christians from the temptations and responsibilities of ordinary economic and political life.

By the time Christianity became the official religion of the empire, however, its new responsibilities had necessarily modified its earlier sectarianism. Primitive communism of property, for example, gave eloquent testimony to the equality of all believers, but such ideas could breed explosive social discontent. The subjection of property to religious authority and the denunciation

of the rich, as in St. Ambrose's charge "it is greed that has engendered the rights of property," had to be toned down once Christianity assumed responsibility for social order. Private property and coercive human authority, it was argued, were required by God as a consequence of sin. Indeed, it increasingly appeared that the social order that existed had been ordained by God, so that discontent could only arise from sinful pride and selfishness. An organic social theory, strengthened by emerging ideas of natural law, provided a firm foundation for the specification by the church of rules governing social and economic activity, rules adapted to a society and economy oriented toward the efficient distribution of scarce resources.

Medieval Catholic social thought reflected this shift from a community focused on its own expression of love to one which shared responsibility for the preservation of civilization. In the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, Christianity found a synthesis that could embrace both the radical demands of the primitive gospel and the pressing responsibilities of a religious establishment. Aquinas defined society as a system of mutual exchange of services for the common good. Society and government were part of nature, operating according to laws that reflected the universal structure of creation. Before the fall, harmony existed among persons, nature, and God; no laws or government were needed. After the fall, they were needed to into the community and restrain evil. This understanding of society fit into a two-story model of the universe; the first story the created world, now in a state of sin, the second the supernatural order, the goal and fulfillment of the natural world.

Eternal law existed in the mind of God from all eternity. Natural law was the apprehension of eternal law by human reason, in theory capable of knowing God's will and acting on it, but in practice flawed by sin. The state was both a punishment and a remedy for sin; it provided for the common good, most notably by the repression of evil. The church, of divine origin, possesses revealed truth and directs people and institutions to their final, supernatural end.

The church is therefore superior to the state; it interprets the demands of natural law and imposes sanctions on both institutions and individuals. Some, called by God to a special vocation, practice the heroic virtues demanded by the gospel, while church and state cooperate to enforce more moderate, realistic moral demands on society at large.

The person thus stands at the center of two intersecting lines, the natural and supernatural, united through the eternal and natural law and through the church and the state. On this basis Aquinas envisioned an organically unified universe in which there were transcendent norms to assist in understanding and evaluating human experience. There was in this universe a proper ordering of all things and harmony within and among the several orders. Individuals occupied particular roles or functions within a hierarchical society. They were bound to one another and to social institutions by duties inherent in their state of life. What held society together and gave it ethical discipline and coherence was a theory of social obligation that sprang from the very nature of

society and was related to a hierarchical universe presided over by God. Social obligations thus took priority over individual desires and wants.

After 1100 the economy of Western Europe entered upon a period of significant expansion, and the tension between the gospel ethic and social responsibility reappeared with renewed force. The money economy, the growing importance of trade, and vigorous competition all challenged the harmonious organic theories of the earlier era. Gradually, as conflicts sharpened, radical alternatives appeared. Exponents of primitive gospel simplicity, like Francis of Assisi, denounced the materialism of the towns and the arrogance of their merchant leaders, while religious apologists for the new classes bent gospel injunctions and ecclesiastical prescriptions in order to justify new economic activities. The later Middle Ages were thus a time of ferment occasioned by the growing chasm. between Christianity and economic practice. Unfortunately the church was deeply involved in the economic developments of the era; it was an economic institution of prime importance, encouraging trade, acquiring enormous debts, engaging itself in trade, investment, and profit. Its theologians and religious leaders struggled to reconcile this vigorous economic activity with the teachings of Jesus, sometimes in creative ethical formulations, at other times in expedient compromise.

In this setting the Reformation churches arose, finding their strength in the major centers of economic modernization. It was natural for later observers to associate Protestantism with the supposedly new spirit of capitalism. Yet Protestantism's social ethic represented the reawakening of older tensions within the Christian tradition. For example, Protestantism, and especially Calvinism, rejected completely the otherworldly asceticism of Catholic religious communities. No one was to live as a hermit or monk, but everyone was to live a life of disciplined self-control and mystical piety. Theirs was a worldly asceticism, carried into the marketplace, where one was to do one's duty to God, to family, and to community, always with the inner life oriented completely toward God.

Similarly, the reformers creatively recovered and revised ancient Christian ideas of vocation, or calling, and stewardship, and they did so within an understanding of Christian society that still supposed an integration of religion and culture, church and state. Perhaps most important, one of the major consequences of the breakup of the medieval unity of civilization was the perception that individuals stood in an adversary relationship to the larger society, a perception which, together with the opportunity for choice presented by contending religious factions, fostered a deeper sense of individual autonomy and personal worth. As a result of this new perception of the individual's place in society, a new theory of the proper relationship between the individual and society was needed.

This was provided over several centuries by the elaboration of contract theories of society, the most famous associated with Hobbes and Locke. While presenting diametrically opposed pictures of human nature, both theories emphasized individual rights as claims against society, and both looked at the individual as the bearer of certain rights that society should not contravene.

This articulation of a theory of rights created a major change in social ethics. On the one hand, there was continuity with the medieval tradition in that contract theories were related to natural law understood as articulations of the demands of a permanent and universal moral order. On the other hand, there was discontinuity with medieval philosophy in that this theory of natural law based itself on inalienable rights inherent in each individual, with social and political obligations arising not from nature but from voluntary consent, even if exercised only in a mythic past. The implication of this was that forms of social organization were mutable and arbitrary, not dictated by the content of natural law. The value of the individual person was enhanced, because the individual, not society, became the locus of natural law.

In medieval formulations obligation was associated with one's state in life. In the contract framework, obligations resulted from positive law agreed upon by individuals. This gave rise to a situation in which there could be continual and inherent conflict between individuals and society. Such conflicts in fact appeared, first in churches, later in society, climaxing in the modern revolutions. For Catholics whose social thought and imagination remained grounded in premodern assumptions about individuals and institutions, the experience was one of rebellion against all authority, human and divine. Again and again the Catholic church faced a choice of adapting to new ideas of individual autonomy and popular participation, and almost always it chose to assert the need for order and hierarchy backed by a divinely constituted authority capable of announcing and enforcing the demands of nature and nature's God. This tension between modernity—in religion, culture, and politics—and the Catholic church provides the basic context for the emergence of Catholic social thought a century ago.


Introductory statements appended to the documents in this text describe how Leo XIII, faced with new challenges posed by industrial capitalism, drew on this heritage and initiated modern Catholic social teaching. As this historical review indicates, no element of the contemporary church's social teaching can be fully understood apart from the fuller body of teaching and belief on which it draws, a teaching that from the start has been torn between sectarian idealism and responsible moderation. To take but one example: Advocates of one or another of the modern church's positions on peace and human rights are often concerned primarily with the prophetic integrity of the church's witness and miss the broader "Catholic" dimensions of the teaching, its century-long effort to

unify the church and enable it to exert a significant influence upon society as a whole. Critics who charge that church teaching on specific issues is too idealistic, in contrast, often miss the need for the church to preserve its prophetic integrity, to take the risk of separation from other communities in order to be faithful to its mandate to be the very presence of Christ in the midst of history.

Yet it is precisely the effort to be both prophetic and responsible that distinguishes Catholic social teaching and makes it so significant in the modern world. The church as a whole is trying to be both idealistic and realistic because that is what it is called to be, and it is what all persons must try to be if humanity is to overcome its apparently insurmountable problems. To put it most simply, if men and women do not believe that it is possible to live in justice and peace, they will slip ever deeper into a fatalism that only confirms the drift of events toward greater tragedy. If, on the other hand, they only dream of justice and peace and avoid the hard and ambiguous choices that people, nations, and the human community confront, they will just as surely contribute to the triumph of historical forces beyond human control.

Too often in recent years idealists and realists within the church have spent their energies combatting each other rather than confronting the problems both recognize. Familiarity with the social teaching of the church since 1891 might enable them to recognize the unity of that teaching in its foundations in Christian faith as well as the legitimate diversity it allows. Most of all, it might enable them to see that both sides need each other, that the prophet and the politician both are necessary to the full witness of the church.

The tension between the gospel and social analysis thus remains at the heart of Catholic social teaching. Even the simplest reflection on the beatitudes forces two conclusions: 1) that Christians are called to an ethic of perfection by the revelation in Christ of a God who is love; and 2) that the church and its members must respond to that vocation in the midst of a history in which real, complex human beings live. It is not a simple matter to be both a good Christian and a good citizen, any more than it is simple to be the church and to share responsibility for the problems of a pluralistic society. The documents collected in this volume reflect this ever present tension and pervasive ambiguity. So it is simply wrong to abstract any one statement or issue from the context of the overall teaching, for it is precisely that larger framework of integrity and responsibility which is the unique contribution of Catholic social teaching. If this is true, then certain conclusions follow:

1) The contemporary documents need to be examined in light of the continuing historical effort to relate Christian faith to the problems of modern society, that is, to Catholic theology broadly understood.

2) The documents need to be examined as well in the context of the overall life of the contemporary church; these teachings are one, but only one, important expression of Catholic faith and life. They can be understood and evaluated only in relation to other expressions of Catholicism, from the spiritual lives of individuals through the worship and fellowship of congregations to the ongoing development of Catholic theology.

3) The documents are best read and evaluated from the viewpoint of the laity. More than other formal documents of the church, these are located at the intersection of the church and the world, the sacred and the secular. Of their very nature they deal with the problems of living the Christian life in the midst

of ordinary human relationships. Individuals who devote their lives to the organizations of the church, of course, have something to contribute to the implementation of these teachings. But as the Second Vatican Council affirmed, social, political and economic problems are the special concern of the laity. They are uniquely qualified to describe what in fact is going on and to evaluate what should be done. In the past there has been too little effort to consult the laity in the development of these teachings, too little effort to ask lay people what they think before telling them what to do. Given the situation of the church in the modern world, and given the experience of all local churches since the Second Vatican Council, it is clear that this will no longer be acceptable, if it ever was. It is the laity who must reshape the course of history. It is they who must act and, if they are to act, they will have to be more fully enlisted in the process that determines what that action should be. Of course there are elements of faith which for Catholics evoke the unique charisma of the hierarchy; but it is not hard to determine in these documents where such matters of doctrine end and more complex matters of applied theology, including morality, begin. At that point the laity have the right, and indeed the obligation, to speak up and to act.

One final thought: Pope Paul VI argued that papal and conciliar social teaching, addressed to the universal church, was necessarily general and somewhat abstract. It remained for the local churches of the world to examine the situations of their own countries and regions, reflect on that situation in light of the gospel and the teaching of the church, and develop their own conclusions and directions for action. It is from such a process that liberation theologies have emerged, first in Latin America and now in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. The United States pastoral letters represent an expression of that process as well. The bishops, in preparing those letters, did their best to inform themselves about the concrete problems present in the United States, to reflect on those problems in light of faith and previous teachings, and to suggest conclusions to guide the American church and to contribute to the larger public dialogue in the United States.

Students of these documents have the same obligation. Those who make these teachings their own must not only be familiar with the theological foundations of the teaching but also with the concrete realities to which they refer. The Christian, in other words, must not only be an informed Christian, familiar with church teaching, but also an informed citizen, familiar with his or her community, nation, and world. John A. Ryan, one of the greatest American Catholic social thinkers, once expressed his confidence that most priests would agree with the principles of the church's social teaching; what worried him was that too many would be unfamiliar with what was going on in political and economic life, that they would not know what they were talking about. Ryan's is a warning to all of us that sincere faith and familiarity with what popes and bishops say must always be combined with an alertness to what is going on around us and a willingness to inform ourselves about public life.

In the end, these documents are valuable to the degree they are taken seriously enough to engage the reader in dialogue about social and political responsibility. When that dialogue results in authentic commitment to building a more just and peaceful world, then the church has been the presence of Christ as it wants to be. May readers bring to these texts open minds, compassionate hearts, and critical skills.


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