It is one of those things you hear all the time that the Catholic Church is socialist and espouses a socialistic philosophy. Just the phrase “social justice” is interpreted as liberal code for socialism. Glen Beck rants that anyone who hears the words social justice in their church should turn and run in the opposite direction and leave their church. I have heard it so much that I just assumed it was true, that is until I decided to find out for myself.
First, for those of you who are uninitiated to the Catholic Church you need to understand a little about how it works, or should I say how do you know what it stands for. Yes there are liberal and conservative wings of the Catholic Church, but you must understand that all that matters is what Rome says, i.e. the Pope. What is unique about the Catholic Church is that it gives final authority on all matters to the Pope, the successor of Peter. The Magisterium is the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church and it consists of the priests, bishops and cardinals with the final say so by the Pope (i.e. the Bishop of Rome). It is the primary difference between the Catholic Church and all Protestant religions that believe all truth is revealed in the Holy Scripture. The question has always been, who has final authority on a particular interpretation of Scripture. By virtue of the 30 plus thousand different Protestant denominations, it is clear that they all don’t agree. Since the first century, Christians have always referred all questions to Rome for final adjudication since Rome is where Peter, the head Apostle evangelized and was martyred. The Popes have always been the final living authority on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Thus, regardless of what any liberal Catholic theologian might propose, he has no authority. Catholics have always looked to Rome for final guidance on all matters involving the Church.
So where else to look for what the Catholic Church teaches on social justice but to Rome and the Popes? Papal encyclicals are one of the primary ways a Pope addresses other Catholics on particular matters of instruction. Encyclicals or letters have been an important way the Church has used to clarify teachings since, most notably, the letters of Peter and Paul to various churches in the first century.
The first major Papal Encyclical to address modern social doctrine was Pope Leo XIII – Rerum Novarum – Rights and Duties on Capital and Labor. In Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII addresses how Catholic Christians should use their Christian faith to guide their social dealings. After reading it, I found it not only to be a most Christocentric guide on social transactions but also a defense of free market capitalism. Leo XIII not only addresses the abuses of capitalism in 1891 but also repudiates the remedy of government socialism as utterly inconsistent with Catholic doctrine and natural law stating that socialist remedies are “emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community”. (Excerpts from Rerum Novarum)
5. It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases. Thus, if he lives sparingly, saves money, and, for greater security, invests his savings in land, the land, in such case, is only his wages under another form; and, consequently, a working man’s little estate thus purchased should be as completely at his full disposal as are the wages he receives for his labor. But it is precisely in such power of disposal that ownership obtains, whether the property consist of land or chattels. Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.
6. What is of far greater moment, however, is the fact that the remedy they propose is manifestly against justice. For, every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.
13. That right to property, therefore, which has been proved to belong naturally to individual persons, must in like wise belong to a man in his capacity of head of a family; nay, that right is all the stronger in proportion as the human person receives a wider extension in the family group. It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, it is natural that he should wish that his children, who carry on, so to speak, and continue his personality, should be by him provided with all that is needful to enable them to keep themselves decently from want and misery amid the uncertainties of this mortal life. Now, in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance. A family, no less than a State, is, as We have said, a true society, governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is to say, by the authority of the father. Provided, therefore, the limits which are prescribed by the very purposes for which it exists be not transgressed, the family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of the things needful to its preservation and its just liberty. We say, “at least equal rights”; for, inasmuch as the domestic household is antecedent, as well in idea as in fact, to the gathering of men into a community, the family must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the community, and founded more immediately in nature. If the citizens, if the families on entering into association and fellowship, were to experience hindrance in a commonwealth instead of help, and were to find their rights attacked instead of being upheld, society would rightly be an object of detestation rather than of desire.
14. The contention, then, that the civil government should at its option intrude into and exercise intimate control over the family and the household is a great and pernicious error.
45. Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.
Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum in response to the events of the Industrial Revolution and the conflicts brewing between industry and labor. Leo XIII goes on to warn employers that “his great and principal duty is to give every one what is just.” He reminds us of the warnings of Jesus “that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles”. He clearly points out the responsibilities we have to our neighbors but it is always on an individual and personal level, and not to be controlled by governments. A fundamental principle of Catholic teaching is the idea of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that states matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decision should be taken at a local level (sounds like conservative republicanism) and in matters of social doctrine, by the family unit.
Another major encyclical on social justice, Quadragesimo Anno, was written by Pope Pius XI in the 1930s in response to the grave economic crisis of 1929. In it he rejects liberalism, reconfirms the value of private property and rejected the totalitarian fascist regimes in Italy and Germany
Since Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Church has spoken many times on social justice, so much so that in 2004 the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published a 300 page document titled the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church which exhaustively reviews all Catholic teachings on social justice in all spheres, not just economic. It confirms the principles of Rerum Novarum as the basis for Catholic social doctrine. You can read the entire document from the link given, however let me try to briefly summarize the main points.
- Rerum Novarum is “a lasting paradigm” for the Church’s social doctrine.
- Rerum Novarum “excludes socialism as a remedy” to social ills.
- Private property is an unalienable right.
- The fruits of ones labor are to be the sole property of the individual. No one has a right to take your property.
- Wage negotiations should be free agreements between the workingman and the employer.
- Employers owe their workers a just wage sufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage earner.
- Workers owe your employer a fair and honest days work.
- “The free market is an institution of social importance because of its capacity to guarantee effective results in the production of goods and services.”
- “Freedom is the highest sign in man of his being made in the divine image and, consequently, is a sign of the sublime dignity of every human person.”
- No Christian, in light of the fact that he belongs to a united and fraternal community, should feel that he has the right not to work and to live at the expense of others (cf. 2 Thes 3:6-12). Rather, all are charged by the Apostle Paul to make it a point of honour to work with their own hands, so as to “be dependent on nobody” (1 Thes 4:12).
In conclusion, it is yet another one of the big lies that the Catholic Church promotes socialism. In fact it is the exact opposite. Our last two Pontiffs, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, know first hand the consequences of socialism, communism and fascism. John Paul II suffered first under Nazis fascism and then Soviet communism in Poland and was instrumental in liberating Poland from Soviet Communism and in the fall of the Soviet empire. Benedict XVI grew up in Nazis Germany and risked his life in resistance to the Nazis regime. The Catholic Church promotes personal Christocentric love and respect of your neighbor in all affairs and social dealings under the principle of subsidiarity and has strongly opposed all Government efforts at socialism as an unacceptable remedy for social ills.