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Catholic Social Teaching: The Starter Five-Pack

Rupert Affen
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It’s not beach reading, but getting through these staples will give you a great grounding.

If you haven’t noticed, the term “Catholic Social Teaching”—or simply CST—is in common usage these days. Scholars and pundits representing all points on the ideological spectrum have laid claim to CST in recent years, but few ordinary Catholics are familiar with the primary source documents that comprise this extraordinary body of teaching. That’s a pity because none of them are overly technical or dense; on the contrary, they are all easy to read, applicable to the real world, and chock full of common sense.

Since CST represents a development of certain themes over time, it’s better to start at the beginning and work forward. Here’s a useful five-pack for kicking off your exploration of CST, with recommendations at the end for rounding out this self-study project.

Rerum Novarum (“Of New Realities”), Encyclical Letter of Pope Leo XIII, 1891. The release of Rerum Novarum marked the beginning of modern social teaching. It was the first serious attempt by the Church to answer the twin challenges of capitalism and socialism, clearly identifying ways in which the Christian humanism of the Church could blunt the excesses of each. In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo affirmed both the natural right to private property, as well as the dignity of labor and the right of workers to organize. He acknowledged as a natural fact the unequal distribution of talent in society, but insisted on the equal worth of persons. And he recognized the role of government in safeguarding the common good—which he linked to the condition of the poor—while prescribing limits on government power. Last, he asserted the Church’s right to teach on political and economic matters. In many ways, all Catholic Social Teaching since 1891 has been a commentary on Rerum Novarum.

Quadragesimo Anno (“After Forty Years”), Encyclical Letter of Pope Pius XI, 1931. The title refers to the anniversary of the publication of Rerum Novarum. In this letter, Pope Pius returned to many of the themes raised earlier by Pope Leo, but sharpened his focus in ways that both pleased and annoyed socialists and capitalists alike. He inveighed against a collectivism that would destroy the individual nature of property rights and undermine the dignity of the person, but also asserted that the right to private property is not absolute, and decried the manner in which concentrations of wealth crush free markets and make a “slave” of the state. He called for just wages that would enable workers to become owners, and described what we now call the principle of subsidiarity. In Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius’s condemnation of socialism—not social democracy—was categorical, but his practical criticism of capitalist exploitation was equally harsh.

Mater et Magistra (“Mother and Teacher”), Encyclical Letter of Pope St. John XXIII, 1961. Written in observance of the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Mater et Magistra extended CST to the task of international development at a time of widespread decolonization following the Second World War. New states were appearing across the globe, many of them struggling from the legacy of colonialism: economic exploitation, weak or nonexistent civil society, a lack of experience in democratic forms of government, and so on. Pope St. John restated the by-now consistent themes and principles of CST, but applied them from a global perspective. He advocated a just international economy based on cooperation, development and human rights. He specifically noted the responsibility of wealthy nations to provide monetary and other assistance to nations struggling with widespread poverty. Perhaps as important, he disabused his readers of the notion that CST was a merely optional expression of the Faith: “We must reaffirm most strongly,” he wrote, “that this Catholic social doctrine is an integral part of the Christian conception of life” (#222).

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