As a result of its defense of the old order, nineteenth century Catholic social thought was isolated from intellectual currents and social movements. Seeking to overcome this isolation, Pope Leo XIII, in a series of encyclicals at the end of the century, affirmed the complementarity of reason and revelation. He criticized liberal capitalism, for its releasing of the individual from moral constraints; and socialism, for its lack of respect for human rights and disregard for the welfare of religion. In his critique of capitalism, he maintained that wages should be determined not by market forces alone but also by the needs of the worker; and that the right of property should be subjected to moral restraints. Continuing with these themes, Pope Pius XI in 1931 denounced both liberal capitalism and atheistic communism and called for a middle way, a Christian social order (O’Brian and Shannon 1977:33-37).
The social teachings of Leo XIII and Pius XI were rigid in theology, and they assumed that the Church possessed the answers to the problems of the age. As a result, they could not generate a wide following. The later encyclicals of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, however, were written with a more humble tone, based on a vision of the Church as a servant of humanity. Moreover, they engaged the issues that confronted the colonized peoples, affirming the rights of the nations of the Third World to self-determination and to control over their natural resources. John XXIII, in the 1960 encyclical “Christianity and Social Progress,” affirmed public ownership in response to the demands of the common good, and the right of nations to nationalize. He condemned the economic dependency of neocolonialism, and he called for a just distribution of wealth. In the 1967 encyclical “On the Development of Peoples,” Paul VI maintained that private property is not an unconditioned right, and that the common good sometimes demands the expropriation of land. Following up on the progressive themes of the papal encyclicals, the Synod of Bishops in 1971 issued “Justice in the World.” It suggests that European colonialism is the cause of Third World underdevelopment, and it maintains that action on behalf of social justice is an integral and necessary component of the Christian life (O’Brian and Shannon 1977).
On the other hand, the encyclicals of John XXIII and Paul VI sometimes reflect a European point of view (see, for example, O’Brian and Shannon 1977:91, 182-83). And Paul specifically rejects Marxism, for its atheism, historical materialism, and emphasis on class struggle, including justification of violent forms of struggle (O’Brian and Shannon 1977:366-70).
The 2015 encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, represents a further evolution in Catholic social thought. It does not have the ethnocentric and anti-Marxist formulations that mar the encyclicals of John XXIII and Paul VI. Focusing on the need to care for the natural environment, it sees ecological issues as integrally tied to economic, political and cultural global issues, in accordance with the most progressive tendencies today.
Laudato Si’ laments that “economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority tends to be given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain.” In contrast to this systemic defense of profit, the Pope maintain that moral constraints must be placed on the right of private property, if the environment is to be protected.
Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone. . . . Hence every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and the underprivileged. The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and “the first principle of the whole ethical and social order” [citing John Paul II]. The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property. Saint John Paul II forcefully reaffirmed this teaching, stating that “God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone.” These are strong words. He noted that “a type of development which did not respect and promote human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples – would not be really worthy of man.”
Alongside the technocratic paradigm, there is a “culture of relativism.” The validity of “objective truths” and “sound principles” is denied, except for the principle of “the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs.” This leads us to place no limits on human behavior and to allow “the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy,” disregarding their impact on society and nature. Francis calls for a perspective that is rooted in the fundamental principle of the common good, which calls us to solidarity and to a preferential option for the poor that demands “an appreciation of the immense dignity of the poor.”
The Pope advocates an integral approach to ecology that takes into account economy, society, and culture. “What is needed is a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis.”
Pope Francis affirms a positive possibility for humanity, rooted in human dignity.
Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours.
Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’, of the Holy Father Francis, “On Care for our Common Home.”
O’Brian, David and Thomas A. Shannon, Eds. 1977. Renewing the Earth: Catholic Documents on Peace, Justice and Liberation. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Image Books.
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