by Bishop Gilbert I. Sheldon
Without a doubt, our present Holy Father is the most prolific writer of the modern era. From his pen have come a stream of apostolic letters, encyclicals, messages, and statements on a wide range of subjects from matters of Catholic doctrine to current world events. We would expect them to include among them some statements on social doctrine, following the example of his immediate predecessors. We are not disappointed. As of this writing, Pope John Paul II has given us no less than three such encyclicals: Laborem Exercens (On Human Work, 1981), Solicitudo Rei Socialis (On the Social Concerns of the Church, 1988), and Centesimus Annus (On the Centenary of Rerum Novarum, 1991).
The Emergence of Catholic Social Doctrine
Catholic social doctrine grew up with the industrial revolution and the problems that it generated. The beginnings of that revolution date back to the invention of the steam engine, usually attributed to James Watt in the 18th century. Actually, others preceded him, but his was the first practical success in harnessing steam power to replace that of human or animal muscle. Within 200 years would follow electrical power, fossil-fuel power, and nuclear power.
Progress did not come without a price. Clarence Darrow, the famous criminal lawyer, once remarked that mankind has learned to fly like a bird but has fouled the air with gasoline fumes as a consequence. The problems that were generated by industrialization did not end with pollution, however. There were worse ones for the human race.
The most practical use of steam-powered machinery came in large urban-based factories. That created a three-tiered class system: the capitalist entrepreneur, the managerial people who had the know-how, and the workers or “proletariat” who tended the machines. Mass production produced mass wealth, but that wealth was not evenly distributed. The rich became richer and the poor became poorer.
Into this scene stepped a number of social theorists who offered plans to fix the system, including Karl Marx and his theory of class warfare between capitalist and labor. Pope Leo XIII also weighed in with his encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Classes, 1891). He would be followed by successors over the course of 100 years, many of which contributed to a growing body of what came to be called Catholic social doctrine. Pius XI wrote Quadragesimo Anno (On Reconstructing the Social Order, 1931) during the Great Depression. John XXIII offered two encyclicals, Mater et Magistra (Christianity and Social Progress, 1961) and Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth, 1963). These documents called attention, among other things, to the fact that social problems, following World War II, now existed on a worldwide scale. A new class system had come into being between the developed or “rich nations,” and the developing or “poor nations.” Next, Pope Paul VI wrote Populorum Progressio (On the Development of Peoples, 1967), which included a number of classic statements, such as “Development is the new name for peace!” The Wall Street Journal would call it “warmed-over Marxism,” but it was applauded by
the liberal New York Times. He would mark the anniversary of Rerum Novarum in Octogesimsa Adveniens (On the Coming Eightieth Anniversary, 1971), in which he would treat new social problems, such as racism, migration, the environment, and the role of women.
Pope John Paul II Weighs In
After writing two of what would be a trilogy of encyclicals on the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, Pope John Paul II turned to the social questions. He came to the papacy during the height of the Cold War, 1978. He knew the Communist system from the inside out, having lived in Communist Poland following the defeat of Germany in World War II. In Laborem Exercens (1981) he transcended the debate on social systems, which his predecessors addressed, and came to grips directly with the real “gut issue”: the dignity of the human person.
In the encyclical the Pope displays an ongoing theme in his writing, that of human anthropology: his view of what man is, what makes man tick, what man is about. He draws heavily from Sacred Scripture, particularly the account of the creation of mankind in Genesis. He shows how work-human activity-is part of the nature of mankind, and part of that which reflects his being made “in the image and likeness of God,” whose nature is also to act, to “work,” as it were. Human labor, then, has a value and dignity that is independent of its commercial value. It is not merely a commodity to be sold, traded, or bargained with. Economic systems, whether capitalist or socialist, must take this into account. Their shortcomings are rooted in their failure to do so, and social problems and unrest are the result. Such is the case when capitalism looks to human labor as a mere commodity. Such is the case with Communism, which looks to human labor as a means toward its goal of world revolution. Both see human labor as a means to an end, rather than what it truly is, an end in itself. Man must always take priority over things, human labor over capital!
The Pope reiterates the right of private ownership of property, but sees that right not as an end in itself, but as a necessary consequence of the dignity of human labor which, in a sense, imparts something of one’s own personality to the product. There nevertheless exists a prior right of all mankind to the goods of the earth. The real reason for private ownership is to promote and enhance man’s creative activity. When it comes to the means of production-the point at issue between the capitalist and the socialist schools of thought-the important thing is not who owns them, but whether they are at the disposal
of and subordinated to man’s nature as a working being.
Since work is of man’s nature, it is his obligation and therefore also his right. The Pope exhorts employers to see that their providing of employment is as important as turning a profit. Obviously, this is an ideal based on his “Christian anthropology.” We have a long way to go before it is universally accepted. It is part and parcel of the conversion of the world that is the Church’s mission. The Pope speaks similarly in describing the relationship of other groups, “indirect employers,” such as the state to workers. Likewise, the relationship of workers to employers would be just as benevolent in an ideal world where Christians really lived up to their calling!
The right of workers to organize is one of the oldest principles of Catholic social doctrine. John Paul was particularly interested in it in connection with the “solidarity” movement in his native Poland. His encouragement of the movement and its eventual success played a large part in the downfall of the Soviet system.
Development Across the Board
In Solicitudo Rei Socialis Pope John Paul II marked the 20th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio. He noted the central theme of that encyclical as the unequal industrial development between the rich and the poor nations of the world and the need to bring the poor nations up to a point where they can compete on reasonable terms with their developed neighbors in a growing, worldwide economy. One can distinguish the rich and the poor nations of the world by simply drawing a line around the globe at the 30th parallel, north latitude. The nations above the line are the developed nations, those below (with the exception of Australia and New Zealand) are the poor nations.
The Pope points to economic exploitations as a primary cause of this disparity. His solution is true development across the board, both material development in the poor nations, as well as spiritual development in the affluent countries (such as the United States, of course).
The background for Centesimus Annus was the centenary of Rerum Novarum and the collapse of the Soviet Union (which, by the way, was predicted in Rerum Novarum!). That collapse was due to the atheistic materialism inherent in the Marxist system. However, western capitalism often reveals itself as no less materialistic. “Consumerism” is the form that western materialism takes. It emphasizes having over being, and gratification of the senses as a prime value. It leads to a plundering of the world’s resources without thought to ecological damage or the needs of the future. It rates the production and perfection
of material goods above the spiritual perfection of the person. It also leads to a two-class system between haves and have-nots within a nation, fomenting either the welfare state or revolution.
What we have here are only a few highlights of Pope John Paul II’s social doctrine. The reader is urged to study these documents-and all of the many documents of our Holy Father-at much greater length!
Most Reverend Gilbert I. Sheldon is the Bishop of Steubenville, Ohio. To obtain copies of the papal documents cited in this article, call Benedictus Books toll-free at (888) 316-2640. CUF members receive a 10% discount.