On May 15, three popes made major contributions to the development of Catholic social teaching: Pope Leo XIII with his landmark encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (1891), Pius XI with Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and John XXIII with Mater et Magistra (1961). The last two encyclicals honored the first on its 40th and 70th anniversaries, respectively.
So what did Leo XIII say that was so worth commemorating?
wrote in Rerum Novarum. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the world faced issues it hadn't faced before. Even the name of the encyclical translates "new things."
As some called for outright socialism while others insisted on an unrestrained laissez faire economy, Leo XIII applied the moral voice of the papacy and the timeless teachings of the Church to this upheaval. In doing so, he launched the modern era of Catholic social teaching, the hallmarks of which include:
- The right of workers, which include fair wages, time off for religious and family life, safe working conditions and the ability to organize.
- The duties of workers to perform their duties and refrain from vandalism and violence.
- The rights and duties of property ownership.
- The preferential option for the poor.
- The common good.
In Quadragesimo Anno (literally "Forty Years"), Pius XI reaffirmed the earlier teaching on just wages, unions and the role of government (paragraph 71). He critiqued both unbridled capitalism and communism (paragraph 46). He also introduced the principle of subsidiarity (paragraph 79), which states that decisions affecting the common good of a society be made at the lowest possible but highest necessary level of authority. This means delegating to the grassroots level in some situations and action by national and international bodies in others.
As a result, in Mater et Magistra (literally "Mother and Teacher"), Pope John took the global view: "The solidarity which binds all people together as members of a common family makes it impossible for wealthy nations to look with indifference upon the hunger, misery and poverty of other nations whose citizens are unable to enjoy even elementary human rights. The nations of the world are becoming more and more dependent on one another and it will not be possible to preserve a lasting peace so long as glaring economic and social imbalances persist."
Down to Present Day
The development of the Church's social doctrine continued with John's Pacem in Terris (1963), issued 50 years ago in April. Subsequent popes have also carried it on in encyclicals including Paul VI's Populorum Progressio (1967) and John Paul II's Laborem Exercens and Centesimus Annus (for the 90th and 100th anniversaries of Rerum Novarum, in 1981 and 1991, respectively). More recently, Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate (2009) responded to the financial crisis of 2008.
Pope Francis has already entered the narrative too, albeit in a considerably shorter length than an encyclical, a tweet on May 2 that read, "My thoughts turn to all who are unemployed, often as a result of a self-centered mindset bent on profit at any cost." However, with a name choice guided by a concern for the poor, peace and the environment, it would seem only a matter of time before he says more.
UPDATE: May 16
Well, that didn't take long.
Just this morning, Pope Francis addressed the world financial and economic crisis, telling an audience of diplomats that the source of these problems "is in our relationship with money and our acceptance of its power over ourselves and our society."