Papal Encyclicals on Social Catholicism

Rerum Novarum, often referred to as the Magna Carta of Social Catholicism, was only the first of many encyclicals to be published throughout the twentieth century that continued to articulate specifics of Roman Catholic social teaching. On May 15, 1931, forty years to the date after the publication of Rerum Novarum, Pope Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno (“On the Reconstruction of the Social Order”). In the document the pope reinforced the teachings of Leo XIII but then moved forward giving additional specifics on the role of the state in its relations with workers and employers. This is the first papal document to use the term “social justice” to describe the need for the common good, that is, the good of each person.

As an example of the teaching of these social encyclicals, Quadragesimo Anno suggests wage levels should be set with public economic welfare in mind. Paragraph 74 reads in part, “To lower or raise wages unduly, with a view to private profit, and with no consideration for the common good, is contrary to social justice.”

The combination of the Second Vatican Council, the ongoing Cold War, and the general greater awareness of people across the globe to social problems led in the 1960s to the generation of a series of papal documents that have become mainstays in the Social Catholicism literature. In 1961, Pope John XXIII published Mater et Magistra (“Christianity and Social Progress”), an encyclical letter issued in response to perceived imbalances between rich and poor in the world. The document placed heavy emphasis on human solidarity, especially between economically advanced and economically depressed nations. The church accepted its responsibility to do its share to aid needy people and nations. One year later Pope John issued the encyclical Pacem en Terris, which contends that peace can only be attained by observing the social order set down by God. Peace can be found when justice, truth, and charity are put into practice. Written in the wake of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the document made a major impact beyond the Catholic world. In 1967, Pope Paul VI wrote Populorum Progressio (“The Development of Peoples”), which speaks to the challenges of human development and explores the nature of poverty in the conflicts it produces. The pope spoke of the church's role in development, sketching a Christian vision of a more equitable world. He directly associates proper development with overtures toward peace.

The pontificate of Pope John Paul II included a series of encyclicals and other documents that addressed numerous issues pertinent to Social Catholicism. In 1981 he issued Laborem Exercens on the ninetieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. The document emphasizes the dignity of human labor in four points: (1) It suggests that work must be subordinated to humanity. (2) It professes that the worker is more important than any instruments or environment that constitute the world of labor. (3) It recognizes the right of humans to determine socioeconomic, technological, and productive processes. (4) The document articulates certain elements that will assist people to identify with Christ through their labor.

In 1987, on the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio, the pope issued Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. John Paul sought to advance the concept of development by application of the relationship between nations and major regions of the world. The document suggests that if the accumulation of wealth is gained at the expense of the development of the masses and without due consideration for the social, cultural, and spiritual dimensions of humanity, then such gain is sordid. In 1991 he issued Centissimus Annus (“One Hundredth Anniversary”) that reinforced the ideas initially proclaimed in Rerum Novarum, on its centenary, and plowed new ground concerning significant social issues of the late twentieth century. Foremost among these new teachings was the promotion of families and social policies that have the family as their principal object.

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