In my search to understand the Bible’s perspective on work and business integrated with faith, I had the opportunity to delve into some of the Papal Encyclicals. They are documents or opinions issued by the Pope that addressed a variety of theological, social, cultural, and economic issues. A number of them were issued starting in 1891 pertaining to the general realms of social justice and economic issues. My experience with Papal Encyclicals had prepared me for their limited interaction with the Bible, but I was still impressed by how topics were approached and the focus on man over money. Over the next month or so, I am going to present some of my thoughts on some of the major social encyclicals themselves and themes that run through them. This list covers most of the social encyclicals, but by no means addresses all of the encyclicals issued during the time frame.
Rerum novarum (On the Condition of Workers) was issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 and is considered the first of the papal social encyclicals. It became the foundation of modern Catholic Social Teaching. The conflict between capital and labor from the Industrial Revolution led to more intervention by the state. Pope Leo XIII responded to the issues of worker’s rights, urbanization, and industrialization, in what came to be known as the ‘social question’—the relationship between capital and labor. At the heart of his answer was the dignity of man and out of this came “a spirited defence of private property; an emphasis on personal initiative and enterprise; and a condemnation of socialism as unjust, contrary to nature, and doomed to practical futility.” (1)
Rerum novarum was followed up on its 40th anniversary by Pope Pius XI’s Quadragesimo anno (Reconstruction of the Social Order). It touched on many of the same issue as the previous encyclical, but Pope Pius XI addressed three major areas: the impact of Rerum novarum on the church and other institutions; he clarified and developed a doctrine pointing to a positive role for the church in economic and social affairs as well as reaffirming private property; and he addressed the abuses of capitalism and socialism. (2)
Mater et magistra (On Christianity and Social Progress) was issued by Pope John XXIII on May 15, 1961. Its stated purpose was not “merely to commemorate in a fitting manner the Leonine encyclical, but also to confirm and make more specific the teaching of Our predecessors, and to determine clearly the mind of the Church on the new and important problems of the day.”(3) He revisited the issues of personal initiative, the ramifications of social progress, the freedom and development of man, just wage, the participation of workers in ownership and the economy, the common good, and of the right and extension of private ownership of goods to all classes of citizens. He also spent much of the encyclical addressing the issues related to justice in agriculture and globalization.
Pacem in terris (Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty) was issued two years after Mater et magistra, by Pope John XXIII. It addressed the issues of the common good, subsidiarity, justice, solidarity, the dignity of man, globalization, just wages, natural law, private property, unions, and work. He set out rights and duties based on reason and the Natural Law tradition, with a focus on the relationship of individuals and the public authorities and of the relationship between states.
Gaudium et spes (The Church in the Modern World) is one of sixteen documents that came out of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. It was a “Pastoral Constitution” concerned with the “sign of the times”—the technological and social change that characterized the world as well as the church’s duties therein. It continued on the main themes of previous encyclicals, but there seemed to be a much stronger call on being part of the community and taking care of the poor. It also addressed the political community, peace and war, and globalization. “Gaudium et spes presents in a systematic manner the themes of culture, of economic and social life, of marriage and the family, of the political community, of peace and the community of peoples, in the light of a Christian anthropological outlook and of the church’s mission.” (3)
Written in 1967 by Pope Paul VI, Populorum progressio (The Development of Peoples) ran in a similar vein as its predecessors, but it also noted how the ‘social question’ had become very much an international question. (4) The absolute right of private property was questioned (5) and it sought a more full-bodied humanism. (6)
Also issued by Pope Paul VI, Octogesima adveniens (A Call to Action) sought to address changes such as urbanization, youth, the role of women, and the environment. Scientific and technological progress was also having a profound influence on humanity and it needed to be addressed. (7)
Justicia in mundo (Justice in the World) was promugated by the Synod of Bishops in 1971, which taught that “Gospel principles mandate justice for the liberation of all humanity as an essential expression of Christian love.” (8) This document was narrower than the encyclicals, with a limited emphasis on human dignity, worker participation, just wage, and globalization.
Laborem exercens (On Human Work) was issued by Pope John Paul II in 1981, focusing on work and related issues. It “outlines a spirituality and ethic of work in the context of a profound theological and philosophical reflection. Work must not be understood only in the objective material sense, but one must keep in mind the subjective dimension, in so far as it is always an expression of the person. Besides being a decisive paradigm for socialization, work has all the dignity of being a context in which the person’s natural and supernatural vocation must find fulfillment.” (9)
In November 1986, the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted Economic Justice for All: Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy. It covered many of the same themes, but incorporated the Scriptures more fully. The cited purpose of the document was to understand how faith fit into the economics of the United States and to be a personal invitation to Catholics to use the “resources of our faith, the strength of our economy, and the opportunities of our democracy to shape a society that better protects the dignity and basic rights of our sisters and brothers, both in this land and around the world.” (10)
Sollicitudo rei socialis (On Social Concern) was presented by Pope John Paul II in 1987 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Populorum progressio. His purpose was to “pay homage to this historic document of Paul VI and to its teaching . . . (and) to reaffirm the continuity of the social doctrine as well as its constant renewal. (11) It also spoke of the primacy of the ‘preference for the poor’ (12). It noted that the church’s social doctrine is not a “third way” between capitalism and socialism but a category unto itself (13) and that her purview is not to speak to the technical economic and political systems or programs, but to “exercise her ministry in the world.” (14)
Pope John Paul II also issued Centesimus annus (Hundredth Year), in 1991. After revisiting and reaffirming many of the principles of Rerum novarum, Pope John Paul II turned to the “new things” of his day, including socialism and atheism. He put a special focus on 1989, the year the Wall fell. He noted that the fall of socialism did not leave capitalism as the only model of economic organization. (15) The free market does not solve all problems, nor does it guarantee the basic needs of society. Consumerism and alienation are real problems throughout the world, with many being exploited or marginalized. The principal message of this encyclical was not so much economic or political, but cultural. It was a call to restore the cultural order with a view to transcendent values. (16)
Caritas in veritate (Charity in Truth) was issued by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 regarding “the principle around which the Church’s social doctrine turns, a principle that takes on practical form in the criteria that govern moral action. . . . to the commitment to development in an increasingly globalized society: justice and the common good.” (17) The Pope moved further away from the technical issues of economics and politics toward the foundational truths of love and truth of Christ. (18)
It may be tempting for Evangelical Protestants to ignore the Papal Encyclicals, but this would be a mistake. There is much to learn through them, even if they are not explicitly biblically based. The themes come out of a ’socially friendly’ understanding of the Bible and while it would be easy for conservative Evangelicals to dismiss them, it would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
(1) Michael Novak, “Human Dignity, Personal Liberty: Themes from Abraham Kuyper and Leo XII.” Journal of Markets & Morality 5, no. 1 (Spring 2002), 61.
(2) Education for Justice, “CST Document: Quadragesimo Anno.” Education for Justice. Accessed December 1, 2013. https://educationforjustice.org/catholic-social-teaching/encyclicals-and-documents.
(3) Pope John XXIII, “Mater et Magistra: Christianity and Social Progress.” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, May 15, 1961. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_xxiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_j-xxiii_enc_15051961_mater_en.html, §50.
(4) Pope Paul VI, “Populorum Progressio: The Development of Peoples.” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, March 26, 1967. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_26031967_populorum_en.html, §3.
(6) Ibid, §42.
(7) Ibid, §22.
(8) Education for Justice, “CST Document: Justitia in Mundo.” Education for Justice. Accessed December 1, 2013. https://educationforjustice.org/catholic-social-teaching/encyclicals-and-documents.
(9) Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Cittá del Vaticano; Washington, D.C.: Libreria Editrice Vaticana ; [Distributed by] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004, §46.
(10) United States Catholic Bishops, “Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.” United States Catholic Bishops, 1986. http://www.usccb.org/upload/economic_justice_for_all.pdf, §1-2.
(11) Pope John Paul II, “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: On Social Concern.” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1987. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_30121987_sollicitudo-rei-socialis_en.html, §3.
(12) Ibid, §42.
(13) Ibid, §29.
(14) Ibid, §41.
(15) Pope John Paul II, “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, §35.
(16) S.J. Avery Dulles, “Centesimus Annus and the Renewal of Culture.” Journal of Markets and Morality 2, no. 1 (Spring 1999), 4.
(17) Pope Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate: Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Benedict XVI.” Libreria Editrice Vaticana, June 29, 2009. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate_en.html, §6.
(18) Ibid, §16-17.