For many Catholics the economic and social teachings of Leo XIII and Pius XI are matters of little concern or interest to them—if they are even known to them at all. Yet in my experience, Catholics who dismiss the work of these great pontiffs generally do so out of a preference for Economic Liberalism, usually of the Austrian free market-flavor. Extolling the virtues of an unregulated economy, these Catholics are embarrassed by Leo XIII’s condemnation of “the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition”, and other such statements, which to their ears sounds like socialist demagoguery. For one immersed in the United States conservative sub-culture, with its exaltation of the cult of the individual and its transfiguration of wealth into a virtue, these prejudices are difficult to avoid.
It is the purpose of this essay to examine this question of what authority Catholics are bound to give to Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno in particular, since these two encyclicals are the two pillars upon which modern Catholic social teaching rests. We are not looking to prove that these documents are infallible or contain infallible pronouncements; some have argued convincingly that the prerogative of infallibility applies to the pope’s ordinary Magisterium as well.1 But this is not our argument; we merely seek to prove that these encyclicals are still authoritative and command the assent of the faithful, which is a different question from their infallibility.2
In the first place, let us consider the authority Pope Leo attributes to his teaching in Rerum Novarum.
In this Encyclical, however, consciousness of Our Apostolic office admonishes Us to treat the entire question thoroughly, in that order that the principles may stand out in clear light, and the conflict may thereby be brought to an end as required by truth and equity.3
The Pontiff is speaking by virtue of his Apostolic Office. In itself this is not surprising. As encyclicals are organs of the pope’s ordinary teaching Magisterium,4 it follows that any encyclical is promulgated by virtue of the pope’s Apostolic Office. This has a further implication, however: because encyclicals are the ordinary means by which the popes exercise their ordinary Magisterium, they demand consent.5
This is truer when an encyclical attempts to clarify or settle a contended point. In Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII noted with regard to papal teaching: “If the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.”6
Now it is clear that Rerum Novarum is an official document promulgated by virtue of Leo XIII’s Apostolic Office, but did Leo intend to pass judgment on a disputed matter in Rerum Novarum?
Indeed he did, for the purpose of promulgating the encyclical, according to the citation above, was “in that order that the principles may stand out in clear light, and the conflict may thereby be brought to an end”.7 Therefore, according to Pius XII, because Leo spoke authoritatively with an aim of settling conflict, the teachings of Rerum Novarum “cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion”.
Further evidence that the pontiff intended to use his Apostolic Office to settle a disputed point comes in section 16, where Leo XIII states:
We approach the subject with confidence and surety by Our right, for the question under consideration is certainly one for which no satisfactory solution will be found unless religion and the Church have been called upon to aid. Moreover, since the safeguarding of religion and of all things within the jurisdiction of the Church is primarily Our stewardship, silence on Our part might be regarded as failure in Our duty.8
Again, it is made clear that the purpose of the encyclical is to settle a controversy (i.e., the “social question”), which necessitates the involvement of the Church. But more to the point is the second sentence, which affirms that, “since the safeguarding of religion and of all things within the jurisdiction of the Church is primarily Our stewardship, silence on Our part might be regarded as a failure in Our duty”. With this sentence, Pope Leo offers justification as to why the Catholic Church is weighing in on the question of economics.
The implication, of course, is that economic policies and decisions do not exist in a vacuum. They have a moral dimension, and therefore, a direct relevancy to Catholic doctrine. Economic acts are moral acts, and like all moral acts they are fundamentally religious. This is why Leo states that addressing the economic problems of his day is essentially an exercise in the “safeguarding of religion”.
Roman Pontiffs have sometimes weighed-in on questions which were not intrinsic to the Faith; but Leo here states that the principles he is addressing are so central to Faith that he considers the document an exercise of his prerogative to safeguard religion and part of his solemn duty as Successor of Peter.
Leo XIII later speaks of the teachings of his encyclical as imperative:
But the Church, with Jesus Christ as her teacher and leader, seeks greater things that this; namely, by commanding something more perfect, she aims at joining the two social classes to each other in closest neighborliness and friendship.9
Notice here that the language is not merely hortatory; it is critical. Leo has already stated that he is intervening to settle a question that has implications for the Faith itself, and as such he sees this encyclical as a command or directive, much like any other act within the jurisdiction of the papacy.
Furthermore [the Church] strives to enter into men’s minds and to bend their wills so that they may suffer themselves to be ruled and governed by the discipline of the divine precepts. And in this field, which is of first and greatest importance because in it the whole substance and matter of benefits consists, the Church indeed has a power that is especially unique.10
It is difficult to see how Leo does not expect his teaching in Rerum Novarum to be assented to when he insists that men “bend their wills” and “suffer themselves to be ruled and governed”. But more importantly, Leo asserts that the teaching he is promulgating is nothing other than “divine precepts”. Indeed, economic questions are essentially moral, and as such fall within the pale of the Church’s authority.11
In 1931 Pope Pius XI promulgated Quadragesimo Anno in honor of the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. This document goes farther than its predecessor, as it reiterates the principles of Leo XIII and fleshes them out to describe what an economy organized along the lines of his predecessor’s encyclical would look like.
From the beginning of Quadragesimo Anno, Pius reiterates Leo’s earlier statement that the intervention of the Church is necessary in settling the “social question”:
Rerum Novarum, however, stood out in this, that it laid down for all mankind unerring rules for the right solution of the difficult problem of human solidarity, called the Social Question, at the very time when such guidance was most opportune and necessary.12
Note that the teachings of Rerum Novarum are said to be “unerring rules”. Pius XI’s use of this word does not render Leo XIII’s statements inerrant in the sense of infallible; it is “unerring” along the lines of John Paul II’s phrase “sure norm” when describing the doctrinal value of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.13 It denotes that the teaching of Rerum Novarum is authoritative, just like John Paul’s statement means the CCC is authoritative. Those who would deny the authority of Rerum Novarum would be just as hard pressed to explain their case as those who deny the Catechism’s authority.
Pius XI then repeats Leo’s statement about the obligations of duty that prompted him to speak, but also adds that Leo’s teaching in Rerum Novarum was decided “in virtue of the divine Magisterium committed to him”:
Long did the prudent Pontiff [Leo XIII] consider the matter before God, seeking the advice of the most experienced counselors available, and carefully weighing the reason for and against. At last, “urged by the responsibility of the Apostolic Office”, and lest by keeping silence he should seem to neglect his duty, he decided in virtue of the divine Magisterium committed to him, to address himself to the Universal Church of Christ, nay, to the whole human race.14
Since 1891, Catholic social teaching has been greeted with mixed reactions from the Catholic world. Those who were more attached to either Communist or Capitalist economic theories argued that the Roman pontiff had no right to interfere in economic matters; that such questions were outside the realm of the papal Magisterium’s authority. Pius XI’s words above certainly dispel this notion, but in Quadragesimo Anno we see a fuller justification of the pope’s right to pass judgment on economic matters.
Here Pius XI states:
The Sovereign Pontiff approached the subject in the exercise of his manifest rights, deeply conscious that he was the chief guardian of religion and the chief dispenser of all that closely appertains to it; for the question at issue was one to which “no solution could be found apart from the intervention of religion and the Church.” Basing his doctrine solely upon the unchangeable principles drawn from right reason and divine revelation, he indicated and proclaimed with confidence and “as one having power”, “the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and the poor, of Capital and Labor….”15
As Leo invoked his duty as guardian of the Christian religion, Pius said that the papal teaching of Rerum Novarum was “in the exercise of his [Leo’s] manifest rights”, again, because of the fundamental moral aspect of economic decisions. But Pius went further to clarify in what sense the teachings of Catholic social teaching are part of the Christian religion: referring to Pope Leo, he said that he was “deeply conscious that he was the chief guardian of religion, and the chief dispenser of all that closely appertains to it.” This last phrase is essential, as it identifies Catholic social teaching, not as divine revelation, but as something that “closely appertains to it”. Traditionally, this truth is called sententia ad fidem pertinens. These truths (also called sentential certs) are those which have not been infallibly defined but whose truth is guaranteed by its intrinsic connection with the doctrine of revelation.16
The latter part of the above-cited passage is also important. “Basing his doctrine solely upon the unchangeable principles drawn from right reason and divine revelation, he indicated and proclaimed with confidence “as one having power”, “the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and the poor, of Capital and Labor….” Again, Pius XI affirmed that the economic principles in Rerum Novarum are not the product of merely human theories, but are deduced “from right reason and divine revelation”, and hence are binding and authoritative on the faithful, which is why Leo is said to have proclaimed them “as one having power”.
The Catholic dismissing these teachings as binding is forced to explain why they are free to dissent from a teaching deduced “from right reason and divine revelation”, and promulgated by the pope “with confidence and as one having power”. Clearly, neither Pope Leo XIII nor Pius XI would have entertained the idea that Catholics are free to proffer opinions opposed to its teachings.
Pius XI then underscored the economic doctrines of Leo XIII and of Quadragesimo Anno with nothing less than the full authority of Jesus Christ Himself:
The Church insists, on the authority of the Gospel, upon those teachings whereby the conflict can be brought to an end, or rendered at least far less bitter. The Church uses her efforts not only to enlighten the mind, but to direct by her precepts the life and conduct of each and all.17
Principles of moral and economic life are not said to rest upon man-made economic theories, but on the authority of the Gospel. In other words, the principles of Catholic social teaching are the principles of the Gospel, and because the Magisterium is its servant18 these promulgated teachings are given the highest authority.
Similar to this, we see the teachings of Rerum Novarum are later referred to simply as “Catholic truths”. Pius XI continues:
Thus, too, We rejoice that the Catholic truths, proclaimed so vigorously by our Predecessor, are advanced and advocated not merely in non-Catholic books and journals, but frequently also in legislative assemblies and courts of justice.19
This usage of the phrase “Catholic truths” to describe the teaching of Rerum Novarum deserves profound reflection. “Catholic truths” are those truths that must be believed with divine and Catholic faith. This terminology is in reference to the dogmatic definition of the First Vatican Council, which stated that ”All those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written Word of God or in Tradition, and which are proposed by the Church, either in solemn judgment or in its ordinary and universal teaching office, as divinely revealed truths which must be believed”.20 Pope Leo himself repeated Vatican I’s terminology in his 1896 encyclical Satis Cognitum (on the unity of the Church). Thus, by referring to the teaching of Rerum Novarum as “Catholic truths”, Pius XI situated Leo’s teaching as truths to be believed with divine and Catholic faith; in other words, “as divinely revealed truths which must be believed”.
Worthy of all praise, therefore, are the directions authoritatively promulgated by Leo XIII, which served to break down this opposition and dispel these suspicions.21
And, as if to remove all doubt concerning the pivotal place of Rerum Novarum in the Church’s social doctrine, Pius XI made this astonishing statement:
Leo’s Encyclical has proved itself the Magna Carta on which all Christian activities in social matters are ultimately based.22
The Magna Carta, of course, is taken by English jurists to be the foundation of the whole edifice of British law. To describe Rerum Novarum as the Magna Carta “on which all Christian activities in social matters are ultimately based” dispels any uncertainty of the encyclical’s authority.
Pius also addressed those who dissent from Leo XIII’s teaching or who try to dissimulate by saying that the economic and social teachings of Rerum Novarum are not binding on Catholics:
Nevertheless, there are some who seem to attach little importance to this Encyclical and to the present celebration…. In the course of these years, however, doubts have arisen concerning the correct interpretation of certain passages of the Encyclical or their inferences, and these doubts have led to controversies, even among Catholics, not always of a peaceful character. On the other hand, the new needs of our age and the changed conditions of society, have rendered necessary a more precise application and amplification of Leo’s doctrine. We, therefore, gladly seize this opportunity of answering these doubts, so far as in Us lies, and of satisfying the demands of the present day. This We do in virtue of Our Apostolic office by which We are a debtor to all.23
When Pius stated that he would “gladly seize this opportunity of answering these doubts”, his intention to counter both classes—those who dispute the significance of Rerum Novarum and those who deny that Rerum Novarum is authoritative and central to the Church’s social mission.
Whoever attaches little importance to the Church’s social teaching on economic matters will make the case that the Church “has no economic system” and that the Church is not competent to make pronouncements on economic matters. The Church, they say, can only give broad, moral principles, which Catholics must then apply, but economics itself is beyond the pale of the Church’s realm of authority and competence—inasmuch as it does not deal with faith or morals. “Just as chemistry or mathematics cannot come under the realm of Church authority,” they will say, “economics is also autonomous”.
Although there are scientific aspects to the field of economics, economics is one of the social sciences because it deals fundamentally with the actions and motivations of men. Physics, mathematics, et al., are hard sciences, which means they have a greater objectivity, methodological rigor, and degree of exactitude. The object of the hard sciences are the quantifiable aspects of the world; the object of the social sciences is man himself, his motivations, actions, judgments, and so forth. Now, it is true that economics has non-moral elements; it encompasses aspects of mathematics, logistics, demographics, and more. But these are not economics proper; these are rather the handmaids or tools of the economist. Economics proper (to use the classic textbook definition) is the study of how choices are made to allocate limited resources to satisfy unlimited needs.
For the deposit of truth entrusted to us by God, and Our weighty office of propagating, interpreting and urging in season and out of season the entire moral law, demand that both social and economic questions be brought within Our supreme jurisdiction, in so far as they refer to moral issues.24
The Church does not get bogged down in the mathematics of economics, but it does insist that the substance of economics—the moral decisions made by men—conform to Gospel principles, but the Magisterium has made fairly sweeping pronouncements of what it considers to be subject to Gospel principles: living wages, unions, working conditions, who is fit to do what sorts of work, what constitutes a reasonable work week and time off, the ends and means of labor, the relationship between capital and labor, government and capital, just profit, regulation, principles of taxation, agronomics, obligations to the poor, the advantages and disadvantages of state welfare programs, savings, land ownership, and principles of mediation and arbitration by subsidiary bodies.
All of these subjects are under the authority of the Church according to Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. The economist may throw up his hands and say, “That’s practically the entire discipline of economics!” Exactly. It is.
And what Leo taught on was nothing other than Catholic doctrine:
…[S]ince controversy has arisen among Catholics as to the true sense of Pope Leo’s teaching, We have thought it well to defend from calumny the Leonine doctrine in this matter, which is also the Catholic doctrine, and defend it against false interpretations.25
The Church, in her pastoral concern for the situation of men, frequently makes pronouncements that are particularly oriented towards the needs of a specific age. For example, many, including then-Cardinal Ratzinger, have noted that the language of Gaudium et Spes represents the particular context of the world of the 1960s and is characterized by an optimism about modernity that the 21st century finds embarrassingly inadequate. We can find many similar pronouncements from the Reformation or medieval periods that are particularly suited to those times and places and which are of little force today because the socio-political conditions they were meant to address no longer exist.
Can a similar argument be put forward for Rerum Novarum?
The industrial capitalism and rampant poverty of the 1890s is a far cry from the diversified “service sector” capitalism we have today. For some, the affluence of the capitalist west in the post-World War II era make the teachings of Leo XIII and Rerum Novarum look increasingly like principles suited to the late 19th century, with little force or value today.
Pius XI rules out such an easy dismissal of Leo’s great work:
…[T]hese salutary injunctions of the Pontiff [Leo XIII] have not infrequently been forgotten, deliberately ignored, or deemed impractical, though they were both feasible and imperative. They have lost none of their force or wisdom for our own age, even though the horrible “pauperism” of the days of Leo XIII is less prevalent today.26
As of 1931, the teachings of Leo had “lost none of their force of wisdom for our own age.” This is common sense; we have seen that Leo and Pius go out of their way to identify the teachings of Rerum Novarum with the Gospel itself. Just as the Gospel never loses its force, so Rerum Novarum retains its authority. This is even more so in light of the constant reaffirmations of Leo’s encyclical that have come from St. John XXIII, Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.
What will it profit to teach them sound principles in economics, if they permit themselves to be so swept away by selfishness, by unbridled and sordid greed, that “hearing the Commandments of the Lord, they do all things contrary”?27
Again, to those who suggest that Catholic social teaching merely addresses moral questions without touching on economics, Pius responds that the Church’s teaching truly does put forward “sound principles in economics”, which obviously he could not say unless it was asserted that the Church had the right, duty and competence to teach them. It is also interesting that he contrasts “sound principles in economics” with “selfishness” and “unbridled and sordid greed”, the characteristic traits of unrestrained capitalist competition.28 The only remedy for this capitalistic “unbridled and sordid greed” is a return to sound Catholic economic principles:
For this pitiable ruin of souls, which if it continue, will frustrate all efforts to reform society, there can be no other remedy than a frank and sincere return to the teaching of the Gospel.29
We have seen numerous times how Catholic social teaching is identified as “the Catholic faith,” “Catholic truth” and the principles of the Gospel. Here again it is simply called “the teaching of the Gospel”, which grants it tremendous authority. Pius does not simply present the Catholic economic principles of Leo XIII and his own Magisterium as one interesting option among many, but suggests that the very survival of society depends upon adherence to them, and even that their refusal will entail the “pitiable ruin of souls”.
- Cf. John P. Joy, STL, Cathedra Veritatis: On the Extension of Papal Infallibility.
- One final word about the text: In both encyclicals we have used the official Vatican text distributed in English by the Daughters of St. Paul. This may deviate from the English found on the Vatican website. However, while using the text from the Daughters of St. Paul, we have retained usage of the numbering used on the Vatican website, which is very different than the numbering used in the Daughters of St. Paul editions. For example, Rerum Novarum, no. 16 on the Vatican website is Rerum Novarum no. 24 in the Daughters of St. Paul.
- Rerum Novarum, no. 2.
- Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, no. 20.
- Ibid. Pius XII stated that Encyclicals must be given assent, even if they are not making infallible declarations: “Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority.”
- Rerum Novarum, no. 2.
- Ibid., no. 16.
- Ibid., no. 21.
- Ibid., no. 26.
- Leo goes out of his way again to assert that, “in this field … the Church indeed has a power that is especially unique”.
- Quadragesimo Anno, no. 2.
- St. John Paul II, Fidei Depositum, no. 3 (1992).
- Quadragesimo Anno, no. 8.
- Ibid., no. 11.
- Dr. Ludwig Ott, “The Theological Grades of Certainty” in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, no. 4.
- Ibid., no. 17.
- CCC, no. 86.
- Quadragesimo Anno, no. 21.
- First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith III, 8.
- Quadragesimo Anno, no. 31.
- Ibid., no. 39.
- Ibid., no. 40.
- Ibid., no. 44.
- Ibid., no. 59.
- Ibid., no. 131.
- Cf. “On Objective and Subjective Ends of Work,” USC.
- Quadragesimo Anno, no. 136.