The Key Principles of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, Part II


May 2012

As published in the Truth Be Told, a lay publication of the Western Dominican Province.


            The initial article, published in the January 2012 edition of Truth be Told, covered the key social doctrine encyclicals of the popes from Leo XIII to John Paul II. As noted earlier, this article reviews one of two remaining Encyclicals on the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, namely Centesimus Annus authored by Pope John Paul II. The third article will consider Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas et Veritas. The aim of this sequence of articles is to review the major encyclicals and the Magisterium on the key principles of the Church’s social doctrine. The final article will examine these principles as it applies to the modern world.


            Centesimus Annus. On the 100th anniversary of the publication of Rerum Novarum, John Paul II published his encyclical on the Church’s social doctrine, Centesimus Annus. In that Encyclical, the Pope recalled his predecessors’ terms for “solidarity,” which included Pope Leo XII’s term “friendship” in society, Pope Pius XI’s term “social charity,” and Pope Paul VI’s concept of a “civilization of love.” John Paul II took up “anew one of the fundamental principles of the Christian view of social and political organization” that it is a relationship between God and man and that God “imprinted his own image and likeness on man . . ., conferring upon him an incomparable dignity[.]” In other words, there exists a communion among all humanity in charity with God.


            Natural right to private property. Among other principles, Centesimus Annus affirms the natural right to ownership of private property and the limits of that right; the rights and the responsibilities of workers and employers to organize; the rights and responsibilities to adequate periods of rest, recreation, and the safe and hygienic conditions of work, as well as a just wage sufficient for the family; and the right to religious freedom.


            The Gospel duty of each Person about the Use of Goods. John Paul II ratified Pope Leo XII’s  statement in Rerum Novarum proclaiming the “natural character of the right to private property” rejecting the various forms of 19th Century socialism. The Pope affirmed Leo XIII’s position on the “use” of goods, by stating such use “is marked by freedom, is subordinated to their original common destination as created goods, as well as to the will of Jesus Christ as expressed in the Gospel.” John Paul II quotes Leo XIII’s encyclical stating, “those whom fortune favours are admonished . . . that they should tremble at the warnings of Jesus Christ . . . and that a most strict account must be given to the Supreme Judge for the use of all they possess[.]” John Paul II also cites Leo XIII’s references to Thomas Aquinas’ teaching, stating, “how must one’s possessions be used?” In reply and in reliance upon the judgment of Christ, the Church professes “without hesitation that man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all . . .” All of the popes since Leo XIII “have repeated this twofold affirmation: the necessity and therefore the legitimacy of private ownership, as well as the limits which are imposed on it.” Beyond the nature of private property, it has a social function which is based on the law of the common purpose of goods.”


            This common purpose is not a charge to the government to take custody of each person’s goods, to disproportionate taxation, or to control the usage of goods.


            Human Freedom and Economics. The Pope notes the positive aspects of the “modern business economy.” This economy, he states, is based on “human freedom exercised in the economic field, just as it is exercised in many other fields. Economic activity is indeed but one sector of a great variety of human activities, and like every other sector, it includes the right to freedom, as well as the duty of making responsible use of freedom.” The Pope acknowledges that historically that land was a decisive factor of production and later capital, but he notes—almost prophetically—that the modern decisive factor is “increasingly man himself, that is, his knowledge, especially his scientific knowledge. . .” In other words, he professes the modern information technological age of the 21st Century.


            The Efficiency of the Free Market, Trade Unions, and Free Associations. Human freedom is a key factor in response to human needs. He notes that “the free market is the most efficient instrument for utilizing resources and effectively responding to needs.” Obviously, this is only true for those people who have purchasing power and goods or skills that are marketable. However, “there are many human needs which find no place on the market.” Fundamental human needs must be satisfied. Needy people should be educated and able to gain the expertise to enter the marketplace, and “to develop their skills in order to make the best use” of abilities. Toward this goal, the Pope reinforces the right of existence of trade unions and workers’ organizations.


            The Role of Profit, and, other Human and Moral Factors.  The Pope proposes “a society of free work, of enterprise, and of participation. Such a society is not directed against the market, but demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State, so as to guarantee that the basic needs of the whole of society are satisfied.” He notes that the Church “acknowledges the legitimate role of profit. . .”  When a business earns a profit, it “means that productive factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied.” Profitability is only one factor, for a business purpose can be found “in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavouring to satisfy their basic needs . . .” In addition to profit, “other human and moral factors must also be considered which, in the longer term, are at least equally important for the life of a business.”


            The market economy oriented towards the common good. As noted by the Pope, does the fact that the demise of institutional atheistic communism and/or socialism leaves “capitalism [as] the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society?”


            The Pope answers, “If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a ‘business economy’, ‘market economy’ or simply ‘free economy.” However, without reserve, the Pope notes, “if by ‘capitalism’ is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong judicial framework which places it in the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.” Pope John Paul II notes that the Marxist solution has failed and marginalization and exploitation continues; and that there is a risk that “radical capitalistic ideology” [“laissez faire” capitalism] will spread that resists consideration of the human condition and the material and moral depravity that exists.


            The Church offers “her social teaching as an indispensable and ideal orientation[ that] recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented towards the common good.”


            The universal destination of material wealth. By work, “man commits himself, not only for his own sake but also for others and with others. Each person collaborates in the work of others and for their good. Man works in order to provide for the needs of his family, his community, his nation, and ultimately all humanity. Moreover, he collaborates in the work of his fellow employees, as well as in the work of suppliers and in the customers’ use of goods in a progressively expanding chain of solidarity.” John Paul II notes that when ownership is just “and services useful work” it is legitimate; yet if profit is used not to expand the opportunity for work and wealth of society, “but rather is the result of curbing them or of illicit exploitation, speculation or the breaking of solidarity among working people . . .” it is illegitimate and immoral.


            John Paul II noted that the Church’s social teaching is “an indispensable and ideal orientation, a teaching which, as already mentioned, recognizes the positive value of the market and of enterprise, but which at the same time points out that these need to be oriented towards the common good.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the “common good” is known as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.” It presupposes “respect for the person” and the “fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person.”  The common good requires the social well-being and development of an entire community or nation. And, the common good requires peace that is based on the stability and the security of a just order. 


            Organizing of Society. Comparable to a classical analysis of the American constitutional philosophy, the Pope recalled the organizing of society on the basis of three separate powers: legislative, executive, and judicial.  “Such an ordering reflects a realistic vision of man’s social nature, which calls for legislation capable of protecting the freedom of all.” The power of each branch of government must be balanced by other powers “and by other spheres of responsibility which keep [the government] within proper bounds.” As the Holy Father notes, “[t]his is the principle of the ‘rule of law’, in which the law is sovereign, and not the arbitrary will of individuals.” The Church rejects the totalitarian form of government, as it “tends to absorb within itself the nation, society, the family, religious groups and individuals themselves.”


            Truth is the Guide. The Pope notes that the Church “values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility of both electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.”  However, where there “is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” What is essential to governance and to freedom is by “accepting the truth.” A true Christian “upholds freedom and serves it, constantly offering to others the truth which he has known ...”


            Human Rights and the Fundamental Right to Life. As nations and societies reform themselves and work toward a solid foundation, it is important they give “lively attention to and concern for human rights. . . through the explicit recognition of those rights.” The first among these is the right to life, “of which is the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception; the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality; the right to develop one’s intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth; the right to share in the work which makes wise use of the earth’s material resources, and to derive from that work the mans to support oneself and one’s dependents; and the right to freely to establish a family, to have and to rear children through the responsible use of one’s sexuality.”


            The Government in the Economic Sector. John Paul II affirms repeatedly the transcendent dignity of the human person. The principles of adherence to the truth and to the dignity of each person also plays a role when the government is involved in the economic sector.  Economic activity cannot be conducted in a vacuum; but on the contrary, the Pope says, “it presupposes sure guarantees of individual freedom and private property, as well as a stable currency and efficient public services.”  The principle the “task of the State is to guarantee this security, so that those who work and produce can enjoy the fruits of their labors and thus feel encouraged to work efficiently and honestly.” 


            Corruption. The scandal of economic and political instability, “together with the corruption of public officials and the spread of improper sources of growing rich and of easy profits deriving from illegal or purely speculative activities, constitutes one of the chief obstacles to development and to the economic order.”


            Limited function of Government. Another function of the government is to oversee and direct the exercise of human rights in the economic sector. The primary responsibility does not belong to the government, but to “individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society.” The economic sector is not without governance by the state, as it is the government’s “duty to sustain business activities by creating conditions which will ensure job opportunities, by stimulating those activities where they are lacking or by supporting them in moments of crisis.” He does not reference any stimulus as an increase in government spending. The Pope notes that intervention is appropriate from time to time, but must be justified by urgent reasons touching the common good, and that it “must be as brief as possible, so as to avoid removing permanently from society and business systems the functions which are properly theirs. . .”


            Welfare State supplants Principle of Subsidiarity. The excessive “sphere of State intervention” can have a detrimental effect on both economic and civil freedom. He notes that such intervention has “vastly expanded . . . to the points of creating a new type of State, the so-called ‘Welfare State.’” While intended to do good things, “excesses and abuses, especially in recent years, have provided very harsh criticisms of the . . . ‘Social Assistance State.’” Forcefully, the Pope argues that this is where the ”principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.”


            The Social irresponsibility of the Welfare State. Enormous increase in Spending. The Pope also warns that where the “Social Assistance State” intervenes directly and deprives society of its responsibility, it leads to a “loss of human energies and an inordinate increase in public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” He notes that those closest to is best to help the refugees, immigrants, the elderly, the sick, and others in need of assistance by those closest to them, by “those who offer them genuine fraternal support, in addition to necessary care.”


            Evangelization Plays a Role in Culture. Neither the state nor the market is the final purpose of life in society.  “Life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve.” Mankind is above all, a “being who seeks the truth and strives to live in that truth[.]” It is in this search of truth, renewed with in our posterity, ”the culture of a nation derives its character.” Evangelization plays a role in the culture of many nations. The Church renders a service to humankind by preaching the truth; “and by preaching the truth about the Redemption,” whereby Our Lord has saved mankind and united all people, “making them responsible to one another.”


            To Trust the Poor. “This is the culture which is hoped for, one which fosters trust in the human potential of the poor, and consequently in their ability to improve their condition through work or to make a positive contribution to economic prosperity.” Love for others—the love of the poor first among them—requires promotion of justice.  Justice will be attained when “people see in the poor person, who is asking for help in order to survive, not an annoyance or a burden, but an opportunity to show kindness and a chance for greater enrichment.” The gift of grace, “a gift which comes from God[,] in cooperation with human freedom, constitutes that mysterious presence of God in history which is Providence.”


            Summation. In closing, the Pope noted that problem cannot be just the matter of economic production or law, social organization or more taxpayers’ money, “but also calls for specific ethical and religious values, as well as changes of mentality, behavior and structures.” 


            Recap. The subject matter of Centesimus Annus includes, but is not limited to, the concept of the right to private property in conformance of the natural law; human freedom and economics; the free market system, trade unions, and free associations; the role of profit in economics and moral factors; the success of the market economy and how it should be oriented to the common good; the universal destination of material wealth and goods; the respect of and dignity of humanity; the need of truth in society; human rights and the most fundamental among them being the right to life; the limited function of government; the dangers of the social welfare state, how the welfare state supplants the principle of subsidiarity, the bureaucratic way of thinking, and the enormous increase in spending; the concrete commitment to solidarity and charity, and support for the traditional family; and the need for truth, justice, and grace in helping the poor and all of society.


            Next time. The next article in this series will review Pope Benedict’s encyclical entitled Caritas et Veritas on the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. 


            Obiter Dictum. In Centesimus Annus, John Paul II reflected on the lively attention the modern world gives to human rights. Every right enjoyed by humanity is hinged to the premier right we all enjoy by nature: the right to life, born and unborn, young and old, incapacitated, disabled, etc.  For nearly 40 years, the abortion mentality has poisoned our family life and our national debates; causing a deep divide in our political, religious, and cultural institutions. Its caustic rationale has destroyed logical thinking and right order in pursuing the common good. It violates the natural law despite its sanction by a nefarious Supreme Court opinion.  To sanction the legal killing of innocent persons has a price. This recurrent crime against innocent persons has hardened the collective heart of our Nation, has created a social tolerance for other wrongs and crimes, and has set us free from the safe harbor of truth and justice. All of the good sought through social justice work is for naught unless we first pursue the legal and actual protection of the most innocent persons among us. To change the culture mindset about abortion is the forerunner in working for and actually achieving true social justice.


John C. Keenan, J.D., O.P.L.

Lay Promoter

Peace & Justice