Saturday, 9 April 2011

Papal teachings on social justice

This post seeks to draw together some themes from three papal encyclicals dealing with Catholic social teaching: Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891), Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens (1981).

The social teachings of Leo XIII and Pius XI

The teaching of the pre-Vatican II popes on social issues doesn't easily fit into the modern left/right paradigm. Leo XIII and Pius XI hated and condemned socialism and communism, but some passages from their encyclicals have a distinctly anti-capitalist flavour.  Here is Leo XIII:

It has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition…. [T]he hiring of labour and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.... [T]he result of civil change and revolution has been to divide cities into two classes separated by a wide chasm. On the one side there is the party which holds power because it holds wealth.... On the other side there is the needy and powerless multitude, sick and sore in spirit and ever ready for disturbance. 

Pius XI echoed this concern with inequalities of wealth.  While he recognised that free competition had a useful role to play, he was sceptical about the merits of unregulated capitalism:

Destroying through forgetfulness or ignorance the social and moral character of economic life, [liberal economic theory] held that economic life must be considered and treated as altogether free from and independent of public authority, because in the market, i.e. in the free struggle of competitors, it would have a principle of self direction which governs it much more perfectly than would the intervention of any created intellect. But free competition, while justified and certainly useful provided it is kept within certain limits, clearly cannot direct economic life - a truth which the outcome of the application in practice of the tenets of this evil individualistic spirit has more than sufficiently demonstrated.

It is only fair to say that the popes were writing at a time when European economies were at a considerably different level of development from today - perhaps on a par with that of some Latin American countries today, where Leo and Pius' words would continue to find a resonance.

One thing is clear about the popes’ teaching: it does not countenance any watering down of property rights, even if, as Leo XIII put it, "it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money, and another to have a right to use money as one wills". The popes repeatedly emphasise that the right to own property is sacred and inviolable, and there is no room here for a doctrine of common or state ownership. There was, moreover, nothing wrong in principle with capital or capitalists, though capital and labour should work in harmony: it was not a question of one side overcoming or controlling the other. Interestingly, at least one of the popes’ ideas is still found in the mainstream of modern conservative politics: that working people should be given some means of acquiring property in order to improve their quality of life and give them a stake in the capitalist economy.  Pius XI favoured giving workers a stake in the ownership of their businesses.

Labour, said the popes, was not simply a commodity, since contracts made between employers and workers potentially impinged upon workers’ human dignity. Workers were to be paid a living wage, and employers were neither to take advantage of market conditions to lower wages unfairly nor to defraud workmen of what was due to them. They were also to take a paternalistic interest in their employees’ moral and spiritual development. In private life, the rich were to be generous with their resources once they had guaranteed their family an appropriate standard of living (what exactly might be appropriate in specific cases is not spelled out).

For Leo and Pius, the excesses of laissez faire capitalism tended not only to produce social injustice: they were spiritually harmful too. They saw the creation of a just social order as intimately bound up with a revival of religious faith; the anticlericalism of European socialism was one important reason why Pius XI refused to endorse it. There seems, moreover, to be a certain optimism in the encyclicals that the rich, embracing the truth of Catholicism, would be prepared to part with their cash in accordance with traditional Christian principles of charity - though the popes were not so foolish as to rely upon the goodwill of the rich to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Pius XI emphasised that certain reforms were required by strict justice, and that charity alone could not be relied upon:

Quite agreeable, of course, was this state of things to those who thought it in their abundant riches the result of inevitable economic laws and accordingly, as if it were for charity to veil the violation of justice which lawmakers not only tolerated but at times sanctioned, wanted the whole care of supporting the poor committed to charity alone.

The same pope also affirmed strongly, however, that only charity would facilitate a reconciliation of minds and hearts.

Virtually absent from the encyclicals is any mention of a redistributive tax and welfare system, though the indications are that the popes would have been very reluctant to endorse the creation of a large welfare state. They speak disapprovingly of excessive levels of taxation, and Leo XIII states that the state should intervene to improve a family’s economic wellbeing only in cases of "extreme necessity". Part of the reason for this reticence was an desire to defend the autonomy of the individual and the family against the state, whose role the popes wanted to keep within fairly well-defined boundaries. Given the choice, they preferred social and economic relations to be managed by independent societies and associations set up by bosses and workers on a voluntary basis. Having said this, the popes were not Thatcherite minimalists when it came to defining the functions of the state. Leo XIII accepted that the state might have to legislate so that workers were paid a living wage and enjoyed decent working conditions. He also thought that governments should be proactive in removing causes of industrial conflict before strikes broke out.

Speaking of strikes, Leo XIII famously recognised workers' rights to strike, and encouraged the formation of trade unions, though his distate for socialism and communism led him to advocate that Catholics should set up their own semi-religious unions rather than join the existing secularist ones. Pius XI also supported the establishment of unions, though he expressed cautious support as well for the ‘corporatist’ system which Mussolini was attempting to set up in Italy whereby employers and employees met together in joint ‘corporations’ or ‘associations’ established by the state; the state would give judgement if the two sides could not settle their disagreements by negotiation, and strikes were forbidden.

The teachings of John Paul II

Coming after the clarity and vigour of Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, Laborem Exercens is somewhat disappointing in its wordiness. In this respect, it is similar to John Paul II’s other encyclicals, which often gave the impression of being addressed to a specialist academic readership. The document contains lengthy reflections on such subjects as the philosophical nature of work in relation to the human person.

The practical concerns of John Paul II correspond in many ways to those of his predecessors: the necessity of a just wage, decent working conditions, the importance of trade unions, and so on. In common with Leo and Pius, he condemned the idea that human labour was a mere commodity like any other, and he asserted the priority of labour over capital, though (continuing his predecessors’ teaching) he refused to see the two as being in conflict.

The pope recognised a natural right to own property. On the other hand, he placed very much less emphasis on this right than his predecessors, being more concerned to underline that it is subordinate to the requirement that property be used for the good of all. He argued, too, that the traditional doctrine did not preclude the socialisation of some of the means of production, and revived Pius XI’s suggestion that workers be allowed to hold stock in and share in the management of the corporations for which they worked.

Unlike Leo and Pius, John Paul taught explicitly that states had a duty to provide welfare benefits to the unemployed. He also envisaged that states might make grants to mothers and families, and implicitly suggested that they should guarantee the availability of affordable healthcare and pensions. In another departure from his predecessors, he devoted two whole sections of his encyclical to disabled members of the workforce and migrant labourers.

Finally, the social question takes on an international dimension in John Paul’s teaching. Towards the beginning of the encyclical, he observes that the question of social reform had become linked with that of world peace, first of all in John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra and subsequently in the documents of Vatican II and in Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio. Later on, he notes that multinational corporations tend to market their goods at the highest possible price in the developed world while offering poor wages and working conditions to workers in developing countries. In general, he expresses great confidence in the ability of international organisations such as the UN to address contemporary social and economic problems.

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