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The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 68)

The Papal Encyclicals on Social Justice
The recent encyclical letter of Pope Francis, Laudato Si' (“On Care For our Common Home”) has generated much discussion and argument, and not only among Catholics. It addresses the controversial issue of “global warming”. Readers may “camp out” on those pages, but that would be a mistake, because Laudato Si' is about much more than “climate change”.  A second mistake would be to read this latest encyclical with no knowledge of those written by previous popes (all of which generated controversy!) Our present pope's encyclical invokes the teaching of his predecessors. Those who find themselves surprised or puzzled in reading his words might benefit from at least being aware of previous papal teaching on matters of social justice. I have started a list below of the eight preceding social encyclicals (four here, four more next week). My summaries will be inadequate, but they may at least demonstrate a remarkable continuity of moral vision. 
Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of the Working Person), 1891: The fountainhead of the modern social encyclical, a touchstone for those that came after. The “New Things” of the title (Rerum  Novarum) are the economic and social conditions brought about by the industrial revolution. The pope laments the growing alienation of the working class from the Church and the increasingly bitter class warfare. He is aware of the secularist ideologies  claiming the minds of the workers. The Church's moral teaching and authority is not locked up in “spiritual” concerns. Her faith engages also the temporal realm. She must join in seeking remedies to economic and social injustice. The right of private property is firmly upheld, but not as an absolute right upheld at the cost of injustice. He supports the right of workers to a just wage and to collective bargaining, citing ancient Church teaching on the “universal destination of human goods” (more on this important teaching next time).
Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 1931
.  Forty years after Rerum Novarum, Pius XI applies its principles to the circumstances of the Great Depression and the rise of Communist Totalitarianism. The pope condemns a socialism that oppresses human freedom in a false collectivism. At the same time he critiques an unrestrained capitalism that fosters a selfish individualism. He allows that governments have a place in insuring the economic rights of all. At the same time he invokes the principle of subsidiarity. This means that social renewal and reform are better achieved by more local and regional initiatives. The role of federal government is subsidiary (that is, supportive) of more local initiatives, allowing for the problems to be solved by those who    actually experience the problem.
St. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra (On Christianity and Social Progress) 1961: Published on the seventieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the encyclical addresses the question of intervention by national governments in the light of three contemporary developments: the impact of technology, the rise of the welfare state, and the growing aspirations of people to participate in the political process.  These changes represent a new kind of socialization, which often makes it more difficult for social problems (like access to health care or unemployment) to be addressed at local levels. There are times when national institutions (public and private) have a legitimate role in solving the problems of this new form of socialization.
St. John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 1963:  John XXIII's second encyclical significantly develops all that goes before in three important ways. (1) He provides a systematic presentations of the rights of the human  person (to life, to work, to worship, etc.) along with the person's corresponding duties. (2) He grounds these rights and duties in the natural order of the created universe. This order is reflected in the nature of the human person and is the basis of the inviolable dignity of every person. (3) Previous encyclicals focused on relations within each nation. John XXIII applied the Church's social teaching to the relation of the nations one to another. This, of course, raises the issue of war and peace.

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