Much intra-Catholic squabbling these days ignores the prescriptions of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), which is often thought to have originated with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. Catholic writers, however, addressed issues of justice and equity from the beginning. The Acts of the Apostles records that the community cared for the needs of poor Christians, and the Church Fathers and medieval canonists further discussed how best to serve the needs of the unfortunate.
Leo XIII’s immediate concern was the difficult circumstances of the industrial and rural workers of the late nineteenth century, but he relied on what had been handed down from the earlier tradition about service of the poor – actually, the “deserving poor.”
That distinction appeared early, even though modern social justice “advocates” often reject it. Scripture counseled that those designated by the Church for the relief of poverty should practice discernment. St. Paul wrote that when he arrived in a district, he earned his own living; he didn’t receive alms from those he visited. He furthermore insisted that the idle able-bodied had no claim on the community’s aid: “If anyone among you shall not work, neither shall he eat.” (2 Thess. 3:10)
In addition, CST has been suspicious of using the state to transfer wealth from one group to another. Leo warned in Rerum Novarum that little good came from it. As practiced in modern western countries, income redistribution violated the principle of subsidiarity, which says that social ills should be addressed locally wherever and whenever possible.
In that vein, John Paul II taught in Centesimus Annus – his encyclical simultaneously celebrating the fall of Communism and the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum – that the failures of the bureaucratic welfare state stemmed from disrespect for the principle of subsidiarity, which led to “a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies.”
In the Catholic perspective, poor relief must not only relieve material deprivations but contribute to the cultivation of virtues, which in turn bolsters human dignity among the poor themselves.
Those with means should be generous with their blessings, of course, for those blessings are God’s gifts and ordained for human flourishing. In justice, the needs of the deserving poor must be met. At the same time, however, the state must establish conditions whereby the deserving poor can earn a dignified living, which means policies that encourage agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, finance, etc. Intergenerational dependency isn’t part of authentic Catholic social teaching or poor relief.
The text of Rerum Novarum clearly shows that Leo’s main concern was the deleterious effects of industrial society on the family. Until the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of people worked within families, that is, mothers, fathers, and children worked together to support themselves. Mothers and fathers would teach their trades to their daughters and sons, whether they were peasant farmers or artisans (often both). Children learned and worked under the supervision of their parents.
In early industrializing countries, strangers began to supervise children, which in many cases meant that children were at risk for exploitation and abuse. Newspaper exposés of Welsh mining conditions, in which children were sought because they were small, shocked the United Kingdom, resulting in the passage of the first child-labor laws.
Likewise, wives and mothers went to work for factory owners, who sometimes took sexual advantage of them. Factory owners discouraged young girls from marrying so that responsibilities for husbands and children would not interfere with their hours at textile mills.
Leo prophetically warned about these threats to the family. He hoped that within industrial society, the authority of fathers especially would be preserved. All else in the family depended upon the preservation of paternal authority – he explicitly warned against the substitution of the state for the traditional roles and obligations of family members for each other: love and support on the part of parents, and obedience on the part of children, in addition to care for aged and ailing parents.
Leo also fretted about progressivism’s tendency to pit one class against another. He fully upheld the Church’s traditional support of the formation of guilds and confraternities, and in the case of the industrial system, the formation of unions. In so doing, Leo also defended the social principle that private associations formed for the pursuance of some good end were a natural right. But he believed that strikes should be avoided at almost all costs because of the resentments they created.
Leo’s hope was that unions would negotiate in good faith with employers, whom he reminded that the making of profit was licit but not the only consideration in the determination of work conditions and wages. Employers could make money (they should, in fact), but not at the expense of their workers’ dignity.
He made a similar argument with regard to markets – normally they contribute to the common good by providing a forum within which buyers and sellers can negotiate prices and commerce. But the market existed for the good of human beings – not the other way around – and when markets failed to do so, the state should take appropriate action.
For Leo, and for CST generally, decisions involving families, workers, employers, and government must ultimately take into account the salvation of souls. He reminded a rapidly industrializing world, increasingly tilting towards materialism, that this world was not our final destination, but that our final destination depended upon what happened here.
Earthly life should be lived in anticipation of the life to come. All members of society should have a taste of the good life in this world to serve as an image of the ineffable good of life in the next world. The love that family members shower on each other models the love that the Supreme Father would extend to us in eternity, and the good order of society serves as a glimpse of the company of Heaven.
These basic truths have largely disappeared from public debates, even among Catholics; the dire results should lead us all to take a very serious look at them once again.
*Image: Lazarus and the Rich Man by Jacopo Bassano, c. 1550 [Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH]
You may also enjoy:
George J. Marlin’s Pope Francis’ Economics
Patrick Fagan’s A Rerum Novarum for Our Time