Catholic Social Teaching Revisited
25/September/2008 Filed in: Jottings
At present a number of petitions are flying around cyberspace inviting people to attribute blame for the present economic turmoil to this group or that. Some church leaders have also joined in with fairly direct condemnations of Wall Street bankers in particular. Time, I think, to recall that one of the great glories of the Roman Catholic Church has been the development of Catholic social teaching since 1891 and the publication of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labour). In 1931 Pope Pius XI condemned what he called "the international imperialism of money" and stressed the need for a social and economic order animated by justice (see Quadragesimo Anno, After Forty Years, 1931). John XXIII expanded on this in Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher, 1961) where he emphasized not only the State's obligation to consider the common good but urged the need for all to live as one community and reminded the Church of her duty to be a teacher and nurturing guardian of the poor and oppressed. In Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth, 1963) he affirmed the human rights of every individual and the duties that follow from our having rights: "Since men are social by nature they are meant to live with others and to work for one another's welfare". In 1967 Paul VI issued his hard-hitting Populorum Progressio (The Development of Peoples), calling attention to the way in which the poor were becoming poorer, and stating quite unequivocally the Church's refusal to endorse capitalism (and indeed socialism): "It is unfortunate that on these new conditions of society a system has been constructed which considers profit as the key motive for economic progress, competition as the supreme law of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right that has no limits and carries no corresponding social obligation." Powerful stuff, and in Octogesima Adveniens (A Call to Action, 1971), Paul VI reminded us that we are ALL responsible: "It is too easy to throw back on others the responsibility for injustice, if at the same time one does not realize how each one shares in it personally, and how personal conversion is needed first." John Paul II came back again and again to this question of the relationship between economic activity, social justice and the rights and responsibilities of the individual. In Laborem Exercens (On Human Work, 1981), he encouraged Christians everywhere to become involved in the transformation of society and to avoid simplistic solutions: "The church's constant teaching on the right to private property and ownership of the means of production differs radically from the collectivism proclaimed by Marxism, but also from the capitalism practiced by liberalism and the political systems inspired by it". In Solicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern, 1987) John Paul II reflected on the "structures of sin" to be found in society. His comment "One may sin by greed and the desire for power, but one may also sin in these matters through fear, indecision, and cowardice!" makes especially uncomfortable reading today. I could go on, but I don't mean to lecture. My point is that denouncing any particular group is often a facile way of apportioning blame so that we ourselves don't feel the need to examine our own conduct. There is no doubt that some people have, by their actions, imperilled others. The pursuit of profit without thought for morality or truth is something the Church has never condoned. But we mustn't forget that much of the fragility of the global economy is the result of our all wanting more. The growth of unreal expectations about what we are entitled to, and the funding of those expectations by debt is something very few of us in the west can say we have had no part in. St Benedict had a highly developed sense of the common good and the renunciations necessary to sustain it. Perhaps monasticism has more to say to our present crisis than might at first appear. If the papal documents mentioned above are too complex and lengthy for the time you have available, you may find dipping into the Rule of St Benedict will challenge you constructively enough.