Can Catholic social teaching change the world?

Pope Leo XIII (1900) by Philip de László

An Economics of Justice and Charity
by Thomas Storck, Angelico, 182pp, £13.50

This book looks at Catholic social teaching from the time of Pope Leo XIII at the end of the 19th century up to the present day, and focuses on papal teachings in particular.

It is thus, in essence, about the papal response to the modern economic, social and political theories which have shaped our modern world, and which are part of the “liberalism” which the Church has struggled with since the Reformation.

One of the main contentions of the author, in line with the teaching of recent popes, is that our modern economic situation and system cannot be seen as separate from a general consideration of culture, politics and religion, and that Catholics should be on their guard against the liberal ideology which asserts that economics is a discrete realm.

Although the beginning of modern Catholic social teaching is identified with Pope Leo XIII, and his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), as Storck points out, it is actually rooted in the teachings of Christ, the Church Fathers and the work of thinkers such as St Thomas Aquinas. But it has undergone a great development over the last century.

Catholic social teaching is far from being impractical, as some critics, even within the Church, maintain. Storck argues that mankind could, if it followed such teaching, create a far more just society, one in which “social charity could be the cement that holds society together”.

Pope Leo maintained that it was a duty of the rich to give liberally to the poor, but he defended private property against socialist criticism. He also advocated the principle that every man should be paid a just wage such that he could support his family “in reasonable comfort”.

In short, what recent popes have been proposing is not a tinkering around the edges of our present system, but rather, in the words of Pius XI, a reconstruction of the entire social order – which, as Storck points out is clearly a “gigantic task”.

For Pius, this reconstruction comprised the “reform of institutions and the correction of morals”. To this end, he promoted the idea of subsidiarity: that is, that functions and tasks in society should be done at the appropriate level and not directed and managed from the top down. Pius condemned the idea that totally free competition should be the ruling principle of an economy. Rather, this should be a combination of social justice and charity, which requires that society be organised so that it promotes the good of the whole, and of each of its parts.

Storck points out that in the West generally, the promotion of orthodox Catholicism has been chiefly focused on remedying a limited class of evils such as abortion, but without very much sense of Pius XI’s desire to see the entire social order reconstructed. This in no way, of course, understates the seriousness of the issue of abortion.

The remainder of the book is taken up with a discussion of the thinking of the popes from Pius XII to Pope Francis on Catholic social teaching, with an emphasis on that of St John Paul II, all done against a background of a rapidly developing world economy. This explains the emphasis from Paul VI in his encyclical Populorum Progressio on justice and charity for the poor of the whole earth.

Pope St John Paul II issued a number of social encyclicals in which he emphasised the priority of labour over capital, and argued that human work was a sharing in the work of God the Creator. Storck denies that this pope’s last social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, written in 1991 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, can be seen as a repudiation of past doctrine, or that it is supportive of a free market liberal (or libertarian) view of the state as a neutral force. John Paul II saw the proclamation of the Church’s social doctrine teaching as an essential part of the new evangelisation, arguing that merely political or social systems could not fulfil the transcendent aspirations in the heart of man.

Storck also has a chapter on the authority of the Church’s social teaching, and sees it as part of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, and thus as something which is binding on Catholics.

An Economics of Justice and Charity has a number of appendices on various topics, including usury, which the author maintains is illicit. He concludes that, while difficult, reconstructing the world economy is not impossible.

For the present, given the polarised state of the Church, he thinks people should become educated about the issues, and thus lay the foundations for future reform and reconstruction. A balanced and informative work, it rightly highlights a sometimes neglected aspect of Church teaching, and as such is worth the attention of any serious Catholic.