Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 15, No. 12, December 2019
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Irreducibility of Catholic Social Thought
to Liberalism and Socialism

Giorgio Baruchello

December 2019


Encyclicals are letters on doctrinal matters addressed to all the bishops of the Catholic Church and they have played a key-role in expanding, expressing and explaining the doctrina socialis initiated in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII with his encyclical Rerum Novarum (“About new events”). In their encyclicals, the popes synthesise and express the conclusions reached by past pontiffs, councils and reputed theologians, in detailed combination with Biblical, authoritative, pastoral and other Church documents (i.e. constitutions, decrees and declarations by ecumenical and pontifical councils, documents issued by congregations, the Holy See’s charter of rights, canon law, the Catechism). References to international law are present too and they have become more and more frequent since the end of World War II, e.g. the Charter of the United Nations (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Several popes of the 20th century issued encyclical letters on social matters, building upon the founding stone set in place by Leo XIII in 1891. Prominent in this respect are Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931), John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963), Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio (1967), and John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens (1981), Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), Centesimus Annus (1991) and Evangelium Vitae (1995). In the 21st century, in addition to Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate (2009), Francis’ Laudato si’ (2015) stands out for tackling environmental issues. Additionally, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published in 2004 a Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which systematises and reiterates the main tenets of this doctrina socialis.

Pope Leo XIII
The social doctrine of the Church has undergone many refinements, specifications and integrations over a relatively short life. Yet, a strong sense of continuity is built in each and all of the encyclicals, as also signalled by extensive cross-citations, recurrent publication dates (e.g. the 15th of May) and direct references in the titles (i.e. “on the fortieth year” and “on the hundredth year” [since the publication of Rerum Novarum]).

As economic considerations are concerned, there have been several recurring points of emphasis running throughout this well-established yet still-developing intellectual tradition, whose “Magna Charta” remains however “Leo's Encyclical” (Pius XI 1931: para. 39). In this pivotal encyclical, Leo XIII describes and justifies an economic order that is alternative to both liberalism and socialism, soon to be known as ‘the third way’ of the Church of Rome, and variously undertaken by many politicians and political parties in the real world during the 20th century.

The distinctiveness of Catholicism with regard to both liberalism and socialism had already been established in political theory by conservative Catholics after 1848, primarily thanks to Juan Donoso Cortés’ (1809-1853) Essays on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism (1851). A progressive Catholic, Leo XIII reinforced in his own way such a distinctiveness.

On the one hand, in Rerum Novarum, the Pope argues that socialists are correct in their diagnosis of the ills of contemporary society. According to Leo XIII (1891: para. 3), there is no denial that “a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself”, primarily by abolishing “the ancient workingmen's guilds… in the last century, and no other protective organization [taking] their place.” Additionally, “[p]ublic institutions and the laws [have] set aside the ancient religion” in the name of an alleged individual freedom (of contract, enterprise, etc.) that, in actuality, means “the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition… increased by rapacious usury… practiced by covetous and grasping men.” (para. 3)

On the other hand, socialists are mistaken in the remedy they wish to employ. As Leo XIII argues: “the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal.” (para. 15)

Leo XIII’s critique of socialism is based upon the justification of private ownership as the most rational means of utilisation of God’s Creation for the wellbeing of humankind at large (paras. 4-14). Private ownership is deemed consonant with our natural inclination towards searching for, and deriving enjoyment from, the private possession of things beneficial to us and to our beloved ones. The institution of private property is per se a sign of natural rationality, not of sinful greed. In addition, it is said to spur industrious behaviour and ingenious productivity. Finally, it is also said to facilitate the orderly organisation and effective division of labour within society: “The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners”. (para. 46) Private ownership should be widespread and entrepreneurship thrive, so that persons may grow in perfection by exercising their freedom and diverse abilities responsibly (e.g. by running cooperative enterprises, which are still present in many Catholic countries). Liberty, albeit important, does not reign supreme. Responsible acceptance of good restraints to freedom is a standard feature of Catholic, if not Christian thought. Even from John Milton’s (1608-1674) radically Protestant and anti-Catholic perspective, to seek freedom above all was Satan’s misguided aim. As he wrote in his Paradise Lost (book I, verses 258-9 and 263): “…Here at least / We shall be free… Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”

Society’s needs, including its internal equilibrium, and other people’s needs, their dignity included, are among such restraints, contra the commonplace liberal emphasis on individual liberty, as exemplified by Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) social atomism. As Bentham writes in his 1789 Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (chapter I, para. 5): “the community is a fictitious body, composed of the individual persons who is considered as constituting as it were its members. The interest of the community then is, what is it?— the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it.” Nothing could be further removed from the Church’s communal understanding of the human person who, along Aristotelian and Thomist lines of thought, can only flourish by way of social embeddedness and self-understanding.

Within this Aristotelian and Thomist conceptual framework, workers should seek lawful gain through lawful employment, which is a requirement for human wellbeing and personal dignity, but also a call to responsible behaviour. To make sure that such a behaviour occurs (e.g. no damaging strikes, no Luddite sabotage of machineries), Leo XIII does not stress top-down factory discipline, as commonplace as that theme may have been in his day. Quite the opposite, he discusses the notion that entrepreneurs and workers should come together and cooperate in as many peaceful bottom-up associations as their intelligent creativity is capable of (i.e. what will come to be known in the doctrina socialis as the principle of subsidiarity, especially as exemplified by co-ownership and co-management), holding things privately and pursuing profit, but always cum grano salis, i.e. without compromising morals, family life, general wellbeing, social cohesion and international peace.

While a modicum of wealth and self-aggrandisement can be accepted as expressions of the good human propensity to self-perfection, entrepreneurship and the profit-motive remain means, not ends in themselves. Moreover, first things come first: lacking morals, families’ stability, general contentment, social unity and peaceful exchanges between nations, no economic order can prosper, including one in which private property, entrepreneurship and the profit-motive are allowed. Today, Francis’ Laudato si’ has added environmental considerations to this lot: without healthy ecosystems, no economic order can truly function, i.e. no economic system can deliver actual wellbeing for present and future persons. The point may seem obvious, but both economic theory and business practices still operate in dire contradiction of it.

In all likelihood, the inability to act globally in a truly sustainable manner is the result of an inability to think along actually sustainable lines. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, while “socialism” transformed into a past and largely mythical piece of negative rhetoric, liberal conceptions of the economy, politics, and society became the unchallenged masters in the realm of theory, while self-serving plutocratic oligarchy became an accepted fact in practice. In dire need of alternative paradigms and principles of human conduct, the Social Doctrine of the Church may help challenge the current status quo, which has proved unable to stem in the ongoing climate crisis threatening human survival on our fragile planet.


Born in Genoa, Italy, Giorgio Baruchello is an Icelandic citizen and works as Professor of Philosophy at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Akureyri, Iceland. He read philosophy in Genoa and Reykjavík, Iceland, and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Guelph, Canada. His publications encompass several different areas, especially social philosophy, theory of value, and intellectual history. Northwest Passage Books has recently published five volumes of collected essays by him.

"The wound is the place where the Light enters you."

— Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)


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