Thomas Bokenkotter wrote in his book “Church and Revolution: Catholics in the Struggle for Democracy and Social Justice”:
“This book deals with an interesting historical question: How did the Catholic Church- which, on the morrow of the French Revolution, was one of the most conservative and even reactionary of the world powers- become, by the mid-twentieth century, a very progressive force in world affairs? As the well-known journalist Murray Kempton said in 1996, the Catholic Church is today the leading defender of human rights in the world. In its famous document “The Church in the Modern World” (Gaudium et Spes), the Second Vatican Council ranged over the whole gamut of contemporary social issues and put itself on record as totally committed to the struggle for greater social justice in every sector of human life. The council transformed the Church into a principled supporter of the institutions, practices, and principles of the free society.”
Bokenkotter noted that the Catholic Church, along with other Christian churches, has led in the fight to alleviate the sufferings of the poor and to battle for a more equitable system for the marginalized peoples of the world. The author traces this focus by the Catholic Church on Vatican II, but I believe that the Church’s involvement in promoting social change can be found much earlier, in the papal encyclicals starting with Pope Leo XIIIs Rerum Novarum. Since the time of Rerum Novarum, the papal encyclicals have been an inspiration for Catholics to engage in movements of social change.
Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, a time of vast social and economic changes in the world. Europe and the United States were industrializing at a rapid rate, which created a prosperous middle class in both areas. Along with the benefits of the rapid industrialization were the faults: the exploitation of the working class through long hours, poor working conditions, low wages, and the use of child labor. These workers were excluded from the benefits of their labor, and it created an unhealthy society. Many thinkers and radicals offered solutions to this problem, among them Karl Marx and his Das Kapital. While Marx was proclaiming religion as being the opiate of the masses for neglecting the plight of the poor and the workers in the emerging industrial society, Pope Leo XIII offered Rerum Novarum as a response. Rerum Novarum was deeply influenced by the medieval philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas and his ideas of a just society. It advocated the organization of workers into unions or guilds, the right of a “just wage”, the right of private property, and the obligation of the government to intervene for the “publilic good”. Here is a link to Rerum Novarum http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Leo13/l13rerum.htm.
Forty years later, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which amplified the themes found in Rerum Novarum. Issued in 1931, during the worldwide Great Depression, Quadragesimo Anno stated that the right of property must be subordinate to the common good and it delineated the idea of subsidiary, the idea that a greater and higher association should not do what a lesser and subordinate organization should do. At a time when communist, socialist and fascist movements were making headway in the troubled economic times, Quadragesimo Anno pushed for Christian workers associations to help workers conditions. Here is a link to Quadragesimo Anno http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius11/P11QUADR.HTM.
Pope Paul VIs encyclical Populorum Progressio built upon the achievements of Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, and it was also influenced by the liberal ideas of the 1960s. Issued in 1967, Populorum Progressio focused on the responsibilities of former colonial powers to its former colonies, the need of the state to help the poor, and a continuation of a critique of the previous two encyclicals of the pursuit of profit without any attendant social responsibilities. Pope Paul VI calls for a more equitable relationship between industry and labor: “But 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. This unchecked liberalism leads to dictatorship rightly denounced by Pius XI as producing ‘the international imperialism of money’. One cannot condemn such abuses too strongly by solemnly recalling once again that the economy is at the service of man. But if it is true that a type of capitalism has been the source of excessive suffering, injustices and fratricidal conflicts whose effects still persist, it would also be wrong to attribute to industrialization itself evils that belong to the woeful system which accompanied it. On the contrary one must recognize in all justice the irreplaceable contribution made by the organization of labor and of industry to what development has accomplished. ” Here is a link to Populorum Progressio http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Paul06/p6develo.htm.
Pope John Paul II is known as a firm anticommunist who was instrumental in the downfall of the Iron Curtain in the 1980s. What is less known is his critiques of capitalism in the tradition of Rerum Novarum. His encyclical, Laborem Exercens, in 1981, extolled work as dignifying people and thought of work as the basis for family life since it gives subsistence for families to thrive. John Paul’s concern was in making sure workers adjust to the changing technologies and how it changed the industries. He wrote: “We are celebrating the ninetieth anniversary of the Encyclical Rerum Novarum on the eve of new developments in technological, economic and political conditions which, according to many experts, will influence the world of work and production no less than the industrial revolution of the last century. There are many factors of a general nature: the widespread introduction of automation into many spheres of production, the increase in the cost of energy and raw materials, the growing realization that the heritage of nature is limited and that it is being intolerably polluted, and the emergence on the political scene of peoples who, after centuries of subjection, are demanding their rightful place among the nations and in international decision-making. These new conditions and demands will require a reordering and adjustment of the structures of the modern economy and of the distribution of work. Unfortunately, for millions of skilled workers these changes may perhaps mean unemployment, at least for a time, or the need for retraining. They will very probably involve a reduction or a less rapid increase in material well-being for the more developed countries. But they can also bring relief and hope to the millions who today live in conditions of shameful and unworthy poverty.” Here is a link to Laborem Exercens http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_….
Of these encyclicals, Populorum Progressio is my favorite because it is the easiest to read. These encyclicals have influenced Catholics to engage in social action and involve themselves in social movements to help the poor and marginalized. In the 1920s, Dorothy Day found a lot of sympathy for social justice for the poor in the encyclicals that coincided with her socialist views, and she converted and founded the Catholic Worker movement. In the 1960s, Catholics involved themselves in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements. Howard Zinn noted in his book A People’s History of the United States, “The antiwar movement, early in its growth, found a strange, new constituency: priests and nuns of the Catholic Church. some of them had been aroused b the civil rights movement, others by their experiences in Latin America, where they saw poverty and injustice under governments supported by the United States.” Priests and nuns like Father Philip Berrigan, Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, Mother Theresa, Father Eugene Boyle, and others worked to help the poor, worked for peace, worked to help the oppressed. A new book has come out called The Greatest Gift by Binka Le Breton about Sister Dorothy Stang, who worked in an Amazon town to protect poor farmers and their land from loggers and land developers until she was killed by gunmen in 2005.
Christians from other denominations have their own rich history of helping the poor and marginalized. We can learn from the experiences of Baptists, Episcopalians, Quakers, Lutherans, Evangelicals and other denominations, from our different traditions. I focused on the Catholic encyclicals because of the influence it had on my young life as a former Catholic. The book A People’s History of the United States respected the Catholic contributions to the poverty and peace movements, and it got me interested in researching a little on the roots of Catholic social activism. I learned a lot of things about the encyclicals that I didn’t know before. As an Episcopalian I am planning to read up on their history of activism.