Modern Catholic social teaching is generally seen as having begun with Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (On New Things).
The Church, to be sure, has always been concerned with social issues – with the poor, the sick, widows and orphans, and the imprisoned. That stems back to Jesus' identification of himself with those on the margins of society. "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
Over the centuries, the Church not only fed the poor and nursed the sick, it developed clear teaching that the Christian life was a life of giving oneself to the weak.
Nevertheless, the Church was thrown on the defensive by the rationalist intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries and then by the French Revolution and its bloody persecutions. The Church – the papacy in particular – became bitterly opposed to anything that smacked of social progress.
With the papacy of Leo XIII (1878-1903), however, a new wind blew through the Church. Pope Leo maintained that the Church would have to come to grips with the new social order. He saw no sense in trying to roll back the clock when the Church should be providing moral leadership in a changing society.
Pope Leo supported human liberty and wrote that democracy was an acceptable form of government. Far from endorsing a blanket endorsement for unrestrained capitalism, the pope saw the suffering it created and called for reform.
Rerum Novarum was a landmark document. In it, the pope said that workers are not commodities and that governments should protect them from exploitation. He defended their right to a just wage and to form unions. All people, not just the rich, have a right to private property.
Pope Leo's approach to social teaching was quite hierarchical – the pope was the shepherd; the laity were the sheep. But later teaching, beginning with Pope Pius XI (1923-39), emphasized the role of the laity in developing a just economic and social order.
Pope John XXIII (1958-63) addressed his social encyclicals to "all men of good will." He encouraged a positive engagement with society rather than simple condemnations.
Most recently, Pope John Paul II said that while the Church offers a moral perspective on society, it does not offer technical solutions to complex social problems. It is up to people of good will to apply moral principles in the concrete task of building a just society. The laity are the front line of social change.
Still today, many people demand that the Church keep its nose out of politics. The Church, they say, should not impose its religion on society. They portray the Church as a controlling institution, rather than one exercising and calling for moral leadership.
When people make this sort of accusation, we should ask:
These are some of the questions raised by papal social teaching. On one hand, these are not religious questions. All people of good will should ask them. On the other hand, these are questions with which our faith begs us to become involved.
Telling the Church to stay away from social issues and religious people not to witness their faith in the public square is, in the final analysis, to advocate a return to the unrestrained capitalism that Pope Leo argued against. Those who want an absolute separation of Church and state do not want these questions to be asked. The mere asking of such questions sets up a barrier to the trampling of human dignity in the cause of a false freedom.
Pope Leo began the systematic development of a coherent body of teaching on social issues. Catholics today are the heirs of that teaching. The Church, the laity in particular, have a growing responsibility to say "no" to the dictatorship of relativism and "yes" to the equal dignity of all people.
(Seventh in a series of articles)