The Catholic Church, Capitalism and Socialism
Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum,or ‘Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour’ of 15 May 1891 can be seen as the social manifesto of the Roman Catholic Church. Its popularity as a social document has diminished probably even more than the atrophying authority of the Church itself, but while, effectively, other Papal pronouncements remain as Church policy only because their renunciation would bring into serious question the authority of their Papal authors, Rerum Novarum still reflects the acknowledged social doctrine of the Church.
Leo begins by denouncing on moral grounds the chasm between rich and poor – which, paradoxically, is an inevitable feature of the class society which he steadfastly supports, capitalism wherein originates the ‘enormous fortunes of some individuals and the abject poverty of the masses.’
The Pope spells out his vision of what would be morally and economically correct for the working class in a society where the Church’s moral guidance would underpin capitalism: The wages of the working man – ‘a woman by nature is fitted for home-work’ – should not be regulated by free contract only and ‘ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-conducted wage earner… if a workman’s wages is sufficient to comfortably support himself, his wife and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift; and he will not fail, by reducing expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income… The Law should support ownership.’ This in various ways is repeated and emphasised not only in this Encyclical but in succeeding Encyclicals by later Popes. Wealth, property. ownership, these are all ‘natural rights’ enthusiastically endorsed by the Church.
The Church, in the person of Leo and his successors, affirms that society should not be classless: ‘It is impossible to reduce human society to one dead level… It is a great mistake to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class and that the wealthy and the working-men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict… Capital cannot do without Labour nor Labour without Capital.’ The Pope here is obviously taking a swipe at socialism but does not say why he thinks socialists would want to either reduce or elevate human beings to one ‘dead level’ nor does he tell us how Capital could dig a field.
In his On the Reconstruction of the Social Order (May 1931, Pope Pius XI re-affirms and endorses the attitude to the social question put forward by Leo XIII. Especially does Pius leave no doubt as to the attitude of the Church in relation to socialism/communism. He again encourages Catholic workers to organise in Catholic trade unions and finds it unfortunate that these sectarian organisations have not attracted the numbers that what he calls the Socialist and Communist unions – by which he means non-sectarian – attract.
Pius trenchantly defends the right of private property; by this he does not mean one’s habitation or items of personal value. He means capital, effectively the minority ownership of the entire means of life of the whole of society. Still, the Pope laments ‘There are those who falsely and unjustly accuse the Supreme Pontiff [himself] and the Church of upholding the wealthier classes against the proletariat.’
Pius on behalf of the Catholic Church answers those who think they can reconcile religion with the concept of a society based on common ownership and the production of goods and services solely for use. Indeed, the one truth we could find in all this Papal nonsense is Pius’s assertion that ‘No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a Socialist properly so- called.’