Papal Encyclicals and other Vatican Documents

Rerum Novarum, 1893

This encyclical letter by Pope Leo XIII is often considered the founding document of modern Catholic social teaching. Alarmed that industrialization and laissez-faire economics were becoming the occasion of great injustice and misery for the working classes, the Holy Father called on the faithful to “save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making. It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies (42).” Leo argued that the worker’s right to a living wage took precedence over the free market. “Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent… nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice (43,45).” He argued against the laissez-faire ideology, stating that “if employers laid burdens upon their workmen which were unjust, or degraded them with conditions repugnant to their dignity as human beings; finally, if health were endangered by excessive labor, or by work unsuited to sex or age – in such cases, there can be no question but that, within certain limits, it would be right to invoke the aid and authority of the law (36).” He also endorsed the formation of “workingmen’s unions,” arguing that “it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient (49).”


Quadragesimo Anno, 1931

On the fortieth anniversary (quadragesimo anno) of Rerum Novarum, Pope Pius XI reaffirmed and elaborated its teaching. Pius expressed continuing concern about the unjust distribution of wealth, asserting that that “the distribution of created goods, which, as every discerning person knows, is laboring today under the gravest evils due to the huge disparity between the few exceedingly rich and the unnumbered propertyless, must be effectively called back to and brought into conformity with the norms of the common good, that is, social justice (58).” Against those who continued to advocate the laissez-faire state, he insisted that social regulation of the market was essential to justice and the common good. “Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces. For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching (88).” Finally, the Holy Father explained in some detail the idea of subsidiarity and its application in society. “The supreme authority of the State ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the State will more freely, powerfully, and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands. Therefore, those in power should be sure that the more perfectly a graduated order is kept among the various associations, in observance of the principle of “subsidiary function,” the stronger social authority and effectiveness will be the happier and more prosperous the condition of the State (80).”


Gaudium Et Spes, 1965

After holy Scripture itself, the statements of an ecumenical council are the most authoritative of all Church documents. The Council declared that the right to form labor unions without fear of retaliation a basic human right. “Among the basic rights of the human person is to be numbered the right of freely founding unions for working people. These should be able truly to represent them and to contribute to the organizing of economic life in the right way. Included is the right of freely taking part in the activity of these unions without risk of reprisal (68).”


Laborem Exercens, 1981

On the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II revisited the themes laid out by his predecessors, devoting a substantial section of his Encyclical to “The Importance of Unions (20).” The Holy Father observed that “the experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life” and that they serve as “a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice.” He clarified further the right to strike: “workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike.”


Centesimus Annus, 1991

On the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum — and in the wake of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe — Pope John Paul II returned to Catholic Social Teaching and the enduring importance of trade unions. “Society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers’ training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measures to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants and of those on the margins of society. The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area….The State must contribute to the achievement of these goals both directly and indirectly. Indirectly and according to the principle of subsidiarity, by creating favourable conditions for the free exercise of economic activity, which will lead to abundant opportunities for employment and sources of wealth. Directly and according to the principle of solidarity, by defending the weakest, by placing certain limits on the autonomy of the parties who determine working conditions, and by ensuring in every case the necessary minimum support for the unemployed worker.45”


Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 2004


Caritas in Veritate, 2009

Catholic thinkers in the United States (seldom elsewhere in Christendom) who oppose labor unions can frequently be heard asserting that Church teaching on unions applied only to the conditions at the start of the industrial revolution. In his Encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI addressed this error directly. “Through the combination of social and economic change, trade union organizations experience greater difficulty in carrying out their task of representing the interests of workers, partly because Governments, for reasons of economic utility, often limit the freedom or the negotiating capacity of labour unions. Hence traditional networks of solidarity have more and more obstacles to overcome. The repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine, beginning with Rerum Novarum, for the promotion of workers’ associations that can defend their rights must therefore be honoured today even more than in the past (25).”

— Clayton Sinyai, Catholic Labor Network