Born Joseph Ratzinger, the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI first came to the world’s attention as an insightful theologian at Vatican II. He would become more widely known as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) under Pope St. John Paul II, and was elected his successor in 2005. He is almost universally described as a conservative – and rightly so. But “conservative” in what sense?
In American politics we have developed a notion that “conservatives” favor small government and free markets while opposing government regulations and labor unions. That may be what self-styled “conservatives” in American politics stand for, but it’s a far cry from the original definition of “conservative” – one who is skeptical of change and wants to “conserve” traditions, customs and ways of life and governance.
A theological conservative, Ratzinger spent much of his career defending Church orthodoxy. As Prefect of the CDF it was his job to do so, and it often put him at odds with Catholic progressives seeking changes in the Church. What does this have to do with labor? The right of workers to form unions is an orthodox element of Catholic Social Teaching, established clearly in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum and reaffirmed repeatedly by his successors. While some of Ratzinger’s “conservative” fans hoped he would change this, as Pope Benedict XVI he maintained Church teaching in this regard. In fact, in his social Encyclical Caritas in Veritate, he offered the most emphatic endorsement of the right to organize you will find in a papal document:
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 honored today even more than in the past .
That’s Ratzinger’s conservatism in a nutshell. Skeptical of “social and economic change,” which he believed was harming workers and labor organizations. Favorable toward “traditional networks of solidarity.” Reminding the faithful of the “repeated calls issued within the Church’s social doctrine” to promote labor unions – adding only the flourish that, in a globalized world, this traditional teaching is even more important now than it was in the past.
The Pope Emeritus had a lot to teach us about our faith, and a little about what it means to be “conservative” too. For another take on this theme, check out Michael Sean Winters, American conservatives don’t understand the late Pope Benedict’s legacy.