The Working Catholic: Social Doctrine
By Bill Droel
Modern Catholic social doctrine is officially 130-years old. It dates from Pope Leo XIII’s May 1891 encyclical, On the Condition of Labor. Subsequent popes (as will be mentioned) advance social doctrine, often on anniversaries of On the Condition of Labor.
Doctrines are derived from reflection on the accumulated experience of Christians in many societies and from an application of reason or science, particularly the social sciences. Doctrines are in harmony with God’s revealed Scripture. Dogma, by contrast, comes to us directly from revelation; it cannot be figured out only through study of nature. The dogma of the Trinity, for example, fits an understanding of nature but God had to reveal the Trinity to us. Dogma is not irrational; it is not opposed to science. It is true but not empirical, like a spouse’s love.
Western Europe in the time of Leo XIII (1810-1903) was experiencing industrialization which in turn attracted thousands of families to urban centers. This industrial era held forth many promises including a higher standard of living and conveniences. However, Leo XIII among others saw that industry and urban life came with a paradox: degrading working conditions and great poverty amid concentrated wealth. The Communist Manifesto of 1848 addressed the paradox and named a resolution: proletariat revolution. Leo XIII countered Marxism with Christian principles.
The bedrock principle of Catholic social doctrine is the intrinsic dignity of each person. Humanists all agree that modern individuals are free and can exercise appropriate agency. Jews, Christians and Muslims know that this truth is additionally supported in Scripture; that each person is created in the image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1:27 & Qur’an 17:70)
The modifier intrinsic is important because the term dignity is sometimes used carelessly. Intrinsic means built-in. For example, a husband does not give his wife dignity. She has it long before they meet. An employer does not give employees dignity. It comes with them in the morning and stays with them after they punch the clock. God put dignity into each person.
A negligent husband or an exploitative boss can, of course, degrade a person’s dignity. Thus an obligation to improve degrading situations follows from the principle of basic dignity. To that end On the Condition of Labor advocates for safe and humane working conditions, for a family wage and for the right of workers to collectively bargain. To achieve these and other improvements, Leo XIII says government’s role includes restraint on laissez-faire capitalism.
A subsequent column will discuss other social encyclicals—specifically St. John Paul II’s On Human Work on its 40th anniversary and the recent encyclicals of Pope Francis, one on inequality/environment and one on public friendship.
Officialdom uses the term Catholic social teaching for these encyclicals and a few other Church documents. I prefer the term Catholic social thought and action. This includes the official teaching but it also includes reflection on the teaching and its implementation in worldly settings. Doctrine is principles that tell us what to do. But, they have to be applied with prudence. As the principles hit the streets or corridors, right-minded people can disagree on the how to implement the doctrine in fluid situations. Here’s one small example: Catholic social doctrine says employees have a right to bargain collectively without the maternal or paternal meddling of their boss. The application, however, is more complex. Do we necessarily want a union at this workplace? If so, do we want this union or a different union or an independent union of our own making? If we do not want a union, what is our alternative mechanism for improving conditions at our workplace? Sincere employees can respectfully disagree with one another. This example becomes more complex if unfortunately the employer violates the starting principle or skirts the law. To be continued…
Obtain Droel’s booklet Catholic Administrators and Labor Unions from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $1.50).