Reading Quadragesimo Anno Part I

Reading Quadragesimo Anno Part I July 11, 2020

My reading group, having finished Rerum Novarum (see Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV) has moved on to the second great encyclical of Catholic social teaching, Quadragesimo Anno (hereafter QA), written by Pope Pius XI in 1931.  Though expressly building on the arguments made by Leo XIII, this is a very different encyclical in many ways.  One of the first things we noted is that the world had changed considerably since 1891.  The industrial revolution, while having been a major force in Europe through the 19th century (building up in different countries at different times), by 1931, the whole world was industrialized and controlled economically by capitalism (with one small exception, Russia).  Europe, which in the 19th century had been controlled by large empires, had seen these broken up by the savagery of World War I, and nationalism, and democratic or quasi-democratic nation states were now the norm.  (Imperialism and colonialism still persisted throughout what we now call the third world; these would last for another 30 years and would not become a major part of the Church’s reflections until then.)  Many of these governments had begun to respond to the worst excesses of capitalism, and the labor movement was now a considerable political and economic power.  Finally, socialism had moved from an abstract alternative to capitalism to a reality:  the Bolshevik revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union created the first alternative to capitalism.  While the more prescient on the Left saw the faults and failings of this first “socialist” state (e.g., Zamyatin and Max Eastman), much of the Left still looked to the Soviet Union as an example of a viable alternative to capitalism.

The encyclical itself acknowledged many of these changes, mentioning WW I (par. 22), the rise of labor law (par. 28), and state intervention in the economy (par. 26).  But, surprisingly, there was no mention of the Great Depression, which had started almost two years before with the crash of 1929.  This is a curious omission:  the only theory I could come up with was that, being in the midst of it, the Pope did not truly recognize the dimensions of the economic catastrophe unfolding around the world.

One thing that struck me in reading the encyclical was that there was a definite shift in tone from Rerum Novarum.  One small sign struck me immediately:  the opening salutation “To our venerable brethren…” adds in the last line that it is addressed to “all the faithful in the Catholic world.”   The text goes on to talk about the reception of Rerum Novarum, not only by its explicit audience of “Patriarchs, Primates, Archbishops, Bishops, and other ordinaries”  but also by the laity, and in particular by working men (par. 13, 15) and by academics studying social questions (par. 19).   It is not clear when salutations on papal encyclicals changed, but I think that this marks an important point in which the papacy acknowledges the critical role that the laity play in bringing Catholic teaching alive in the secular world.

Another change is the much more understanding tone regarding workers and their plight.  Rerum Novarum clearly acknowledged the problems of the working class, but in a number of locations seemed more concerned by the response of workers (strikes, socialism, violent demonstrations) than by the factors which led to it.  Pius XI, on the other hand, seems to acknowledge the anger and desperation of the workers:

One class, very small in number, was enjoying almost all the advantages which modern inventions so abundantly provided; the other, embracing the huge multitude of working people, oppressed by wretched poverty, was vainly seeking escape from the straits wherein it stood….The workers, on the other hand, crushed by their hard lot, were barely enduring it and were refusing longer to bend their necks beneath so galling a yoke; and some of them, carried away by the heat of evil counsel, were seeking the overturn of everything, while others, whom Christian training restrained from such evil designs, stood firm in the judgment that much in this had to be wholly and speedily changed. (par. 3-4)

Another difference is that there is a degree of openness to the non-Catholic world.  While still being (understandably) Catholic centered, it mentions that there has been Catholic opposition to Rerum Novarum  (par. 4o), while at the same time the encyclical has found a positive reception and application by non-Catholics (cf. par. 21-22).  It is reasonable to ask what was the real impact of the encyclical on non-Catholic thought:  a quick search for literature did not turn up anything.  But what is important is that the encyclical itself thought it was important to mention non-Catholics.

Another striking difference is that QA explicitly names the ideology that underpins Western capitalism and is the ideology of the ruling class, referring to it as liberalism.    And its denunciation of liberalism is strong and immediate, mentioning it five times in the first six pages, writing that Rerum Novarum “boldly attacked and overturned the idols of Liberalism” (par 14) (though the word liberalism never appears in the text of Rerum Novarum), repudiated the “liberal” notion that government is “a mere guardian of law and of good order” (par. 25), said that the “principles of Liberalism were tottering” (par. 27), and condemned the fact that “in many nations those at the helm of State, plainly imbued with Liberalism, were showing little favor to workers’ associations of this type” (par 30),  i.e., unions.   The text, not surprisingly, mentions socialism the same number of times in the first six pages, and many more times subsequently.  But the fact that the opposing philosophy is named and condemned is an important step forward.  Also, though beyond the section which we read, I noticed a much later passage in which Pius XI blamed socialism on liberalism:

let all remember that Liberalism is the father of this Socialism that is pervading morality and culture and that Bolshevism will be its heir. (par. 122)

It was suggested by a member of the group that the reason Pius XI chose to call out liberalism is that in the 40 years since Rerum Novarum, hindsight had shown that while socialism was a dangerous movement intellectually, all of the existing social and economic problems in Western Europe and the United States were caused by a capitalist system underpinned by liberalism.  While socialism had led to various revolutionary movements, the only successful one was the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, which was, in many ways, not the center of attention.  Or, to adapt an expression from the late 20th century:  while “real existing socialism” was not to become a European phenomenon until after World War II, “real existing capitalism” was the immediate problem.

A significant portion of our discussion was devoted to trying to understand what Pius XI meant by liberalism.  Clearly he did not mean it in the current usage, which is much more akin to what he is taking about, since it involves state intervention in the economy and a social safety net (and which, amusingly in light of the quote above, is used as a pejorative one step removed from socialism). There was a 19th century philosophical tradition, part of the Anglo/American school of philosophy, that is often referred to as classical liberalism, and is currently represented by the libertarian movement.  Prominent thinkers associated with it include John Locke, Adam Smith,  and J.S. Mill.  It is not easy to give a concise definition of this philosophy, but it emphasized small government, freedom of the individual, and property rights.  What I do not know is to what extent this is the same definition that would be given by a continental philosopher in the 19th century to this term, though the fact that Pius XI later refers to the “teaching of the so-called Manchesterian Liberals” (par. 54) suggests that some variant of classical liberalism was what he had in mind.

While QA does not give an explicit definition, from its critique we can deduce some of the key aspects of what Pius XI meant by liberalism.  In par. 4, he criticizes the belief of the rich that “their abundant riches [are] the result of inevitable economic laws,” and the belief that “the whole care of supporting the poor [is] committed to charity alone.”  As noted above, in par. 25 he rejects the liberal belief that the only role of government is to be the “guardian of law and of good order.”  He expands upon this in par. 30, suggesting that under liberalism, the government is openly aligned with capitalists and opposed to workers and their interests.

Pius XI praises Rerum Novarum for introducing an alternative to both liberalism and socialism, though the outlines of what this alternative consists of remain unclear.  It certainly involves labor unions and other workers associations, state intervention in the economy to the extent of protecting workers rights and interests, and state support for mediating institutions that provide relief for the poor.  Our goal as we continue reading QA is to understand more fully what this new alternative would entail.

We finished with a somewhat amusing discussion of what to call this Catholic vision.  I referred to it as a “Third Way” (with apologies to Tony Blair), but one member of the group objected strongly to this description.   He argued that this description suggested that the Pope was looking to strike a balance between capitalism and socialism and was simply responding to them.  He felt that this undervalued the original contributions (in terms of the anthropology of the human person, social order, etc.) that the Catholic Church was and is trying to make.  Now it is certainly true that the Church was responding to both liberalism and socialism, and in particular to what I call the “real existing capitalism,” but after further reflection I think he does have point.  Pius XI argues that Leo XIII, in writing Rerum Novarum

sought no help from either Liberalism or Socialism, for the one had proved that it was utterly unable to solve the social problem aright, and the other, proposing a remedy far worse than the evil itself, would have plunged human society into great dangers. (par 10)

And, while I did criticize Rerum Novarum for its uncritical acceptance of capitalism and the associated social order (e.g., the existence of the working class and the capitalists), it is clear that QA itself, building on earlier, implicit ideas, is prepared to challenge at least some of the philosophical underpinnings of capitalism, which in turn suggests it trying to build a wholly new basis for this critique,  “a social and economic science in accord with the conditions of our time.” (par 19)  Tune in for our subsequent discussions where we try to figure out what this.

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