Reading Quadragesimo Anno, Part III

Reading Quadragesimo Anno, Part III July 26, 2020

This is the third in my series of ruminations on Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, the second great papal encyclical on Catholic social teaching.  Follow these links to find Part I and Part II.

This week we read paragraphs 76 to 110, which includes discussions on social organization and the state, and then a brutal denunciation of what I have come to term real existing capitalism–i.e., the global capitalist system that had arisen the in 19th century and by 1931 (the year the encyclical was written) was the dominant force in the world.   There are a lot of deep and important ideas laid out in this section, and our discussions missed several–I will come back to these at the end of this post.

Our discussion stared by going sideways, but in a way which brought to light a question we discussed earlier in talking about QA but also when reading Rerum Novarum.  We have a general sense that that Catholic social teaching (up to this point) does a very good job of diagnosing what is wrong with the world and in particular with the social institutions that make up capitalism, but tell us less about what the ideal Catholic future should look like.  (In fairness, Marx himself was far better able to systematically analyze the failures of capitalism than he was to describe a communist future.)  But one of our members, in the very last sentence of the paragraphs we were reading, detected an ominous portent of a Catholic future:

The public institutions themselves, of peoples, moreover, ought to make all human society conform to the needs of the common good; that is, to the norm of social justice. If this is done, that most important division of social life, namely, economic activity, cannot fail likewise to return to right and sound order. (par 110, emphasis added)

He saw in this desire to enforce conformity to a particular vision of the common good, echoes of the totalitarianism of the left and right that plagued the 20th century.   I was reminded of a quote from We, the dystopian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a one-time Bolshevik who turned against the revolution:

If they fail to understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to compel them to be happy. But before resorting to arms, we shall try the power of words. (Chap. 1)

His reading was not universally shared:  some of us argued that this was not about enforcing a particular vision of the common good, but rather the need to structure institutions so that the “common good” was a motivating principle in the determining what constitutes good and bad decisions.  However, what this did do was lead us to discuss the role of the state in actualizing Catholic social teaching.

Pius XI does not dwell much, in the abstract, on the structure of the state. While there are some  Catholic integralist tendencies, they are not central.  His only comment on the form of government is to quote (in an approving but slightly different context) the words of Leo XIII in RN:

The teaching of Leo XIII on the form of political government [is] that men are free to choose whatever form they please, provided that proper regard is had for the requirements of justice and of the common good.  (par 86, quoting RN par. 32).

But in several places in sees a role for an activist government, one which seems to have authoritarian tendencies (in the cause of the common good).  In particular, in paragraphs 91-96.  He describes a “[r]ecently…inaugurated…special system of syndicates and corporations.” (par 91)  I was not sure what this was referring to, and thought perhaps it was something out of Weimar Germany.  But someone else pointed out that Pius XI is almost certainly describing the Fascist system set up by Mussolini in Italy beginning in 1927.   Though not a direct endorsement of Fascism, we were wondering if the Pope found the communitarian, almost organic notions of society in Fascism, provided they were grounded in Catholic principles (which he may have, naively, assumed they would have been), an anodyne to liberal/capitalist individualism and communist collectivism.   It has been argued that Italian Fascism and the Church were closely linked; see also this Marxist analysis from the 1940s.   Obviously, the text itself cannot resolve this question.  We returned to the role of the state later in the discussion.  (See below.)

We next turned to the encyclical’s condemnation of the existing capitalist system, in paragraphs 99-110.   These paragraphs are an unflinching examination of the multiple grave evils:

The distortion and exploitation of financial markets: “immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure.” (par. 105)

The use of economic power to control politics: “the bitter fight to gain supremacy over the State in order to use in economic struggles its resources and authority.” (par. 108, see also par. 109)

The twin evils of economic imperialism and global finance:  “two different streams have issued from the one fountain-head: On the one hand, economic nationalism or even economic imperialism; on the other, a no less deadly and accursed internationalism of finance or international imperialism whose country is where profit is.” (par 109)

It is not too much of a stretch to say that despite the somewhat archaic language, much of this argument would not sound out of place at a meeting of the Democratic Socialists of America or an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.    (As an aside, this fact reminded one of us of a pop quiz posted by CNN:  who said it, Bernie Sanders or Pope Francis?)  Despite Pius XI’s later language denouncing socialism, there is no way that this encyclical can be read as a defense of capitalism.  This is a theme which will be expanded upon by later popes, especially John Paul II and Francis.   But here, QA makes it clear that the current system–while founded upon free markets and private ownership of property, ideals that the Church upholds–is fundamentally contrary to Catholic teaching and must be reformed immediately.  Recall the language from earlier about just wages: “social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman.” (par. 71)

Though this encyclical is often quoted for its condemnation of socialism–“no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (par. 120, a quote which has appeared on the letterhead of the arch-conservative Catholic newspaper The Wanderer for many years), I think it is fair to summarize the other main argument of the encyclical as:  “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true capitalist”, at least not without substantially redefining the word capitalist.  (Or, as is now said in the world of comic book fandom, retconning capitalism.)

This led us back to the question of what the alternatives to capitalism and socialism are, what the role of the state should be in bringing these into existence, and the role of the Church in leading society to organize for the common good.   Part of this was the realization that the Church has been criticizing capitalism in language that is as appropriate now as it was 90 years ago, but it seems to have had very little impact:  why didn’t QA have a greater impact?  There is no simple answer to that question as the Church was in the middle of a period of upheaval in the secular world, and that same upheaval was working its way through the Church.   One problem at the time is that the Church was not yet equipped to deal effectively with pluralism.   It could envision Catholics solutions that would work in a Catholic state, consisting of only Catholic citizens; it was not able to work well with secular states and diverse populations in which Catholics might only be a minority (such as in the United States).  It would take Vatican II to lay the theological groundwork for this.

Our discussion then began to anticipate in some ways the final argument of the encyclical (paragraphs 136-148), about the role of the laity in making present and disseminating Catholic social teaching.   Reference was made to the priesthood of all believers, and the way in which our baptismal sharing in the role of Christ as “priest, prophet and king” charges us with the “kingly duty” of upholding a right social order whose end is the common good.   One of our members, who has a strong interest in evangelization, noted that Catholic social teaching on the economy gets us listened to, and that the “seat at the table” that earns us, can help us evangelize secular culture.   This is hard work and at times is frustrating.  But one member pointed us to the poem Patient Trust by Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

For my part, I kept coming back to a passage by Antonio Gramsci that I had found a couple weeks ago while looking for something else.  (I love Google!)  Gramsci was an Italian Marxist who was imprisoned by the Fascists for the last 11 years of his life (1926-1937).  In his Prison Notebooks I found a collection of passages about Catholic social teaching in which he accused the Church of crafting a powerful teaching which it refused to uphold:

On Catholic ‘social thought’, it seems to me that one can make the preliminary critical observation that we are not dealing with a political programme that is compulsory for all Catholics and towards whose attainment the forces of organized Catholicism are oriented, but purely and simply with a ‘bundle of political argumentations’, both positive and negative, which are lacking in political concreteness…In actual fact, the Church does not want to compromise itself in practical economic life and does not involve itself to the hilt to either put into effect those social principles which it asserts and which have not been put into practice, or defend, maintain or restore those subsequently destroyed situations  in which a part of those principles had already been put into effect. (Q5, Section 7)

It is hard to say if this is a fair criticism or not.  Gramsci was an astute (albeit biased social critic) so I do not want to dismiss this out of hand by saying he hated the Church.  And the fact remains that while most everyone is aware (at least superficially) of Church teaching on abortion or birth control, very few Catholics are aware of Church teaching on capitalism, and more than a few would denounce some of QA as socialism.   I am more interesting in figuring out to show that it is wrong, rather than just claiming that its.

This wrapped up our discussion.  Next week we will finish the encyclical, first discussing the condemnation of socialism, and then moving on to discuss the reform of morals required to affect changes to capitalism.


Coda: After our discussions I got email from one of our members noting that there were several key ideas in the section that we read that were important for future discussions, since they became foundational for Catholic social teaching.  In our discussions we had touched upon the expression “economic dictatorship” which appears four times in QA–pars. 88, 105, 109, 110–and which is used to describe the power that untrammeled capitalism gives the wealthy few over the economy, over the state, and over international relations.   A more recent term which captures the same idea is “the one percent“.   This term has become central to the thought of Pope Francis during his papacy:  see here, for instance.  As an Argentinian I suspect it resonates with the bitter experience of Argentina under the World Bank and IMF.

Three other expressions that come up in the text are subsidiarity, social justice, and social charity.  Subsidiarity, along with the complementary idea of solidarity, are treated in paragraph 80, developing on ideas from RN:

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.

Social justice is mentioned in eight different paragraphs (57, 58, 71, 74(x2), 88, 101, 110, 126).  A brief definition is sketched in paragraph 57:

But not every distribution among human beings of property and wealth is of a character to attain either completely or to a satisfactory degree of perfection the end which God intends. Therefore, the riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all, which Leo XIII had praised, will be safeguarded; in other words, that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate. By this law of social justice, one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits.

A further amplification is given in a later in Divini Redemptoris, On Atheistic Communism, in 1937:

In reality, besides commutative justice, there is also social justice with its own set obligations, from which neither employers nor workingmen can escape. Now it is of the very essence of social justice to demand for each individual all that is necessary for the common good. But just as in the living organism it is impossible to provide for the good of the whole unless each single part and each individual member is given what it needs for the exercise of its proper functions, so it is impossible to care for the social organism and the good of society as a unit unless each single part and each individual member – that is to say, each individual man in the dignity of his human personality – is supplied with all that is necessary for the exercise of his social functions. If social justice be satisfied, the result will be an intense activity in economic life as a whole, pursued in tranquillity and order. This activity will be proof of the health of the social body, just as the health of the human body is recognized in the undisturbed regularity and perfect efficiency of the whole organism.

This is powerful for providing a framework for understanding what is meant by “the common good”, a term which itself appears twenty times in QA, but is never really defined.  It is also important, from a rhetorical point of view, in answering those who argue that concerns for “social justice” are either foreign to Catholic teaching or at best peripheral to it.

Finally, there is the closely allied concept of social charity, which appears three times in QA, always in connection with social justice:  pars. 88(x2), 126. Though undefined, it would seem, in parallel with the discussion about the individual and social character of private property, that social charity is distinct from personal charity, and involves social institutions.  Moreover, the state is to have an active role in it:

Social charity, moreover, ought to be as the soul of this order, an order which public authority ought to be ever ready effectively to protect and defend. (par. 88)

This category needs to be explored more fully; the Catechism (par. 1939) links it to solidarity.  I am going to very interested in seeing how this idea plays out going forward, and the ways in which it can be used to both support and critique the modern welfare state.

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