Reading Quadragesimo Anno, Part IV

Reading Quadragesimo Anno, Part IV August 9, 2020

This post is the fourth and final part of my ruminations on Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI’s major contribution to Catholic social teaching.  You can can read the earlier reflections here:  Part I, Part II, Part III.   It follows up on earlier blog posts on Rerum Novarum by Leo XIII.  Next week, we move on to reading Mater and Magistra by Pope John XXIII.

Our discussion started off by returning to some of the terms I mentioned in the coda to my last post:  subsidiarity, social justice, and social charity.  Subsidiarity, discussed in paragraphs 79-80 has grown to play a very important role in CST, though it has often been abused.  The Acton Institute, for instance, really seems to confuse it with small government libertarianism, a reading which is only sustainable by overlooking large parts of the papal encyclicals.   We readily agreed that it means striking a balance, avoiding both overly centralizing tendencies (which was certainly a problem in many versions of state socialism)  and an attempt to reduce everything to individuals at the local level, and leaving any government out of it.  For me, a good example of this need for balance is given by the states rights movement, which during the Civil Rights movement opposed desegregation as federal imposition on local communities, and argued that these problems had to be addressed locally.   It seems clear that in this case, the lowest level at which the fundamental problems of racism and Jim Crow could be addressed lay with the federal government, which in turn was feeling pressure internationally.  (It is hard to argue you are in favor of “freedom” when a significant portion of your population is oppressed because of their skin color.)

We then spent some time trying to unpack the difference between social justice and social charity.   This is tricky because neither term is well-defined in the text at hand, and the word “charity” in English has become almost synonymous with alms-giving (which is part of personal charity).  It was suggested that one way to separate them is to look at different theories of justice (first brought up back in Rerum Novarum).  Social justice must include, at least initially, commutative or contractual justice:  that the dealings between individuals are small groups are equitable and that agreements are honored and carried out.   Leo XIII made reference to this in arguments which can be summarized by the aphorism, “a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.”   The liberalism which both RN and QA condemn, took this to be the sum total of social justice, and in theory restricted state action to upholding such contractual agreements.  It is worth noting that in practice such a narrow view of social justice does not work.  As the philosopher Zizek would put it, the obscene underbelly of liberal democracy is that the state exists to marshal its forces  to support the economic status quo.

Such a view of the state was condemned by both encyclicals.  (See especially par. 108 in QA) The state according to Leo and Pius existed to uphold distributive justice:  to ensure that the common good was upheld and that the universal destination of goods was respected.  It was suggested that this is what social charity entails:  the structuring of society so that goods were not hoarded or diverted to selfish ends (cf. par. 105) but were instead used to uphold the dignity of the worker and the common good. (Cf. par. 74-75 on the three-fold goals of just wages.)  However, in retrospect I think that this is still constitutive of social justice.

We got briefly side-tracked by a discussion of the connection between distributive justice and distributism, which is a proposed system of social organization championed by Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton.  This can be thought of as being an attempt to implement the ideas of RN and QA, and so to instantiate distributive justice in society.  I have not read a great deal about distributism, but I must confess that what little I have read has not attracted me to study it further–this is partly grounded in my distaste for Chesterton, whom I find smug and tiresom.  There is, however, a journal devoted to it that merits a second look:  The Distributist Review.

Getting back to the distinction between social justice and social charity, we moved ahead to par. 137, where Pius XI argues that both justice and charity are fundamental for the reform of society.  Social charity is an organizing principle that is over and above social justice:  one must have justice, but one must have more:

Admittedly, no vicarious charity can substitute for justice which is due as an obligation and is wrongfully denied. Yet even supposing that everyone should finally receive all that is due him, the widest field for charity will always remain open. For justice alone can, if faithfully observed, remove the causes of social conflict but can never bring about union of minds and hearts. (par. 137)

Social charity attempts to deal with the heart and minds and not just with externals. Or to put it in terms of language strongly resonant with the movement for restorative justice:  social justice restores right order to society, but social charity heals the wounds left by the previous lack of right order and the neglect of the common good.   This approach to social charity very much shaped the Church’s understanding of the Great Jubilee of 2000, which was shaped by numerous acts of confession and contrition by the Church with the aim of reconciliation.  (For a thorough discussion, see the International Theological Commission document Memory and Reconciliation, from 1999.)

It was suggested by one member of the group that the model for both social justice and social charity is Jesus himself, as described earlier in QA:

[M]ay they [disaffected workers] return whence they have left, to the home that is truly their Father’s, and may they stand firm there where their own place is, in the ranks of those who, zealously following the admonitions which Leo promulgated and We have solemnly repeated, are striving to restore society according to the mind of the Church on the firmly established basis of social justice and social charity. And let them be convinced that nowhere, even on earth, can they find full happiness save with Him who, being rich, became poor for our sakes that through His poverty we might become rich, Who was poor and in labors from His youth, Who invited to Himself all that labor and are heavily burdened that He might refresh them fully in the love of His heart, and Who, lastly, without any respect for persons will require more of them to whom more has been given and “will render to everyone according to his conduct.” (par 126)

I like this interpretation, but it requires accepting a very expansive understanding of the mission of Christ, one which moves beyond limited notions of “personal salvation” (and the subsequent pietism this induces) and embraces a social dimension to salvation history.  Social justice is as the blessed Virgin describes the mission of her son in the Magnificat:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)

Social charity, on the other hand, is to make present today the promise of Christ as described by St. Paul:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

In the present day, we cannot have social charity unless the divisions between workers and owners are healed in Christ.  (This is somewhat utopian, a problem I keep stumbling over:  see below.)  In a similar fashion, if truly enacted, social charity would prevent the sorts of concerns about government over-reach and the slippery slope into authoritarianism or totalitarianism:  a government which truly embraced social charity would seek to limit the use of force as much as possible–both the overt force of police and military, and the more subtle forms of coercion that come from regulation and financial support.  This, however, is a topic for another day.

We finally turned to the two remaining sections of the encyclical to be discussed.  The first was Pius XI’s condemnation of socialism.  Though this condemnation is pretty firm, it still shows much more nuance than those who just mechanically quote or paraphrase the injunction “no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist” (par. 120).  The encyclical acknowledges that there are different schools of thought within “socialism.”  While Bolshevism (or what we would now refer to as communism) is completely antithetical to Church teaching, “moderate” socialism which it describes thusly:

It not only professes the rejection of violence but modifies and tempers to some degree, if it does not reject entirely, the class struggle and the abolition of private ownership. (par. 113)

Though Pius XI does not give further detail, he is almost certainly thinking of the various strands of socialism that are referred to as reformist.  Reformism, as it was derisively called by the more radical Left, wanted to move away from capitalism, but felt that this was better accomplished via legislative reform than by violent revolution.   The pope saw significant commonalities between this movement and Catholic social teaching, but pulled back from exploring these connections by saying that any who held these positions should just embrace Church teaching and not be socialists:

Such just demands and desire have nothing in them now which is inconsistent with Christian truth, and much less are they special to Socialism. Those who work solely toward such ends have, therefore, no reason to become socialists. (par. 115)

In the end, the condemnation of socialism, even moderate socialism, is grounded not in a critique of its means or ends, but rather in its philosophical foundations: socialism is, ultimately, to be rejected because it is grounded in a materialism that acknowledges and values only the physical, and so ignores the spiritual and transcendent dimensions of human life:

Socialism, …. wholly ignoring and indifferent to this sublime end of both man and society, affirms that human association has been instituted for the sake of material advantage alone.  Because of the fact that goods are produced more efficiently by a suitable division of labor than by the scattered efforts of individuals, socialists infer that economic activity, only the material ends of which enter into their thinking, ought of necessity to be carried on socially. (par. 118-119)

This is a substantial and just charge against socialism, one which Catholics must take into consideration.  But it is important to notice that while it means that socialists are wrong in a fundamental sense about the human person, and that this error can lead to evil consequences (the Soviet Union is the obvious example), it does not mean, therefore, that their goals are themselves are contrary to what the Church teaches.  This point is very relevant in today’s debates:  one cannot dismiss out of hand some proposal as being contrary to the faith by simply labeling it “socialism.”

This question came up in a practical way soon after the encyclical was published:  Ramsey MacDonald, the head of the British Labor Party, asked Cardinal Bourne if Catholics were now forbidden from joining the Labor party (which was firmly rooted in the reformist model of socialism).  Bourne responded that there was nothing in QA that would bar Catholics from joining the party.   And, in the postwar period, the Church made its peace with what came to be called democratic socialism.   This is clearly seen in an article written by Pope Benedict in the journal First Things, where he said:

Democratic socialism managed to fit within the two existing models as a welcome counterweight to the radical liberal positions, which it developed and corrected….In many respects, democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.

The key point to be taken from this section on socialism, and the preceding one on market capitalism, is that both are failures, and the reason is that both of them are grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of the human person, which results exalting economic goods over the good of the integral human person, which must include both a spiritual and physical dimension.  In other words, any economic system must value the good of souls as well as the material goods that it produces.  Both real existing capitalism, and the proposed socialist remedies, are guilty of the “lamentable ruin of souls” (par. 136).  This perspective helps me understand an earlier passage:  “Liberalism is the father of this Socialism that is pervading morality and culture and that Bolshevism will be its heir” (par. 122).

The solution then, is to back off from this mistaken path and find a new solution based on Catholic first principles of the human person.  It will “salvage,” if you will, the ideas of private property and individual liberty from liberalism, and extract the demands for economic justice and the dignity of work from socialism, but it will ground them both on a different foundation.  Moreover, it will seek to create a new, reformed society by endeavoring to inculcate society with the Christian ideals:

Yet, if we look into the matter more carefully and more thoroughly, we shall clearly perceive that, preceding this ardently desired social restoration, there must be a renewal of the Christian spirit, from which so many immersed in economic life have, far and wide, unhappily fallen away, lest all our efforts be wasted and our house be builded not on a rock but on shifting sand. (par. 127)

The last section of the encyclical, roughly paragraphs 127-148, is concerned with the question of how the Church can rebuild the foundations of society in such a way that an economic system founded on the pillars of social justice and social charity, and whose end is the common good of all people, comes into existence.

This section, like Leo XIII’s paean to “workingmen’s associations” is simultaneously the most hopeful, most obscure and most frustrating section of the encyclical.  It clearly entails, in the language of the Secular Franciscan Order (and presumably other religious communities, both the initial formation of the young and young adults (especially seminarians) in Catholic social teaching, but also the ongoing formation of Catholic communities, both in parishes and via other organizations, such as the various branches of Catholic Action  (par. 138).   This should produce, leaders, “apostles”, who are both ordained and lay, drawn from both the working class and the wealthy (par. 140):

That these whole classes of men may be brought back to Christ Whom they have denied, we must recruit and train from among them, themselves, auxiliary soldiers of the Church who know them well and their minds and wishes, and can reach their hearts with a tender brotherly love. The first and immediate apostles to the workers ought to be workers; the apostles to those who follow industry and trade ought to be from among them themselves.

It is chiefly your duty, Venerable Brethren, and of your clergy, to search diligently for these lay apostles both of workers and of employers, to select them with prudence, and to train and instruct them properly. A difficult task, certainly, is thus imposed on priests, and to meet it, all who are growing up as the hope of the Church, must be duly prepared by an intensive study of the social question…These Our Beloved Sons who are chosen for so great a work, We earnestly exhort in the Lord to give themselves wholly to the training of the men committed to their care, and in the discharge of this eminently priestly and apostolic duty to make proper use of the resources of Christian education by teaching youth, forming Christian organizations, and founding study groups guided by principles in harmony with the Faith. (par. 142-143)

In reading this section, myself and other group members could definitely feel the call to action and the possibilities that it opens up.  The problem, for me anyway, is how to make this real and concrete.  Historically, there have been several attempts to bring these ideas to life.  In the United States, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement can definitely be viewed as a response to the Pope’s appeal, and I am sure that QA, and the various commentaries (e.g. by the National Catholic Welfare Conference) on it were the subject of much discussion in their circles “for the clarification of thought” as Peter Maurin described them.   But they remain at best a prophetic but marginal voice in the American Catholic community.

The giant worker cooperative Mondragon was founded by a priest in northern Spain, and is organized along principles very much in line with those in QA.  But workers cooperatives remain rare.

In the 1940s the French worker-priest movement sent priests to work in factories, to evangelize factory workers and to bring Catholic social teaching to life.  This experiment, however, was supressed in the 1950s.  The priests actively supported the workers demands for just wages and worked with their unions (including the large communist union), and this led to complaints from Catholic industrialists to the hierarchy, which led to the end of the program.

This last example, I think, illustrates for me a major obstacle in implementing the ideals of QA:  under real existing capitalism, the class structure is real, as is the antagonism between the working class and the capitalists.   In QA and previously in RN, Pope Pius and Pope Leo condemned this antagonism as contrary to Catholic principles, which it is.  But they give no clear idea of how to undo it.  The encyclical just looks forward to the day when

the rich and others in positions of power will change their former indifference toward their poorer brothers into a solicitous and active love, listen with kindliness to their just demands, and freely forgive their possible mistakes and faults. And the workers, sincerely putting aside every feeling of hatred or envy which the promoters of social conflict so cunningly exploit, will not only accept without rancor the place in human society assigned them by Divine Providence, but rather will hold it in esteem. (par. 137).

It seems to me that the problem is that the Church at this time still saw itself as a neutral party, as it were, trying to facilitate harmony and just relations between the two classes, while not fulling realizing the real consequences of the unequal balance of power between the two.   This problem will not be addressed later, when the Catholic Church realized that it needed to adopt a more prophetic stance and take a firmer stand on the side of the worker and other marginalized communities, by standing firm for a preferential option for the poor.

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