Pius XII on the Church’s economic competence

At The Josias, a translation of Pius XII’s 1941 address commemorating the 50th anniversary of Rerum novarum has been made available.  (Full disclosure: we helped prepare it for publication.) Obviously, we encourage you to read the whole thing at The Josias. This is, if we do say so ourselves, another great example of the value of that project. The 1941 address was, as the introductory note points out, hugely significant for St. John XXIII in particular, who drew upon it for his own encyclicals, Mater et magistra and Pacem in terris. However, until now, it has not been widely available in English. Now it is possible for Catholics interested in the full scope of the Church’s social teaching to read an important address on the topic, which was considered extremely important at the time and in subsequent years. We suspect that its new availability will help restore some of its lost luster.

To whet your appetite for the full address, we present one passage on a subject of perennial importance (and controversy): what is the authority of the Church on matters of economics? Whenever the pope says something at odds with the prevailing liberal order, a chorus of Catholic voices can be reliably counted upon to cry that the pope is not an economist, that he does not have the authority to pronounce upon such matters, and that Catholics may safely ignore him. Not so fast, Papa Pacelli says:

It was in the profound conviction that the Church has not only the right but even the duty to make an authoritative pronouncement on the social question that Leo XIII addressed his message to the world. He had no intention of laying down guiding principles of the purely practical, we might say the technical side of the social structure; for he was well aware of the fact—as our immediate predecessor of saintly memory, Pius XI, pointed out ten years ago in his commemorative encyclical, Quadragesimo anno—that the Church does not claim such a missionIn the general framework of labor to stimulate the sane and responsible development of all the energies, physical and spiritual, of individuals in their free organization there opens up a wide field of action where the public authority comes in with its integrating and coordinating activity, exercised first through the local and professional corporations and finally in the activity of the State itself, whose higher moderating social authority has the important duty of forestalling the dislocations of economic balance arising from plurality and divergence of clashing interests, individual and collective.

It is, on the other hand, the indisputable competence of the Church, on that side of the social order where it meets and enters into contact with the moral order, to decide whether the bases of a given social system are in accord with the unchangeable order which God, our Creator and Redeemer, has shown us through the natural law and revelation, that twofold manifestation to which Leo XIII appeals in his encyclical, and with reason: For the dictates of the natural law and the truths of revelation spring forth in a different manner, like two streams of water that do not flow against one another but together from the same divine source; and the Church, guardian of the supernatural Christian order in which nature and grace converge, must form the consciences even of those who are called upon to find solutions for the problems and the duties imposed by social life. From the form given to society, whether conforming or not to the divine law, depends and emerges the good or ill of souls, depends, that is, the decision whether men, all called to be revived by the grace of Christ, do actually in the detailed course of their life breathe the healthy vivifying atmosphere of truth and moral virtue or the disease-laden and often fatal air of error and corruptionBefore such a thought and such an anticipation how could the Church, loving mother that she is, solicitous for the welfare of her children, remain an indifferent onlooker in their danger, remain silent or feign not to see or take cognizance of social conditions which, whether one wills it or not, make difficult or practically impossible a Christian life in conformity with the precepts of the Divine Lawgiver?

(Emphasis supplied.) In other words, the Church has “indisputable competence” to address the aspects of the social order that touch upon the moral order. In Pius’s words, the Church has the power “to decide whether the bases of a given social system are in accord” with the natural law and the divine law. As Pius explains, social systems have an effect on men’s souls, and a disordered social system will surely have a disordering effect on men’s souls.

We are reminded on this point of the wonderful anti-liberal encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato si’. Consider paragraphs 122 and 123 of the encyclical:

A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”. When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay.

The culture of relativism is the same disorder which drives one person to take advantage of another, to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labour on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage. In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted? This same “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary. We should not think that political efforts or the force of law will be sufficient to prevent actions which affect the environment because, when the culture itself is corrupt and objective truth and universally valid principles are no longer upheld, then laws can only be seen as arbitrary impositions or obstacles to be avoided.

(Emphasis supplied.) Pius XII and Francis both recognize one crucial point, which the chorus of Catholic defenders of the liberal order apparently do not: sick societies produce sick men, and, since it is the cure of sick men that occupies much of the Church’s time, the Church certainly has the right to discuss the sickness of the society. By way of analogy, no one would challenge the right of a doctor, treating a deadly cholera outbreak, to discuss the tainted water supply making men, women, and children sick.

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