The Papal Social Encyclicals
Dr. David J. P. Marzak



Table of Contents: Page Link to Social Encyclicals Below

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CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING is the fruit of a venerable tradition rooted in the Jewish Torah, elevated by the Gospels, and supported by Christian natural law foreshadowed in the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. In its modern form, it is expressed in several "social encyclicals" written by various popes of the of the latter 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, an era characterized by tumultuous social upheavals culminating in social, political, and economic revolutions of unprecedented global proportion.

The Modern Era began violently with Civil War in England followed by attempted eradication of that nation's pre-Anglican patrimony. Absolutist Stuart monarchs spearheaded oppressive reform in England. They were followed by equally an cruel parliamentarian rule executed by Oliver Cromwell who extended the attempted eradication to Ireland. The English pogrom was part of a broader movement to birth a new order of the ages under the influence of liberal thinkers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacque Rousseau, Voltaire, and numerous others.

These men helped to inspire the American Revolution, which was followed in France by a "Reign of Terror" unleashed by Jacobin Philosophes and then carried by Napoleon Bonaparte throughout the continent and then the world. Never before in the history of humanity had there been such widespread violent efforts to eradicate ancient cultural patrimonies and to establish new ideological/philosophical foundations for the establishment of what was promised to be a new more equitable, humanistic, and fraternal civilization.

The Americn and French Revolutions were coterminous with the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions, which provided the human race with technological innovations and promises of more progress, continual change, and continued human development. Under this impulse, the term "evolution" took on new social meaning--with the rise of socio-biology and the manipulation by social scientists such as Durkheim and Spencer, evolution became a sociological as well as a biological concept.

The now sociological concept was adopted by radical revolutionaries such as Marx and Lenin who applied it to their "scientific" understanding of history, which they believed was characterized by continual cultural advancement (evolution) via a series of revolutionary changes determined by economic variables that precipitated the eventual dawning of worldwide atheism, communism, and global peace that that they predicted would follow the inevitable collapse of Capitalism and bourgeois Protestantism.

Inspired by such new ideologies, and by the success of their revolutionary precursors in France, the Bolsheviks in 1917 unleashed perhaps the most severe, unrelenting, and inhumane regime in the annals of world history. The Communist Revolution promised to purge the world not only of what was left of Catholicism but also of Protestantism and all of the world's major religions including Russian and Greek Orthodoxy, Islam and Judaism as well. The Bolsheviks disemboweled Russia, which became a puppet of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) and the ideological nerve center for the propagation of worldwide communism.

Each of these revolutions, including the Cultural Revolution led by the Communist Mao Tse Tung in China, proceeded in the name of progress, equality and brotherhood. Once the revolutionaries attained political power, rhetoric gave way to violence. Bloodshed and ideological purges were implemented to eradicate "counter-revolutionary" ("counter-evolutionary") forces that endeavored to preserve ancient cultural traditions that theoretically stood in the way of evolutionary progress. These forces were considered by the communists to be a lag on human social, cultural, and spiritual development, a lag that had to be annihilated so that the communist intelligentsia could safely pave the way for a new world order.

Heinous as they were, the revolutions brought various blessing and benefits to humanity, such as the birth and development of democracy, a growing respect for human dignity and human rights, and a broader distribution of wealth and political participation than had been previously known. However, they have also brought in their wake new ideological and cultural systems known by various names such as liberalism, socialism, and communism that have worked against man and the dignity of the human person. Although each is different, they have in common a materialistic tendency to disregard authentic moral and spiritual development that has manifested itself in various forms of ersatz spirituality intended to replace the "worn out" Christianity, which has supposedly outlived its evolutionary purpose.

Unfortunately, the results of these revolutions have not been so promising; for the most part the ideological revolutionaries are in their graves succeeded by disillusioned followers wondering what went wrong—the structures established by the revolutionaries are no longer sustainable.

Consequently, the world is in the grip of an ideological crisis precipitating the need for authentic renewal. The walls of communism have crumbled and have been swept aside while the Western system, built upon the principles of classical and reform liberalism, is tottering. All around voices are crying for peace and justice while the more progressive are calling for global unity necessary to rescue a planet threatened by natural, economic, social-political, and military crises.

Progressive social thinkers tell us we are in the process of a paradigmatic shift, a shift of global proportion that will affect every sinew of the social fabric erected during the past three centuries and whatever is left of what went before. The great question is how shall we avoid further "evolutionary progress" and assure more just and humane social, political, and economic structures? What direction and under whose leadership shall humanity proceed? Can it be the direction of the faulty and failed systems of Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin? Is not Mao Tse Tung's totalitarian communism equally heinous? Perhaps the sociological position of Durkheim and the structural functionalists or that of the social evolutionists, such as Spencer are correct, viz., mankind is progressing and must pass through inevitable trials on the way toward gradual perfection.

The only problem is that history has not proven any of these theorists correct. Classical Capitalism swept away tradition and with it, feudal common law that had preserved property rights of the peasantry resulting in urban over-population and the squalor lamented in the writings of Charles Dickens. Over population and squalor were exacerbated by an uncaring elite who often viewed poverty as one of nature's inevitable laws that should not be tampered with thereby leaving those in poverty defenseless.

These historical verities help us to understand documented abuses attributed to the "Robber Barons". It also facilitates understanding of their rescue from severe depression,from the social ills they helped to create and from Marx's promise of a Proletarian Revolution: They were rescued by a "New Deal" welfare state voracious for borrowed dollars, which the same barons were happy to lend to their governments for a fee.

Excessive borrowing has resulted in massive debt necessary to keep the masses satisfied while everyone spends their way into oblivion on someone else's money to keep the economy running. Liberalism has begun to manifest the social and moral malaise that are the inevitable outgrowth of a system built upon self-interest, hedonism and unchecked greed, which is the "clearest evidence of moral underdevelopment." Pope Paul VI, On the Development of Peoples (1967) 19.

How long can governments rescue ailing economies, how much debt can be sustained, and how long can economic and social liberalism draw fresh air through lungs gaping from usury, abortion, narcotics, and general disrespect of life that has come to be known as the "culture of death"? These are debatable questions. Nonetheless, the severe social problems have led many social scientists to question the validity and sustainability of Western Capitalism.

Communism has failed and many critics would say Capitalism is not far behind. If leading Western nations, including the United States, lack the resources, vigor, and intellectual strength to lead the nations of the world down the path of social renewal, to whom shall we turn--in what direction will humanity go next? How will we conceive and then build a new social order? What guiding principles will renewal be based upon; by what plan of action will we proceed?

Christian social teaching addresses these questions and attempts to provide a blue print for reform, sustained development, and social renewal. A modern Christian plan for development and reform began with the writings and reflections of Pope Leo XIII. Leo left a body of trenchant social literature uniquely relevant to the modern world. Again and again, modern popes have turned to him for inspiration, especially to his acclaimed encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which was promulgated in response to the Marxist Manifesto and the challenges of Classical Liberalism. Leo bequeathed a body of writings known collectively as the "Leonine Corpus". Among the many writings contained within this "Corpus", Rerum Novarum holds a special place. Promulgated in 1891 it has henceforth been hailed as the "Magna Carta of Social Reconstruction". It would be highly difficult, perhaps impossible, to properly understand the modern world, to adequately critique its problems, and to set it on the proper road to development without prayerfully reading and reflecting on this primary document outlining the churches social doctrine.

Leo XIII's successors have drafted subsequent social encyclicals that have increased the corpus of Christian teaching thereby providing timely and much needed direction for social renewal. With the Millennium doors newly open, with talk about a global New World Order, and with newly appointed Pope Francis consecrating his pontificate and then the entire world to "Our Lady of Fatima", the ideas of reform and social renewal are on the minds of world leaders everywhere.

The Kolbe Foundation hopes to contribute to the movement toward global solidarity, world peace, and authentic human development by offering Liberal Arts Greatest Books Courses. The Greatest Books Curriculum focuses on the development of Christian civilization and the diffusion of Christian social teaching beginning with Moses and the Jewish Torah, supplemented by the natural law tradition of Ancient Greece and Rome, further developed in the Annals of Christendom, and finally promulgated in modern papal social encyclicals.

As you study this tradition and read the papal social encyclicals, keep in mind that for the most part Christian social doctrine is a branch of moral philosophy-theology and therefore limited to speculative or theoretical thought relevant to the social question. Nevertheless, these are also practical social documents. They are practical because moral theology/philosophy is a practical science that deals with practical problems involving human actions that effect individuals and communities in the real social, political, and economic world of everyday life.

Christian social doctrine and papal social encyclicals do not provide concrete answers to specific social problems. This is asking more of then they are intended to provide. These teachings provide universal precepts based upon reason aided by faith. Particular prudential judgments and application of the precepts to particular circumstances are left to the work of social and political leaders and men and women of good will who have acquired the practical wisdom necessary to understand and apply universals to particulars.

Mastery of Christian social doctrine is not merely an intellectual exercise; it is essential: If political leaders err on the first principles of speculative thinking and then on derived natural law precepts that guide practical thinking, the subsequent social structures built in light of these faulty precepts will inevitably suffer.

Faulty social structures are unfortunately a plight of the modern world: First man is misunderstood (faulty anthropology), then his end is wrongly articulated (faulty ethics), finally the practical precepts that guide action are incorrectly applied (faulty politics--faulty structures). Politicians have, for the most part, proceeded from an improper definition of human nature. Consequently, they have an improper understanding of the purposes and ends of human life and of the social, political, and economic structures necessary to support these ends, which are the ontological species-specific common lot of all human beings. Because the ends are species-specific and therefore common or universal, global solidarity as a goal of Christian social ethics is possible.

With a prayer for purity and humility, which alone can attract enlightenment necessary to form a new man and a new humanity, we place these social teachings into your hands along with online courses in politics and Christian Civilization to facilitate your understanding and ability to contribute to modern social renewal.



Electronic Format and Graphics Copyright © by The Kolbe Foundation August 14, 1999
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