Many scholars trace the beginning of modern Catholic social teaching to the 1891 publication of Rerum Novarum (Of New Things). Reacting to the abuse of workers during the Industrial Revolution, Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical focused on the application of the Gospel message to an industrial society.
Catholic Social Teaching
Almost 115 years after the publication of Rerum Novarum the Church sought to compile and summarize its modern social teachings. In 2004 the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace published Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church to summarize and restate the Church’s social teachings to serve as a reference for all Catholics.
Pope John XXIII wrote the encyclical Pacem in Terris in April of 1963 to address a world deeply engaged in the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had just gone up and the Cuban Missile Crisis frightened millions as nuclear weapons began to proliferate.
At a time in world history marked by powerful new weapons, rivalry, and fear His Holiness sought to reassure not only the Catholic World, but also all people, that peace on earth is possible through the divinely established order.
“Every person has a fundamental right to life,” say the U.S. Bishops, “the right that makes all other rights possible. Each person also has a right to the conditions for living a decent life—faith and family life, food and shelter, education and employment, health care and housing. We also have a duty to secure and respect these rights not only for ourselves, but for others, and to fulfill our responsibilities to our families, to each other, and to the larger society.” (Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, 2003.)
In Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II celebrates the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio by updating the Church’s teaching on the “development of peoples” and changes that took place in the preceding two decades.
Populorum Progressio was inspired by the Church’s desire to help the millions of people who lived in a state of poverty and underdevelopment. The document concluded by noting that “development is the new name for peace,” (Paragraph 10) another mission of the Church.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote the encyclical Deus Caritas Est in 2005 about God’s love for humanity. In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even hatred, Benedict seeks to speak of the limitless love that God lavishes on humanity.
The encyclical is divided into two parts. The first section discusses God’s love and the reality of human love. In the second part, Benedict focuses on the commandment to love one’s neighbor especially the laities role in creating a just society.
Gaudium et Spes was issued when the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965. The document summarizes the council and gives an outline of the Church’s social teachings in a changing world.
The world has seen enormous development and progress that has amazed humanity, he says, but it has also caused many to worry about the social implications of a quickly changing society as advances in technology and power threaten people. Never before has there been so much wealth simultaneous with so much hunger and poverty.
We are our brothers and sisters keepers, whether they are next door or around the world. In today’s world of instantaneous communication, 24-hour news cycles and world economic dependency, this simple axiom is truer than ever.