Modern Catholic social teaching has been articulated, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops notes, through a tradition of papal, conciliar, and episcopal documents. These documents developed a number of themes related to economic and social policy, such as the option for the poor and vulnerable and the dignity of work and the rights of workers. Because of this focus, Catholic social teaching on economics is often associated with the political left.
But is that a fair assessment? James Baresel argues that it is not. “Unfortunately, the idea that Catholic teaching on what our inelegant vernacular has dubbed “socio-economic matters” implies a left-wing agenda is an error not limited to outright adherents of the left,” says Baresel. “There have been conservatives—both Catholic and non-Catholic—who have bought into this contention and so opposed what they have wrongly considered to be the teaching of the Church.”
As Baresel points out, several encyclicals endorse the normal functioning of the market and its normal consequences:
Thirteen years before Rerum Novarum, and in the very year of his elevation to the Chair of Peter, Pope Leo issued his first social and economic encyclical, Quod Apostolici Muneris. The general tenor of this document can be gleaned from its insistence that “so great is the difference between their [the socialists’] depraved teachings and the most pure doctrine of Christ that none greater can exist,” aim at “the overthrow of all civil society,” “leave nothing untouched or whole which by both human and divine laws has been widely decreed for the health and beauty of life” and are “lured… by the greed of present goods.” Far from endorsing anything so much as approaching enforced egalitarianism, the late pontiff taught that the Church “recognizes the inequality among men, who are born with different powers of mind and body, inequality in actual possession also, and holds that the right of property and of ownership, which spring from nature itself, must not be touched, that “inequality of right and of power proceed from the very author of nature” and condemns the socialists’ belief that “the property and the privileges of the rich may be rightly invaded.”
Those who are more intelligent, those who are more able, those who are more talented and those who work harder have a right to the greater wealth and greater social status which they thereby obtain. They have a right to the greater real political power resulting from such wealth and such status. They have the right to pass such advantages on to their children over the children of others. And the resulting inequality is not merely a consequence of legitimate freedom but is willed as a positive good by a God who intends “that there should be various orders in civil society… some nobler than others, but all necessary to each other.”