It’s quite easy to forgive those who experience an attack of nausea upon hearing the phrase “Catholic Social Thinking.” In light of the misuse from which that phrase has suffered over the past half-century alternative responses are all too likely to indicate either that a person has not been paying attention or is lacking in all Catholic, Christian, and common sense. 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. 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. There are Catholics with a sincere dedication to Catholic doctrine, Catholics who are pro-life, who are committed to natural heterosexual marriage, who embrace the Church’s teaching against contraception, and who embrace the most traditional of Catholic liturgical and devotional practices, but who remain convinced that within the limited sphere of economics that they must hold to the program of the left.
Responses to such contentions have not always been helpful. One school of thought holds that the Church’s endorsement of limited governmental regulation and intervention in economic matters represents the prudential judgment of the popes rather than Catholic theology. Another claims that Church teaching changed with Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. Both positions grant far too much to the left. Even those who do not fall into this problem tend to limit themselves to drawing attention to the fact that the Church has always defended private property or has condemned socialism by name. A simple reading of the encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII, the pope whose Rerum Novarum is often touted as the foundational document of “Catholic Social Teaching,” can give us much more than that. These encyclicals not only endorse what is no less than a normal functioning of the market and its normal consequences, but positively embrace a traditional (hierarchal) social order as a positive good and an aspect of a healthy society.
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.”
The same principle can be found in Rerum Novarum itself. This document explains that “just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the sensible arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a state it is ordained by nature that these two classes [capital and labor] should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: Capital [the more noble order] cannot do without labor [the less noble one] nor labor without capital.” As these two classes can and should exist in harmony while accepting their hierarchal distinction the doctrine of inevitable class conflict is condemned in no uncertain terms as “So irrational and so false… that the direct contrary is the truth.”
Pope Leo explained just why it is that a social and economic hierarchy is both natural and beneficial, affirming that “there exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition. Such inequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts.” If this is not a defense of the effects of the market and an outright condemnation of egalitarian belief I don’t know what is.
Society needs rulers, military commanders, scholars, doctors, farmers, tradesmen, cooks and unskilled workers. Without this variety of roles society would collapse, and the natural inequalities of ability facilitate such necessary variety. It is only right that the higher or the more difficult types of work receive greater reward. To deny people such reward, whether in their ability to use it for themselves or in their ability to give advantage to their children, is nothing short of an injustice. “Equality of opportunity” moves towards abolition of private property by infringing upon the ability of people to use their property for the descendants’ advantage. “Equality of outcome” abolishes private property in all but name. Such forms of injustice are a far cry from the government using moderate taxation to assure that the destitute do not starve to death.
Leo XIII left no doubt as to where such injustice leads. He taught that if private property were to be abolished “the sources of wealth themselves would run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry.” Men work to obtain the necessities of life, the luxuries of life, and various forms of advantage and privilege for themselves and their families. The more a man knows he and his family will have neither more nor less of such goods than anyone else, regardless of how hard he works, the less motivation he will have to work and to produce wealth. When a man works, teaches Pope Leo, he “expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases.” Because of these realities Rerum Novarum teaches that the abolition of private property “is directly contrary to natural rights and would introduce confusion and disorder,” that the “ideal equality about which they [the socialists] entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the leveling down of all to a life condition of misery and degradation” and that the “first and most fundamental principle…if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.”
Another decade was to pass before Pope Leo analyzed the movement known as “Christian Democracy” in Graves de Communi re, “democracy” at the time often implying an egalitarian agenda rather than simply government by elected officials. In this encyclical the late pope states that “the object of our encyclical Rerum Novarum” was to issue a warning as to “how great the error was which was lurking in the utterances of socialism.” What strictures that encyclical placed on laissez faire or on “liberal economics” were placed not in the context of any sort of embrace of the left, but within the context of attempting to warn against the danger posed by the left and of defending private property, an “ordered market” and traditional social hierarchies. In accord with such priorities Graves de Communi re taught that it would be wrong for any movement of Catholics to “belittle religion by restricting its scope to the care of the poor, as if the other sections of society were not of its concern,” that it was necessary “to remove the reproach from Christian Democracy…that while looking after the working class it should seem to overlook the upper classes of society, for they also are of the greatest use in preserving and perfecting the commonwealth” and that “justice is sacred; it must maintain that the right of acquiring and possessing property cannot be impugned, and it must safeguard the distinctions and degrees which are necessary in every well-ordered commonwealth.”
This is not the language of the left. These are not the concerns of the left. These are not the goals of the left. But such is the language, such are the concerns, and such are the goals of the Roman Catholic Church.
True it is that the Church does believe that the government has a role in economic matters, that there should be an “ordered market” rather than laissez faire. The Church supports laws which would, for example, keep many forms of business closed on Sunday, assure safe working conditions, prohibit child labor and require a living wage, or the closest thing to it which is economically viable. The Church does support governmental provision for those truly in need. Such limited governmental intervention in economics has been normal throughout human history. Such limited intervention in economics is an essential part of the most successful of modern economic systems—Freiburg capitalism. Friedrich von Hayek believed that the government ought to have a role in stimulating competition. Ronald Reagan had his “safety net.” Russell Kirk used the phrase “socialist capitalism” to describe a system in which traditional small business and decentralized government have been replaced by big business and the bureaucratic state so as to create a life almost as uniform, centralized, utilitarian, and dreary as that lived under socialism. Economic freedom cannot exist without a basic degree of economic order any more than freedom as such cannot exist without a basic degree of order.
In its defense of traditional social order, of traditional social hierarchy, of the legitimate place of the market and of private property the Church does indeed hold beliefs which can never be fully reconciled with “liberal economics,” tied to classical liberal, libertarian, and neo-conservative philosophies. But what disagreements the Church has with these various theories are rooted, not in any form of left-wing views, but in concerns which are, at the very least, closely related to those of traditionalist conservatism. That is authentic Catholic social teaching.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
 Leo XIII. Quod Apostolic Muneris #5
 Ibid. #1
 Ibid. #9
 Ibid. #5
 Ibid. #9
 Ibid. #6
 Leo XIII. Rerum Novarum #19
 Ibid. #17
 Ibid. #15
 Ibid. # 5
 Ibid. #15
 Leo XIII. Graves de Communi re #
 Ibid. #4
 Ibid. #8
 Ibid. #6