In a recent Acton Line podcast I began by asking Father Robert Sirico the very large question, what is Catholic social teaching and why is it important today? He answered that the Church has always had a social teaching but that when we usually discuss Catholic social teaching today we begin with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum. George Weigel’s latest book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History sheds much historical and theological light on just why that is. Francesca Murphy, Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, in her excellent review of Weigel’s book for Public Discourse explains why Rerum Novarum remains so foundational:
The turning point, or peripeteia, begins with Pope Leo XIII’s attempts to engage with modern politics and society. In great, transformative encyclicals such as Rerum Novarum, the Thomist pope sought to undercut the attraction of collectivism by inventing a kind of “Aristotelian” middle way between the anarchism of the robber barons and the socialism of their employees. The rule of law without which no market economy can function takes its grounds from the natural moral law, Leo XIII taught, and he encouraged the development of a society in which most people are property owners, a dignity proper to them as individual persons.
The Second Vatican Council was another step in the Church’s new vigor in addressing the modern world. Pope St. John XXIII, in Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, described the agenda for the Council in this way:
What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth.
The documents of the Second Vatican Council (Notably Lumen gentium, Gaudium et spes, and Dignitatis humanae) deepened and strengthened the Church’s engagement with the modern world. Murphy summarizes Weigel’s argument well in her review:
…once Catholic social and political thinking made its way inside modernity, it was able to criticize it, not from without but from within. Particularly in the thought and actions of Weigel’s hero, St. John Paul II, Catholicism was able to take on the modern anthropological turn and ask what actually speaks to the questions and mystery of the human subject. Taking on board the modern turn to the subject, it was able to propose that this questioning, and the infinite ambition—the infinite desire—it reflects, are only fully answered by Jesus Christ… they were able to do this at just the moment when it became apparent that modernity was groundless, and that law, justice, and truth have no foundation other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus.