VATICAN CITY - For more than 100 years, Catholic social
teaching has tried to help people face the world's social,
political and economic challenges with the power of the
Pope Benedict XVI announced June 29 that he had signed his
first formal contribution to the list of papal encyclical
letters on social themes and that it was titled "Caritas in
Veritate" ("Love in Truth"). Although dated June 29, the
letter was to be released July 7.
The pope said his letter would look at modern problems in the
field of promoting development, and he asked for prayers for
"this latest contribution that the church offers humanity in
its commitment for sustainable progress in full respect for
human dignity and the real needs of all."
Instead of focusing on theological beliefs, the social
encyclicals written by most modern-day popes have tried to
shape the way Christians and all people of good will can
better serve the common good. Each social encyclical was
unique in that it sought to respond to the most pressing
social realities at the time.
Radically new problems caused by the modern industrial age
prompted Pope Leo XIII to issue the church's groundbreaking
social encyclical in 1891. It was the first time the church
spoke in a comprehensive and official way on social concerns,
and it ushered in the era of Catholic social teaching.
The document, "Rerum Novarum" (on capital and labor),
highlighted the condition of the working class and insisted
that development must include social progress as well as
Pope Leo defended the right of workers to organize to seek
higher wages and better working conditions; detailed the
rights and obligations of management and labor; and opposed
the Marxist concept of abolishing private property.
Pope Pius XI's social encyclical "Quadragesimo Anno" (on
reconstructing the social order) came out in 1931, the 40th
anniversary of Pope Leo's encyclical. The Great Depression
was in full swing at the time, causing many to question the
benefit of the reigning capitalist and communist economic
Pope Pius insisted that true socialism is "utterly foreign to
Christian truth" since its concept of life is material rather
than spiritual. Yet he also warned that unbridled capitalism
was producing "economic imperialism" by concentrating wealth
and economic power in the hands of a few.
On the 70th anniversary of "Rerum Novarum," Pope John XXIII
issued "Mater et Magistra" ("Mother and Teacher"), which
described the church as mother and teacher on social issues.
Dedicated to Christianity and social progress, the 1961
letter said the duty to bring social justice to the world was
not the responsibility of individuals alone, but that the
state shared that obligation.
Pope John held that "fruitful and lasting" peace is
impossible if the gap between people's living conditions is
too great, and he called for broad international cooperation
to help underdeveloped nations overcome their "permanent
state of poverty, of misery or of hunger."
Pope John's second social encyclical, "Peace on Earth"
("Pacem in Terris"), was issued in 1963 at the height of the
Echoing a theme in his first social document, he underlined
the necessity of having adequate, effective international
structures to help nations move toward greater justice and
peace in an increasingly interdependent world.
In 1967, Pope Paul VI wrote his first and only social
encyclical. It was a time when the world was starkly divided
into two political blocs, East and West. Cold War tensions
were high, and wars were raging in the Middle East and in
However, in "Populorum Progressio" ("The Progress of
Peoples"), Pope Paul focused not on the U.S.-Soviet faceoff
but on the world's peoples, who had become starkly divided
between those who enjoyed a high standard of living and those
who struggled with poverty and underdevelopment.
Authentic development is the key to achieving real peace, and
it must include the development of all people and the whole
person, both materially and in their relationship with God,
Elected in 1978, Pope John Paul II made repeated appeals
throughout his pontificate for social and economic justice
and warned about the dangers of globalization.
His social teaching was distilled in three major encyclicals.
The first, "On Human Work" ("Laborem Exercens"), was issued
in 1981 and criticized the abuses of a "rigid capitalism,"
which placed profit above the well-being of workers. But,
having lived in communist Poland, Pope John Paul also said
Marxism's class struggle was not the answer.
His second social encyclical, "On Social Concerns"
("Sollicitudo Rei Socialis"), was published in 1987, the 20th
anniversary of Pope Paul's "Populorum Progressio."
Again, the pope was sharply critical of communism and
unbridled capitalism. He warned of the ever-widening gap
between rich and poor countries and cited the crushing
foreign debt of developing nations as a major contributor to
The encyclical was considered to be a breakthrough document
on ecology as well because of its tough language on the need
to protect the environment. The pope said the dominion
granted humans over the natural world has biological and
moral limits that cannot be violated in the name of
In 1991, the 100th anniversary of "Rerum Novarum," Pope John
Paul issued his third document on social issues, "Centesimus
Annus" ("The Hundredth Year").
It analyzed the social situation in the light of communism's
collapse and called for reform of the free-market system.
While important and valuable for a prosperous economy, the
free market could not address all fundamental human needs,
and it must be set in an ethical and legal framework, Pope
John Paul said.
His 1995 encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae" ("The Gospel of
Life"), which addressed the sacredness of all human life, is
considered a social encyclical by many people because it
included strong statements on the need for the political
world to do its part in protecting human life.
The encyclical rejected the argument that Catholic
politicians could separate their private consciences from
public conduct. And it insisted that laws allowing abortion
and euthanasia are not morally binding and require
"conscientious objection" by the faithful.
In 2004, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace
published the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the
Church, providing a concise and complete overview of the
church's social teaching.
Covering everything from work to the family and from politics
to the environment, the compendium showed how church teaching
and pastoral action have developed over time.
Anticipating his first social encyclical, Pope Benedict said
it would offer "a beautiful response" to the new realities
and changes that had occurred since "Centesimus Annus" was
promulgated 18 years ago.
Pope Benedict also said the publication of the document was
delayed by the eruption of one of the worst global economic
crises in decades. He said he wanted to update what he had
drafted so the document would deal thoroughly with the
current crisis and offer "a more adequate response" to the
world's financial woes.