Papal Social Encyclicals

The Church makes a moral judgment about economic and social matters, “when the fundamental rights of the person or the salvation of souls requires it.”  In the moral order she bears a mission distinct from that of political authorities:  The Church is concerned with the temporal aspects of the common good because they are ordered to the sovereign Good, our ultimate end. She strives to inspire right attitudes with Respect to earthly goods and in socio-economic relationships.

The social doctrine of the Church developed in the nineteenth century when the Gospel encountered modern industrial society with its new structures for the production of consumer goods, its new concept of society, the state and authority, and its new forms of labor and ownership.  The development of the doctrine of the Church on economic and social matters attests the permanent value of the Church’s teaching at the same time as it attests the true meaning of her Tradition, always living and active.

The Church’s social teaching comprises a body of doctrine, which is articulated as the church interprets events in the course of history, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, in the light of the whole of what has been revealed by Jesus Christ. This teaching can be more easily accepted by men of good will, the more the faithful let themselves be guided by it. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2420 – 2422)

For over one hundred years popes have used the encyclical letter to address the economic challenges and changes confronting humankind.  In this section of the C-L Network web page, the major papal encyclicals dealing with economic justice are collected.  The following is a compilation of significant documents of the Roman Catholic Church related to Unions and Labor.

Pope Leo XIII

Rerum Novarum; Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor; 15 May, 1891

Summary: Issued on the fifteenth of May 1891. Literally “Of New Things,” on capital and labor and the condition of the working class. This was the most significant of all the encyclicals before or since. Rerum Novarum broke down the barriers that separated the church from the worker. Never before had the church spoken on social matters in such an official and comprehensive fashion.

3. In any case we clearly see, and on this there is general agreement, that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.

Pope Pius XI

Quadragesimo Anno; Encyclical of Pope Pius XI on Reconstruction of the Social Order; 15 May, 1931

Summary:  Issued May 15, 1931. Literally “In forty Years,” commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. This encyclical repeated many of the themes of Rerum Novarum: the dignity of labor, the rights of workers to organize, etc. Quadragesimo anno also emphasized the immorality of keeping economic control in the hands of a few. It recognized the principle of subsidiarity, which held that higher levels of authority should act only when lower levels cannot deal with a problem. **

Pope John XXIII

Mater et Magistra; Mother and Teacher; Pope John XXIII, 1961; Encyclical Letter of Pope John XXIII; May 15, 1961


Paragraph #71. We therefore consider it Our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner. Other factors too enter into the assessment of a just wage: namely, the effective contribution which each individual makes to the economic effort, the financial state of the company for which he works, the requirements of the general good of the particular country–having regard especially to the repercussions on the overall employment of the working force in the country as a whole–and finally the requirements of the common good of the universal family of nations of every kind, both large and small.

Paragraph #97 In modern times we have seen an extensive increase in the number of workers’ associations, and their general recognition in the juridical codes of single States and on the international level. Members are no longer recruited in order to agitate, but rather to co-operate, principally by the method of collective bargaining. But it is worthwhile stressing here how timely and imperative it is that workers be given the opportunity to exert their influence throughout the State, and not just within the limits of their own spheres of employment.

Pacem in Terris; Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity, and Liberty; April 11, 1963

Summary: Peace on EarthCwhich man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought afterCcan never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order. Any well-regulated and productive association of men in society demands the acceptance of one fundamental principle: that each individual man is truly a person. His is a nature that is endowed with intelligence and free will. As such he has rights and duties, which together flow as a direct consequence from his nature. These rights and duties are universal and inviolable, and therefore altogether inalienable.

Pope Paul VI

Populorum Progressio Encyclical of Pope Paul VI; On the Development of Peoples; 26 March 1967

Summary: Issued March 26, 1967. Literally “On the Progress of Peoples.” A vigorous endorsement of Mater et Magistra, Populorum Progressio presented Catholicism as no longer tied to a social system based on natural law, but rather as a proponent of a pluralistic, decentralized approach to economic problems. **

Paragraph #58:

It is evident that the principle of free trade, by itself, is no longer adequate for regulating international agreements. It certainly can work when both parties are about equal economically; in such cases it stimulates progress and rewards effort. That is why industrially developed nations see an element of justice in this principle. But the case is quite different when the nations involved are far from equal. Market prices that are freely agreed upon can turn out to be most unfair. It must be avowed openly that, in this case, the fundamental tenet of liberalism (as it is called), as the norm for market dealings, is open to serious question.

One Standard for All Paragraph # 61.

Now in this matter one standard should hold true for all. What applies to national economies and to highly developed nations must also apply to trade relations between rich and poor nations. Indeed, competition should not be eliminated from trade transactions; but it must be kept within limits so that it operates justly and fairly, and thus becomes a truly human endeavor.  Now in trade relations between the developing and the highly developed economies there is a great disparity in their overall situation and in their freedom of action. In order that international trade be human and moral, social justice requires that it restore to the participants a certain equality of opportunity. To be sure, this equality will not be attained at once, but we must begin to work toward it now by injecting a certain amount of equality into discussions and price talks.  Here again international agreements on a broad scale can help a great deal. They could establish general norms for regulating prices, promoting production facilities, and favoring certain infant industries. Isn’t it plain to everyone that such attempts to establish greater justice in international trade would be of great benefit to the developing nations, and that they would produce lasting results?

Octogesima Adveniens; A Call To Action; Apostolic Letter of Pope Paul VI; 14 May 1971

Summary: Papal Encyclical on the eightieth anniversary of the publication of the encyclical Rerum Novarum, the message of which continues to inspire action for social justice.

Paragraph # 9.

The inordinate growth of these centers accompanies industrial expansion, without being identified with it. Based on technological research and the transformation of nature, industrialization constantly goes forward, giving proof of incessant creativity. While certain enterprises develop and are concentrated, others die or change their location. Thus new social problems are created: professional or regional unemployment, redeployment and mobility of persons, permanent adaptation of workers and disparity of conditions in the different branches of industry. Unlimited competition utilizing the modern means of publicity incessantly launches new products and tries to attract the consumer, while earlier industrial installations which are still capable of functioning become useless. While very large areas of the population are unable to satisfy their primary needs, superfluous needs are ingeniously created. It can thus rightly be asked if, in spite of all his conquests, man is not turning back against himself the results of his activity. Having rationally endeavored to control nature, is he not now becoming the slave of the objects which he makes?

Workers #14. As the Church solemnly reaffirmed in the recent Council, “the beginning, the subject and the goal of all social institutions is and must be the human person” (9). Every man has the right to work, to a chance to develop his qualities and his personality in the exercise of his profession, to equitable remuneration which will enable him and his family “to lead a worthy life on the material, social, cultural and spiritual level” (10) and to assistance in case of need arising from sickness or age. Although for the defense of these rights democratic societies accept today the principle of labor union rights, they are not always open to their exercise. The important role of union organizations must be admitted: their object is the representation of the various categories of workers, their lawful collaboration in the economic advance of society, and the development of the sense of their responsibility for the realization of the common good. Their activity, however, is not without its difficulties. Here and there the temptation can arise of profiting from a position of force to impose, particularly by strikes — the right to which as a final means of defense remains certainly recognized — conditions which are too burdensome for the overall economy and for the social body, or to desire to obtain in this way demands of a directly political nature. When it is a question of public service, required for the life of an entire nation, it is necessary to be able to assess the limit beyond which the harm caused to society become inadmissible.

Pope John Paul II

Laborum Exercens; Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II On Human Work On the Ninetieth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum; 14 September 1981

Summary:  Issued on September 14, 1981. Literally “On Human Work.” Laborem Exercens focused on the themes that work is central to the social question and that work has potential not only to dehumanize but also to be the means whereby the human person cooperates in God’s ongoing creation.**

12. The Priority of Labor

That situation is deeply marked by the many human conflicts and the role of technology. We should not forget the possibility of a worldwide disaster caused by a nuclear war. But above all we must remember the priority of labor over capital: labor is the cause of production; capital, or the means of production, is its mere instrument or tool. When the Bible says that humanity is to subdue the earth, it speaks about the resources of the earth, resources that can serve us only through our work. To make this work possible people take ownership of small parts of these resources.  Whatever we do by way of production, we do not create the resources; they are already there, ready to be discovered and used.  Before we begin our work there is always this gift leading us to the Creator. At the beginning of humanity’s work is the mystery of creation. This strengthens our conviction that human work comes before what we have begun to call capital.  Capital is both the earth’s resources and all the means invented to help us to use -and to humanize- those resources.  From the simplest tools to the most modern ones -machines, factories, laboratories, and computers- all are the result of human work. To be able to use this enormous collection of modern tools, we have to master the knowledge of the people who invented, planned, built, and perfected them. Sharing efficiently in production demands ever greater preparation and proper training. But even when no training or special qualifications are required, the human person remains the one who really counts, and the whole collection of instruments – however perfect- is never any more than means toward that end.  This truth has important consequences.

14. Work and Ownership

When we speak about labor and capital, we are speaking about people, about those who work without being the owners of the means of production and about the entrepreneurs (or their representatives) who own those means. That is why “ownership” and “property” enter into this process.  The church’s constant teaching on the right to private property and ownership of the means of production differs radically from the collectivism proclaimed by Marxism, but also from the capitalism practiced by liberalism and the political systems inspired by it. In the latter case the difference consists in the way the right to ownership and property is understood.  Christian tradition never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. It has always understood it as subordinated to the fact that the goods of this world are meant for all.

 Things cannot be owned in a way that leads to social conflict. Property is acquired by work, in order to serve work. The means of production cannot become a separate property, called capital, as opposed to labor. They cannot be owned against labor or to exploit labor. They cannot be owned just for the sake of owning them. The only title to their ownership – whether private, public, or collective-is that they serve labor.  This means that under suitable conditions the socialization of certain means of production could be acceptable. This is a teaching that goes back as far as the writing of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Confirming once more the church’s teaching that the worker comes first in production and in the economy, we state that a “rigid” form of capitalism that defends the exclusive right to own the means of production as a “dogma” is not acceptable. The right to this ownership must be constantly reviewed. Capital is certainly the result of the labor of past generations, but it also remains true that these means of production are unceasingly created by the labor done with these means of production, manually and intellectually. It is the reason that experts in Catholic social teaching, popes and bishops, made many proposals for joint ownership of the means of production, sharing by workers in the management and/or the profits of businesses, shareholding by labor, etc. Whether these proposals can be realized or not, it is obvious that putting the worker first demands adaptation of the right to own the means of production. All this is particularly true in view of the present-day problems in the “Third World.” Though “rigid capitalism” must be constantly revised and reformed, the question is not simply about the abolition of private ownership. A satisfactory socialization is not achieved by transferring ownership simply from private owners to the state. People who manage the means of production in the name of society-without owning them-may do so properly, respecting the principle that the worker comes first; they also may do so badly, monopolizing the administration of those means and even offending basic human rights. True socialization is achieved only when all persons, on the basis of their work, can fully consider themselves part owners.  This could be done by associating -as far as possible- labor to the ownership of capital and by creating a range of intermediate associations with economic, social, and cultural aims, independent from the public powers  and acting for the common good.

Paragraph #20. Importance of Unions:

All these rights, together with the need for the workers themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of association, that is, to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These associations are called labor or trade unions. The vital interests of the workers are to a certain extent common for all of them; at the same time however each type of work, each profession, has its own specific character which should find a particular reflection in these organizations.

 In a sense, unions go back to the mediaeval guilds of artisans, insofar as those organizations brought together people belonging to the same craft and thus on the basis of their work. However, unions differ from the guilds on this essential point: the modern unions grew up from the struggle of the workers-workers in general but especially the industrial workers-to protect their just rights vis-a-vis the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production. Their task is to defend the existential interests of workers in all sectors in which their rights are concerned. The experience of history teaches that organizations of this type are an indispensable element of social life, especially in modern industrialized societies. Obviously, this does not mean that only industrial workers can set up associations of this type. Representatives of every profession can use them to ensure their own rights. Thus there are unions of agricultural workers and of white-collar workers; there are also employers’ associations. All, as has been said above, are further divided into groups or subgroups according to particular professional specializations.

Catholic social teaching does not hold that unions are no more than a reflection of the “class” structure of society and that they are a mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life. They are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions. However, this struggle should be seen as a normal endeavor “for” the just good: in the present case, for the good which corresponds to the needs and merits of working people associated by profession; but it is not a struggle “against” others. Even if in controversial questions the struggle takes on a character of opposition towards others, this is because it aims at the good of social justice, not for the sake of “struggle” or in order to eliminate the opponent. It is characteristic of work that it first and foremost unites people. In this consists its social power: the power to build a community. In the final analysis, both those who work and those who manage the means of production or who own them must in some way be united in this community. In the light of this fundamental structure of all work-in the light of the fact that, in the final analysis, labor and capital are indispensable components of the process of production in any social system-it is clear that, even if it is because of their work needs that people unite to secure their rights, their union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it.

Just efforts to secure the rights of workers who are united by the same profession should always take into account the limitations imposed by the general economic situation of the country. Union demands cannot be turned into a kind of group or class “egoism”, although they can and should also aim at correcting-with a view to the common good of the whole of society- everything defective in the system of ownership of the means of production or in the way these are managed. Social and socioeconomic life is certainly like a system of “connected vessels”, and every social activity directed towards safeguarding the rights of particular groups should adapt itself to this system.

In this sense, union activity undoubtedly enters the field of politics, understood as prudent concern for the common good. However, the role of unions is not to “play politics” in the sense that the expression is commonly understood today. Unions do not have the character of political parties struggling for power; they should not be subjected to the decision of political parties or have too close links with them. In fact, in such a situation they easily lose contact with their specific role, which is to secure the just rights of workers within the ,framework of the common good of the whole of society; instead they become an instrument used for other purposes.

Speaking of the protection of the just rights of workers according to their individual professions, we must of course always keep in mind that which determines the subjective character of work in each profession, but at the same time, indeed before all else, we must keep in mind that which conditions the specific dignity of the subject of the work. The activity of union organizations opens up many possibilities in this respect, including their efforts to instruct and educate the workers and to foster their self-education. Praise is due to the work of the schools, what are known as workers’ or people’s universities and the training programs and courses which have developed and are still developing this field of activity. It is always to be hoped that, thanks to the work of their unions, workers will not only have more, but above all be more: in other words, that they will realize their humanity more fully in every respect.

One method used by unions in pursuing the just rights of their members is the strike or work stoppage, as a kind of ultimatum to the competent bodies, especially the employers. This method is recognized by Catholic social teaching as legitimate in the proper conditions and within just limits. In this connection workers should be assured the right to strike, without being subjected to personal penal sanctions for taking part in a strike. While admitting that it is a legitimate means, we must at the same time emphasize that a strike remains, in a sense, an extreme means. It must not be abused; it must not be abused especially for “political” purposes. Furthermore it must never be forgotten that, when essential community services are in question, they must in every case be ensured, if necessary by means of appropriate legislation. Abuse of the strike weapon can lead to the paralysis of the whole of socioeconomic life, and this is contrary to the requirements of the common good of society, which also corresponds to the properly understood nature of work itself.

Centesimus Annus; Encyclical of Pope John Paul II on the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum; May 1, 1991

Summary: Issued on May 1, 1991. Literally, “The Hundredth Year,” commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. Centesimus Annus brought Rerum Novarum up to date and tied it to “the preferential option for the poor.” done in the context of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Centesimus Annus still criticized both capitalism and communism. **Published on the Centenary of the promulgation of the Encyclical which begins with the words “Rerum Novarum” by Pope Leo XIII.  Considered an occasion of great importance for the present history of the Church.

Paragraph #35:

Trade Unions and other worker’s organizations find here a wide range of opportunities for commitment and effort for the sake of justice. It is right to struggle against an unjust economic system that does not uphold the priority of the human being over capital and land. The alternative to it is not a socialist system that leads to state capitalism, but a society with free work, enterprise, and participationCan alternative that is in favor of a market that guarantees the basic needs of the whole of society. Profit, though it plays a legitimate role, is not the only indicator of a firm’s condition. The people in it might be humiliated and offended. The aim of a business is not simply profit, but to form a particular group at the service of the whole of society. After the fall of “real socialism” capitalism is not the only economic alternative left.  Individuals and nations need the basic things to enable them to share in development. The stronger ones must assist the weaker ones, and the weaker ones must use the opportunities offered. Foreign debts affect these efforts. The principle that debts should be paid remains, but this should not be asked for at the cost of the hunger and despair of entire peoples. There is the need to lighten, defer, or even cancel the debts, and indeed, this does sometimes happen, to let people subsist and progress.

Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: On the Twentieth Anniversary of Populorum Progressio

Summary: Issued on December 30, 1987. Literally “On Social Concerns,” commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio. Solicitudo Rei Socialis presented an overview of modern social problems with some guidelines for action. It dealt with authentic human development and adopted a critical attitude toward both capitalism and communism. Sollicitudo Rei Socialis warned that economic development alone may not set people free but only enslave them more.

Pope Benedict XVI

Caritas in veritate – Love in Truth Page

Charity in Truth – is the third encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI and his first social encyclical. It was signed on June 29, 2009, and was published on July 7, 2009. It was initially published in Italian, English, French, German, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish.The encyclical is concerned with the problems of global development and progress towards the common good, arguing that both Love and Truth are essential elements of an effective response. The work is addressed to all strata of global society – there are specific points aimed at political leaders, business leaders, religious leaders, financiers and aid agencies but the work as a whole is also addressed to all people of good will.  The encyclical contains detailed reflection on economic and social issues and problems. The Pope points out that the Church does not offer specific technical solutions, but rather moral principles to inform the building of such solutions. The economic themes include an attack on free market fundamentalism, though a simplistic polarization of the free market model versus interventionist big government solutions is rejected. There is emphasis on the need for the actions of all economic actors to be informed by ethics as well as the profit motive. Other areas discussed include hunger, the environment, migration, sexual tourism, bioethics, cultural relativism, social solidarity, energy and population issues.

Pope Francis I

Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium of the Holy Father Francis

See in particular, the following section of the Encyclical, paragraphs 52 – 60.

I. Some challenges of today’s world


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