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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Catholic Social Teaching 101: What is Liberalism and What does the Church really say about it? Featured

Written by  Daniel Schwindt
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Pope Leo XIII Pope Leo XIII

The essay you see before you is not intended to function as a reasoned argument, nor is it an explanation of some new idea. It is meant to act as a sort of “word study,” examining the appearance, usage, and development of the notion of liberalism as found in Catholic Social Teaching. I’ve attempted to keep my commentary to a minimum, only interjecting in order to provide context and “connect the dots.”

I happen to consider liberalism to be the fundamental error of the modern world. I believe that there exists, particularly in America a definite allegiance to this error. Moreover, this allegiance is bi-partisan: it is present regardless of party affiliation. I have argued that many of our problems, if not directly caused by the liberal mentality, are at least exacerbated by it. I’ve even gone so far as to suggest that liberalism actually fosters ignorance and guarantees social dysfunction.


I acknowledge all of this, and bluntly, only because I hope in what follows to at least maintain some semblance of objectivity. In order for any such objectivity to appear sincere, or even possible, it is necessary to “place one’s cards on the table” at the outset. To begin in any other way might suggest that I have no cards, and that would be disingenuous.

Leo XIII takes up the mantle of his predecessors

To begin, we must admit that the collision between liberalism and Catholic Social Teaching is present in the very founding document of the latter, which is generally taken to be Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum of 1891. If we meant to study Liberalism more completely, we’d have to go back even further to Popes Gregory XVI (Mirari Vos, 1832) and Pius IX (Quanta Cura, 1864). However, for the sake of brevity and in accordance with the plan of this work, which centers on the corpus of CST proper, we will reach back no further than Leo XIII. But precisely because Rerum Novarum is to be our starting point, we must briefly step outside of this document and take a look at the mind of the pontiff that produced it, and see how Leo XIII had been dealing with the problem of liberalism throughout his papacy. At the same time, this requires a few remarks on the nature of liberalism itself.

The three-fold expression of Liberalism

Liberalism appears on three fronts, corresponding to three different spheres of man’s social life: It is religious, political, and economic.

The religious form can be identified most clearly in the principles of the Protestant Reformation, personified by Martin Luther. The consequences of Luther’s religious liberalism were directly addressed by Leo XIII at various points, specifically in his Providentissimus Deus (1893) where he pointed to the proper principles for the study of Holy Scripture and identified the problems created by subjecting it to secular methods of criticism and private judgment.

The political form of liberalism, on the other hand, was condemned by Leo XIII even more thoroughly, through documents such as Diuturnum (1881), Immortale Dei (1885), and Libertas Praestantissimum (1888). It was within these encyclicals that he clearly identified his foes and summarized their errors:

“But many there are who follow in the footsteps of Lucifer, and adopt as their own his rebellious cry, ‘I will not serve’; and consequently substitute for true liberty what is sheer and most foolish license. Such, for instance, are the men belonging to that widely spread and powerful organization, who, usurping the name of liberty, style themselves liberals.” (Libertas, 14)

“…these followers of liberalism deny the existence of any divine authority to which obedience is due, and proclaim that every man is the law to himself; from which arises that ethical system which they style independent morality, and which, under the guise of liberty, exonerates man from any obedience to the commands of God, and substitutes a boundless license. The end of all this it is not difficult to foresee, especially when society is in question. For, when once man is firmly persuaded that he is subject to no one, it follows that the efficient cause of the unity of civil society is not to be sought in any principle external to man, or superior to him, but simply in the free will of individuals; that the authority in the State comes from the people only; and that, just as every man's individual reason is his only rule of life, so the collective reason of the community should be the supreme guide in the management of all public affairs. Hence the doctrine of the supremacy of the greater number, and that all right and all duty reside in the majority. But, from what has been said, it is clear that all this is in contradiction to reason.” (Libertas, 15)

All of this predates the writing of Rerum Novarum, which was itself addressed to the third form of liberalism—the economic. Economic liberalism is analogous to what today we call Capitalism, and centers on the ideology of free markets. This movement can be roughly identified with the person of Adam Smith, thereby completing our “trifecta” of liberal figureheads.

As Leo XIII saw, economic liberalism was simply another application of the principles he had seen carried out in every other area. Acknowledging this context, we can enter into the relationship between liberalism and Catholic Social Teaching, proceeding chronologically through the documents which go to form the main corpus of the latter.

Rerum Novarum (1891)

As Pope John Paul II would later remark: “Rerum Novarum criticizes two social and economic systems: socialism and liberalism” (Centesimus Annus, 10). This observation must be kept in mind even though there is not a specific section in Rerum Novarum dedicated to liberalism. Even without special emphasis, however, it is clear what sort of philosophy Leo XIII has in mind when he outlines the social problems he intends to address:

“…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.” (Rerum Novarum, 3)

Thus, if we accept John Paul II’s analysis of this document as primarily an attack on two ideologies, we can see clearly that the one just outlined corresponds to the liberal or “Capitalist” form. We are affirmed in this when, in the next paragraph, Leo XIII moves to Socialism and identifies it as a sort of response of economic liberalism:

“To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man's envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies. They hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. But their contentions are so clearly powerless to end the controversy that were they carried into effect the working man himself would be among the first to suffer. They are, moreover, emphatically unjust, for they would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community” (Rerum Novarum, 4).

The project in which Leo XIII was engaged was one of “dichotomy transcendence.” He saw one error leading to another, and wished to set forth true principles, avoiding both extremes and avoiding all ideologies, to bring about stability and justice in economic affairs.

Quadragesimo Anno (1931)

So highly esteemed was Leo XIII’s analysis that it became customary to commemorate it with re-applications of its principles. Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno was the first encyclical of this kind. What, then, does he say of the progress of liberalism in his day?

He begins by acknowledging Leo’s work. Here he clarifies that Catholic Social Teaching stands apart from all systems and ideologies. He says of Leo that:

“He sought no help from either Liberalism or Socialism, for the one had proved that it was utterly unable to solve the social problem aright, and the other, proposing a remedy far worse than the evil itself, would have plunged human society into great dangers.” (QA, 10)

He continues in praise of the document that “boldly attacked and overturned the idols of Liberalism, ignored long-standing prejudices, and was in advance of its time beyond all expectation, so that the slow of heart disdained to study this new social philosophy and the timid feared to scale so lofty a height.” (QA, 14)

The idols of which he speaks become clear, providing at the same time the rationale for what would become known as the “preferential option for the poor”:

“With regard to civil authority, Leo XIII, boldly breaking through the confines imposed by Liberalism, fearlessly taught that government must not be thought a mere guardian of law and of good order, but rather must put forth every effort so that ‘through the entire scheme of laws and institutions… both public and individual well-being may develop spontaneously out of the very structure and administration of the State.’ Just freedom of action must, of course, be left both to individual citizens and to families, yet only on condition that the common good be preserved and wrong to any individual be abolished. The function of the rulers of the State, moreover, is to watch over the community and its parts; but in protecting private individuals in their rights, chief consideration ought to be given to the weak and the poor. ‘For the nation, as it were, of the rich is guarded by its own defenses and is in less need of governmental protection, whereas the suffering multitude, without the means to protect itself relies especially on the protection of the State. Wherefore, since wageworkers are numbered among the great mass of the needy, the State must include them under its special care and foresight.’ " (QA, 25)

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Again, the hostility to guilds, worker’s associations, and labor in general, are heaped up at the feet of liberalism:

“…those at the helm of State, plainly imbued with Liberalism, were showing little favor to workers' associations of this type; nay, rather they openly opposed them, and while going out of their way to recognize similar organizations of other classes and show favor to them, they were with criminal injustice denying the natural right to form associations to those who needed it most to defend themselves from ill treatment at the hands of the powerful.” (QA, 30)

“Property, that is, ‘capital,’ has undoubtedly long been able to appropriate too much to itself. Whatever was produced, whatever returns accrued, capital claimed for itself, hardly leaving to the worker enough to restore and renew his strength. For the doctrine was preached that all accumulation of capital falls by an absolutely insuperable economic law to the rich, and that by the same law the workers are given over and bound to perpetual want, to the scantiest of livelihoods. It is true, indeed, that things have not always and everywhere corresponded with this sort of teaching of the so-called Manchesterian Liberals; yet it cannot be denied that economic social institutions have moved steadily in that direction.” (QA, 54)

Concluding this commemoration of RN, we are offered a solemn reminder of the paternal relationship between Liberalism and Socialism:

“…let all remember that Liberalism is the father of this Socialism that is pervading morality and culture and that Bolshevism will be its heir.” (QA, 122)

Mater et Magistra (1961)

As Catholic Social Teaching continues to develop, we begin to see an less emphasis on Liberalism in general, since the religious and political forms (Protestantism and Lockean secular government) had become so engrained that to continue to harp on the issue would have been a waste of time; and the Church does not generally make a habit of wasting its time, having taken to heart the meaning of the parable that one ought not throw pearls before swine, “lest they turn again and rend you” (Matthew 7:6). And so we see instead a particular focus on the central teachings of economic liberalism, particularly the over-emphasis on competition and the faith in market mechanisms:

“…both workers and employers should regulate their mutual relations in accordance with the principle of human solidarity and Christian brotherhood. Unrestricted competition in the liberal sense, and the Marxist creed of class warfare; are clearly contrary to Christian teaching and the nature of man.” (Mater et Magistra, 23)

And then, foreshadowing Pope Francis’ complaints about the “idolatry of money” and extreme inequality:

“It was clear…that unregulated competition had succumbed to its own inherent tendencies to the point of practically destroying itself. It had given rise to a great accumulation of wealth, and, in the process, concentrated a despotic economic power in the hands of a few…” (Mater et Magistra, 35)

Populorum Progressio (1967)

In 1967 in was Pope Paul VI’s turn to enunciate the teachings of his predecessors, and his focus on liberalism is perhaps the most striking since Quadragesimo Anno. In fact, he dedicates a section specifically to this issue under the heading “Unbridled Liberalism.” Here he addresses “certain concepts” that have:

“…insinuated themselves into the fabric of human society. These concepts present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations.”

“This unbridled liberalism paves the way for a particular type of tyranny, rightly condemned by Our predecessor Pius XI, for it results in the "international imperialism of money."

“Such improper manipulations of economic forces can never be condemned enough; let it be said once again that economics is supposed to be in the service of man.”

“But if it is true that a type of capitalism, as it is commonly called, has given rise to hardships, unjust practices, and fratricidal conflicts that persist to this day, it would be a mistake to attribute these evils to the rise of industrialization itself, for they really derive from the pernicious economic concepts that grew up along with it. We must in all fairness acknowledge the vital role played by labor systemization and industrial organization in the task of development.” (Populorum Progressio, 26)

Later he brings up another problem linked to liberalism, which is the naïve trust in “free trade,” presented under the section title “Free Trade Concept Inadequate.” Specifically in this connection he rejects the idea that contracts freely agreed upon are therefore automatically just:

“It is evident that the principle of free trade, by itself, is no longer adequate for regulating international agreements…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.” (Populorum Progressio, 58)

Laborem Exercens (1981)

It was on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum that Pope John Paul II produced his first commemorative document, Laborem Exercens. Here the explicit references to liberalism are so frequent that it would stupefy the reader to quote them extensively and with commentary. Thus, I will be as brief as possible, hoping that any interested reader will peruse the document at leisure, especially because it is not a very long one.

John Paul II speaks of the “economistic” premises favored by the liberal mentality, and the disproportionate advantages this confers on owners of property as opposed to the workers “on the grounds that human work is solely an instrument of production, and that capital is the basis, efficient factor and purpose of production.” (paragraph 8) He connects the ideology of liberalism with capitalism specifically (paragraph 11) and calls for “the definite conviction of the primacy of the person over things, and of human labour over capital as a whole collection of means of production.” (paragraph 13)

The program offered by the Church differs radically from Marxism, and “at the same time it differs from the programme of capitalism practiced by liberalism and by the political systems inspired by it. In the latter case, the difference consists in the way the right to ownership or property is understood. Christian tradition has never upheld this right as absolute and untouchable. On the contrary, it has always understood this right within the broader context of the right common to all to use the goods of the whole of creation: the right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone.” (paragraph 14)

Notably, John Paul II also produced Centesimus Annus, which commemorates the 100th year after Rerum Novarum. Yet in regard to our current subject, it merely echoes what has been said in Laborem Exercens, acknowledging that markets have their use, while at the same time taking pains to show that their proper use if not found in either capitalism or socialism. Both of these, by their materialistic, mechanistic premises have no way of accounting for the entirety of human needs (Centesimus Annus, 34). Catholic Social Teaching seeks to foster cooperation, and John Paul II believed that Liberalism and Marxism both rejected this principle (Centesimus Annus, 60).

Caritas in Veritate (2009)

Lastly, we come to the late pontiff Benedict XVI, and we find a final affirmation of the negative nature of liberalism in the eyes of the Church. In Caritas in Veritate Benedict speaks on multiple occasions of “liberalization” and its doctrine of self-interest:

“Today the material resources available for rescuing these peoples from poverty are potentially greater than before, but they have ended up largely in the hands of people from developed countries, who have benefited more from the liberalization that has occurred in the mobility of capital and labour. The world-wide diffusion of forms of prosperity should not therefore be held up by projects that are self-centered, protectionist or at the service of private interests.” (Caritas in Veritate, 42)

If we were to expand our study to include, not only specific references to liberalism, but also included references to the tenets of liberalism (market autonomy, non-interference, and the unqualified justice of free contracts between employer and employee), then the size of this study would have increased exponentially. Here, rather, we’ll just include one final citation from this recent letter:

“The conviction that man is self-sufficient and can successfully eliminate the evil present in history by his own action alone has led him to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action. Then, the conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from “influences” of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way. In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise.” (Caritas in Veritate, 34)

Rather than continue at length, the interested reader is also encouraged to reference the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which is easily accessible online. Specifically sections 91, 312, 361, which mention liberalism and the liberalization of markets, never in a positive light.

My hope in sharing this essay is that, although my voice and interpretations have been unavoidably present, the citations of Church documents will speak even louder, drowning out my own voice so as to convey unambiguously to the answers to the questions: “What is Liberalism, after all?” and “What does the Church really say about it?”

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Last modified on Saturday, April 11, 2015