The Development of Social Doctrine
Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Vatican Social Teaching
By Donal Dorr
Review Author: Dale Vree
Orbis Books has had a reputation for publishing theologically outlandish (and worse) books in Christian social ethics and other areas. But if the book under review here, and other recent releases, are any indication, Orbis is, at least tentatively, trying to pull back into the Christian mainstream.
Donal Dorr, an Irish Roman Catholic missionary priest with a broad range of academic and pastoral experience, has produced here a careful, searching, and orthodox analysis of a century of Vatican social teaching, with special attention paid to what has come to be called the “option for the poor.” Dorr’s treatment of his topic is masterful, and will likely become a standard reference for years to come.
The story begins with the first of the great social encyclicals, Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. According to Dorr, Rerum Novarum “committed the Catholic Church to a rejection of a central thesis of the prevailing capitalist ‘realism’ of the Western world, namely, that labour is a commodity to be bought at market prices determined by the law of supply and demand rather than by the human needs of the worker.” This encyclical “ensured that social issues could no longer be treated as marginal…to the mission of the Church, or as an ‘optional extra.’”
Rejecting laissez-faire capitalism and supporting intervention by the state on behalf of the working class, Leo said:
When there is a question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly-off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves…whereas the mass of the poor…must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State.
Rerum Novarum was an effort to place the Church on the side of the poor, which at that time basically meant on the side of the working class. Not surprisingly, the encyclical was at first widely ignored: In Latin America it was hardly read at all, and where it was read it met with a very mixed reception. Indeed, it “scandalized” sectors of both society and Church. (Echoes of Humanae Vitae in our own time!)
The second great social encyclical was Quadragesimo Anno, issued by Pope Pius XI in 1931. Dorr finds that (going beyond Leo’s support for labor unions) there is in Pius “an almost militant ring” to what is said in support of unions. Moreover, whereas Leo had tended to look to a change in moral conduct on the part of individuals belonging to privileged classes to remedy an unjust economic order, Pius looked to major changes in the structure of society, in addition to moral changes on the part of powerful individuals.
Pius’s insistence that “economic life cannot be left to free competition” was a repudiation, not of an accidental aspect of capitalism, but one of its essential characteristics. However, Pius did not repudiate private ownership of productive property, another essential characteristic. Nevertheless, Dorr finds Pius’s critique of capitalism “much more radical” than Leo’s, and the “radical” quality of Pius’s overall teaching made it thenceforth impossible simply to assume that, when push came to shove, the Church would automatically line up on the side of whatever social order happened to be prevailing.
The next major development in Vatican social teaching came with Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra (1961) and Pacem in Terris (1963). In view of the hostility many political conservatives have displayed toward these encyclicals (a prominent Catholic-oriented conservative magazine gave currency to the slogan, “Mater, Sí; Magistra, No,” meaning that the Church could be regarded as our Mother, but not our Teacher), it is interesting that Dorr finds John’s critique of capitalism in some ways less radical than Pius’s — and less radical than Pope John Paul II’s (whose anti-capitalism seems to be, as yet, only dimly perceived by political conservatives).
Of course, it surely rubbed many conservatives the wrong way that in Pacem in Terris John distinguished between “false philosophical theories” (viz., Marxist ideology) which the Church repudiates, and related “historical movements,” with which Catholics can under certain conditions cooperate. This was John’s great apertura a sinistra (“opening to the Left”). But, while John’s distinction was directed to the Left, it was apparently little noticed that, as Dorr says,
the pope would no doubt also apply the same distinction to capitalism: the capitalist ideology remains incompatible with Catholic social teaching; but capitalist society in its actual historical development can be viewed rather more optimistically [or at least, as Dorr contends, it was so viewed by John].
Nevertheless, Dorr finds that John had “removed from the rich and the powerful an exceptionally important weapon which they could use to maintain injustice in society” — namely, a virtually indiscriminate Church-blessed hostility to all reforms proposed by socialist or communist movements. By distinguishing the Church’s opposition to Marxism as an ideology from the Church’s (potentially positive) attitude toward the proposals of various socialistic movements, and by obliquely rehabilitating the word “socialization” for Catholics, John incurred the fierce ire of rigid defenders of capitalism. Indeed, Dorr finds similarities between Mater et Magistra’s program of action and “the manifesto of a moderate socialist political party.” To be specific, John said that in certain circumstances workers may be entitled to a share in their companies and a say in management, that the state must exercise control over large businesses, and that an increase in state ownership is justified by the requirements of the common good.
So perhaps, after all, political conservatives had ample motives — at least from the point of view of their interests — for resenting Pope John, for as Dorr notes, Mater et Magistra “began the process of breaking the long alliance between Roman Catholicism and socially conservatives forces.”
Ironically, Pius had called for a more fundamental reordering of society than did John, but because of the apparent affinities between Catholic corporatism (stressed by Pius) and fascist corporatism, Pius was interpreted as leaning toward the political Right of his day. John was less radical in his critique of capitalism, but because his critique had affinities with the Left, Mater et Magistra has been seen, in retrospect, to be more radical than Quadragesimo Anno. In this sense, Dorr sees Mater et Magistra as “a turning point” in Catholic social teaching; it initiated the process whereby the Church “got new allies and new opponents.” More to the point: the encyclical’s refusal to give theological protection to privileged and powerful elites was “a major factor in enabling the Church to opt for solidarity with the poor and oppressed.”
Another step in this direction was taken by Gaudium et Spes (1965), issued by the Second Vatican Council. A key passage says:
The Church…does not rest its hopes on privileges offered to it by civil authorities; indeed it will even give up the exercise of certain legitimately acquired rights in situations where it has been established that their use calls in question the sincerity of its witness.
If one is serious about disengaging from privileged and powerful forces in society, one must be willing to pay the price — i.e., the loss of privileges. Where the Church seeks privileges and special protection from the state, the Church often becomes institutionally dependent on the state and feels great temptation to bestow religious legitimation — either by collaboration or silence — on the existing structure of power and privilege. In either case the Church’s “prophetic voice” falls silent.
Conversely, when the Church relinquishes privileges, she not only can be “for” the poor, but also, in a sense, “with” the poor, thereby enhancing her Gospel witness.
Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio emphasized that the “social question” has worldwide dimensions. The concern here was more with the relation between rich and poor nations than that between rich and poor classes or persons. Again, as with Pope John, Dorr finds Paul’s critique of capitalism “more subdued” than Pius’s. Yet the changes Paul proposed in the international economic order “would impose such limitations on international capitalism that if they were properly implemented they would transform it entirely.”
In 1968 the Roman Catholic bishops of Latin America gathered at Medellin, Colombia, and issued documents that were to affect deeply Vatican social teaching. In these documents the bishops indicated (according to Dorr) that
they have a duty of being in solidarity with those who are poor. This solidarity is made concrete through criticism of injustice and oppression. But it is not enough to do that from outside. The bishops say that solidarity with the poor “means that we make ours their problems and their struggles.”
Here is where the Church’s contemporary “option for the poor” — which is as old as the Old Testament prophets and the Gospels, and which can be found throughout Church history, and which is therefore deeply traditional — comes into sharp focus.
Paul VI responded to the Medellin documents with his apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens (1971), where he emphasized that the Gospel calls for a “preferential respect” for the poor.
In 1971 the worldwide Synod of Bishops, meeting in Rome, issued a document called “Justice in the World.” Continuing the option for the poor, the bishops indicated that if this option is to be exercised credibly, it is necessary for the ministers and members of the Church to take a more self-critical look at their own possessions and lifestyles. (This is why we have recently witnessed numerous cardinals and bishops moving out of palatial residences into more modest quarters.)
Since the role of a Synod of Bishops is only advisory to a pope, what it declares is not binding on Catholics without the pope’s endorsement of what it says. The most controversial thing said by the Synod was that, “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel….” Paul VI responded to the Synod’s document with his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1974). According to Dorr, “there can be little doubt that what he says…provides a thorough vindication” of the bishops’ proposition that action on behalf of justice is a constitutive dimension of preaching the Gospel. At the same time, Paul left no doubt that the spiritual function of the Church (in the conventional sense) is its primary function, and that as important as it is for social structures to be transformed, men themselves also require deep, interior spiritual transformation.
In 1979 the bishops of Latin America gathered in Puebla, Mexico, to decide, in effect, whether they would stand by the basic thrust of their Medellin documents issued 11 years earlier. Following the lead of Paul’s Evangelii Nuntiandi, the Latin American bishops (says Dorr) “reaffirmed” the “central elements” of Medellin. Moreover, the document issued at Puebla explicitly adopted the controversial phrase, “a preferential option for the poor,” adding: “We affirm the need for conversion on the part of the whole Church to a preferential option for the poor.”
Significantly, the new pope — John Paul II — came to Mexico for the Puebla conference. In his opening address to the conference he paraphrased the passage from the 1971 Synod where the bishops referred to action on behalf of justice as a “constitutive” dimension of preaching the Gospel. John Paul chose a clearer term — “indispensable” — to replace “constitutive.” While the meaning is essentially the same, “indispensable” may be interpreted as a slight softening of “constitutive,” so that it remains clear that spiritual development (in the conventional sense) is still the primary — though not exclusive — aspect of preaching the Gospel. As for the “option for the poor,” John Paul declared that the Church “is prompted by an authentically evangelical commitment which, like that of Christ, is primarily a commitment to those most in need.”
On another occasion, speaking directly to poor Mexicans, John Paul said, “I feel solidarity with you because, being poor, you are entitled to my particular concern. I tell you the reason at once: the Pope loves you because you are God’s favorites.” But John Paul was not oblivious to nuance, for he also made it clear in Mexico that to give preferential love to the poor does not mean (as Marxists and liberation theologians would have it) that we are to love only the poor.
John Paul spoke adamantly and inspiringly in favor of social justice when in Mexico. Speaking to very poor peasants, he said that there is “a social mortgage on all private property,” such that “if the common good requires it, there should be no hesitation even at expropriation, carried out in due form.”
In his trip to Brazil in 1980 John Paul again affirmed the Church’s “option for the poor.” Moreover, in his talk to the shanty-dwellers at Favela dos Alagados, John Paul spoke militantly, urging (more forcefully than any prior pope had done) the poor to free themselves, and not wait for the powers that be paternalistically to initiate reforms. He urged the poor to “struggle” for change and be the “prime movers” in that change. In his address to the shanty-dwellers of Tondo in the Philippines in 1981 he again urged the poor to organize themselves for change — a theme which was to be echoed later at a higher level of authority in his encyclical Laborem Exercens (1981).
Dorr correctly notes that in Laborem Exercens John Paul manifests a more favorable attitude toward socialism (not Marxist ideology, not communism, but socialism in a generic economic sense) than any previous pope. Indeed, while John Paul does not offer any blueprints or endorse any existing systems, he is advocating a “modified” version of socialism — i.e., a non-dictatorial, non-bureaucratic, decentralized form, with strong doses of worker’s control of industry. I would add that there are strong affinities between Laborem Exercens and the workers’ self-management and democratic socialism demanded by Poland’s now outlawed Solidarity trade union movement. Western Christians need to realize that they cannot credibly applaud workers’ self-management in Poland while denouncing it in the West. Laborem Exercens will not allow for any such double standards.
Since the pursuit of justice is an “indispensable” dimension of preaching the Gospel, it stands to reason that Christians may not be complacent about unjust social structures. This is all the more true because of the “option for the poor,” since the poor are the primary victims of unjust structures. Because injustice is an aspect of sin, structures of injustice are structures of, yes, sin — and so, Dorr poignantly notes that “correctly understood, an ‘option for the poor’ is simply one aspect of an ‘option against sin.’ “
Vatican social teaching over the last 100 years manifests an increasing commitment to the poor and an increasingly explicit sense of urgency about social justice. Nevertheless, this teaching is a source of irritation and scandal to many — of whom some are Roman Catholics. A common complaint is, more or less, that “The Church should stay out of political controversies.”
It is one thing for Protestants to issue such complaints, for their churches do not themselves usually claim to speak on social issues with an authority that commands the assent of the faithful. But in the Roman Catholic context, we are faced with a Church that, through her ordinary Magisterium, does mount such a claim. Hence, it is very difficult, nay, impossible for a Catholic to say the Church has no right to speak out on social issues. The Catholic Church has always claimed to speak with the authority of the Apostles, whether on questions of theology proper, personal morality, or social morality. For a Catholic to say, “the Church has no right…” is like a Protestant saying, “the Apostle Paul had no right to say [such-and-such] in the Bible.”
Ironically, the Catholics who nowadays complain about the Church’s social teachings are usually good orthodox Catholics, the same folks who are appalled whenever a modernist Catholic proclaims that the Church has no right to speak out about birth control, abortion, and homosexuality. Actually, one suspects that most of the orthodox Catholics who are bothered by the Church’s social teachings would be quite content if the Church — rather than remaining silent — spoke out in a way that supported conservative political views.
The “orthodoxy” of these Catholics seems rooted more in a generically conservative psychology than in fidelity to specific teachings of their Church. These Catholics would seem to “support the Pope” only when the Pope supports them. But one cannot credibly disdain those modernist Catholics who say the Church should stay out of the bedroom and then turn around and say the Church should stay out of the board room and the war room.
There is always, of course, the conservative fear that the Church is being “taken over” by Marxists and other secularists. It is quite clear, however, from Dorr’s book — and from a careful reading of the documents he discusses — that the Roman Catholic Church is in no such danger. It is quite clear that the Church’s social teachings are at odds with Marxism in very fundamental ways. Certain theologically liberal Protestant churches may be in danger of converting the Gospel into a thinly disguised Marxist philosophy, but the Roman Catholic Church (qua Church — i.e., as distinct from some marginal priests and theologians) is in no danger.
Then there are those economists and sociologists who think the Roman Catholic Church is completely “out to lunch” when she speaks out on social and economic questions. They will appeal to their (often credentialed) competence: they understand the “facts,” but the Church doesn’t begin to. On the other hand, of course, you will find other groupings of economists and sociologists who — whether they are Catholic or not — find the Church’s social doctrine entirely in accord with the “facts.” Yet again other economists and sociologists will say that the Church may be on the right track, but if she truly understood the facts she would be even more outspoken and militant Which grouping of economists and sociologists, then, is truly “competent”?
The problem becomes acute, however, for Roman Catholic economists and sociologists who think the Church is out to lunch. The problem is structurally akin to the pro-abortion Catholic obstetrician, the pro-birth control Catholic gynecologist, and the pro-homosexual activity Catholic psychiatrist: they would all agree that the Church doesn’t understand the “facts of life” — i.e., sex. I can’t elaborate on this problem here; all I would do is note that these sorts of conflicts constitute the scandal of Roman Catholicism for many a “modern man.” Integral to the Roman Catholic obedience is the submission of will and intellect to the teachings of the Gospel and the Church. While many of the conflicts are spurious — and while the Church does not speak in any technical detail about economics and society, and does not issue blueprints for change — it cannot be denied that certain Catholic moral principles do run contrary to the modern mind (or at least aspects of it).
Then, there are those Roman Catholics who are sincerely worried that the Church has become too concerned with the things of this world, too “political.” They don’t worry that the Church isn’t supporting their own personal political opinions — rather, they would have the Church lower her voice and simply avoid divisive social questions altogether. The Church, according to this view, should limit herself to cultivating personal holiness in her
members: “Just preach the pure Gospel. All other matters are optional for the believer.”
The problem with this “pietistic” approach is that it is not the posture of the Church. As seen above, the Church teaches that the pursuit of justice is “indispensable” to preaching the Gospel. It is not a side issue or a mere distraction (though an obsession with justice has indeed become a distraction for some). Moreover, a careful examination of the original documents that constitute the Church’s social teachings will reveal that it is precisely because of the quest for inner holiness that we must, as Good Samaritans, go out and tend to those people who suffer most. It is entirely alien to the Catholic tradition to sunder “good works” from “faith.” And because Roman Catholicism is an incarnational Christianity, the Church cannot flee from “the world” in pursuit of “pure” inner holiness. Dualism is not incarnational Christianity. If the Second Person of the Trinity had disdained human flesh, he would not have come among us in the flesh, and he would not have tended to those who suffer in the flesh.
To be sure, there is a variety of gifts and vocations within the Church — some are called to one sort of apostolate, others to a different sort — but a good Catholic an hardly say that the Church (qua Church) should not intervene in questions of social morality and social justice, or that the Church should treat social concern as an “optional extra” for Christians.
There is a “conventional” spirituality (referred to above) that can be seen as something somewhat distinct from a “worldly” concern for the material well-being of neighbors and society. This spirituality is the primary function of the Roman Catholic Church, but within the Catholic context one cannot drive a sharp wedge between the spiritual and the material. An incarnational, sacramental religion such as Catholicism necessarily finds the spiritual, at times, within the material. A Christian’s concern for the material well-being of his neighbors springs, properly, not from a flat secularist social-welfare mentality but from an authentic interior spirituality. How can we credibly claim to love our Father in Heaven whom we cannot see if we will not love our brothers on earth whom we can see? And because injustice is a product of sin, how can we credibly claim to love our unfortunate brothers who suffer from injustice if we are uninterested in correcting the structures of sin that perpetuate their misery? Hence, it only stands to reason that, as the Church teaches, the quest for justice is an indispensable part of preaching — and living — the Gospel.
Dorr’s Option for the Poor is a very important book for those who want — or need — to know what the social teachings of the Vatican are — and in what direction they have been developing over the last 100 years. Nevertheless, the book is no substitute for reading the documents cited in the book — stretching from Rerum Novarum to Laborem Exercens — documents which draw upon the sound foundations of Scripture and tradition. This book will be a marvelous tonic for those who are burdened by the fixed ideological agendas of our age.
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