Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum and Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo anno are considered the foundational documents of modern Catholic Social Teachings (CST). Catholic progressives and traditionalists both look to Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno as blueprints for a fairer, more human, and more Catholic social order (conservotrads tend to ignore CST to worship at the altar of the invisible hand).
CST was developed starting in the nineteenth century as a response to the social problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, and secularization. After Italian nationalists forcibly annexed the Papal States into the nascent Republic of Italy, Pope Pius IX, the last pope to hold temporal power, took a reflexive reactionary stance and proclaimed himself to be “the prisoner of the Vatican,” held hostage by an antagonist world that had no respect for the “True Church.” However, labor militancy and the potential of political unrest caused by radical communists and anarchists was such that subsequent popes could not afford to ignore the modern world and its problems. Leo XIII, successor to Pius IX, wrote Rerum novarum to address the growing rift between labor and capital, as well as to combat the threat socialism — and capitalism, for that matter — posed to traditional religious authority.
Leo was unambiguously opposed to the Marxist idea of class conflict, believing that labor and capital should instead work together for the mutual good of society. Unlike socialists and communists who were either skeptical or hostile to the idea of private property, Leo asserted that private property rights are consistent with the natural law. However, Leo also said that it is unjust for capitalists to underpay labor and deprive them of the ability to adequately support themselves and their family, using Thomas Aquinas’ definition of justice (“giving each man his due”) to demonstrate how business owners shortchanging their workers. Capital and labor should recognize that each have duties and responsibilities towards each other, and act as partners in the common good, rather than as mutually antagonistic forces that must always be in contention with each other.
Quadragesimo anno was written forty years after Rerum novarum by Pius XI in 1939. In this document, Pius tried to carve out a “third way” between socialism and communism. He says that it is immoral for one class of people to exclude a poorer class of people from sharing in the fruits of the economy. Pius also described the principles of solidarity and subsidiary, which he believed should be the basis of a Catholic political economy. Solidarity means that labor and capital work together for the common good. Subsidiary means that social problems should be solved by the smallest, most local unit of organization, rather than by an impersonal centralized bureaucracy.
For their respective time periods, Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno were relatively progressive, at least with regard to the treatment of male industrial workers by capitalists. However, when it comes to women’s issues, these documents are not particularly helpful. In section 42 of Rerum novarum, Leo XIII says:
Women, again, are not suited for certain occupations; a woman is by nature fitted for home-work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well-being of the family.”
In this passage, Leo was referring specifically to the practice of employing women in jobs that required heavy labor, such as mine work, factory work, textile mills, and the like. He believed that it was against the “nature” of women to be engaged in heavy labor, especially when doing so will keep her out of her “true place,” i.e., the home. Missing from Leo’s analysis is an understanding of why women were taking these jobs in the first place. Women in the working classes have always had to work, whether in the form of helping out in a family business or seeking employment outside of the home, as many poor women in Europe and North America had to in the nineteenth century. Only wealthy women could afford to hang around the house all day in the manner that Leo XIII approves of, and even then they could only make their households function with the help of female servants, who had to be away from their own families so the “mistress of the house” could fulfill her duties presiding at the altar of the cult of domesticity. Leo and Pius both came from noble backgrounds and probably took the presence of female servants for granted or assumed that only middle and upper class women could be “real women” and remain in the home.
Similarly, in section 71 of Quadragesimo anno, Pius XI said:
Mothers, concentrating on household duties, should work primarily in the home or in its immediate vicinity. It is an intolerable abuse, and to be abolished at all cost, for mothers on account of the father’s low wage to be forced to engage in gainful occupations outside the home to the neglect of their proper cares and duties, especially the training of children. Every effort must therefore be made that fathers of families receive a wage large enough to meet ordinary family needs adequately. But if this cannot always be done under existing circumstances, social justice demands that changes be introduced as soon as possible whereby such a wage will be assured to every adult workingman.
Like Leo XIII, Pius believed that the “proper place” of women is the home or “the immediate vicinity,” which could perhaps be interpreted to mean a family business based in the house or not too far from it. Unlike Leo, Pius proposes a solution to the “problem” of working women by stating that male heads of households should be paid enough so women don’t have to work. But how much should that be and how would this be determined? Would female servants have to be replaced by men, so poor women could stay at home? What about the inevitable labor shortage that would occur if all working women were forced out of their jobs? Once again, this aren’t questions that Leo or Pius thought to ask.
Since Pius condemned any kind of family planning in Casti connubi, his ideal Catholic family unit would be presumably be fairly large. Yet, the more children a family has, the more resources a family needs. Having more children could itself be a factor in causing a woman to have to seek employment. Would each family get a lump sum regardless of size or would men with larger families get larger paychecks? Pius provides no answer of how this scheme would work, nor does he address the question of how the households of the rich could function without the aid of female domestic workers.
Rerum novarum and Quadragesima anno‘s insistence on the home as the proper “place” for women has profound implications for Catholic ethics in the present. Like most religious documents, Rerum novarum and Quadragesima anno are both put on pedestals, and adherents of CST think the insights contained in both encyclicals are considered to be just as relevant today as they were when they were first written. The pontificate of Pope Francis has been characterized by how much he emphasizes CST. Yet, the dismissive attitude that Francis hows towards women and women’s issues is itself rooted in the gender essentialism found in Rerum novarum and Quadragesima anno in which Leo XIII and Pius XI presume to know what the “place” should be of all women in the world. While Francis is at least savvy enough not to state outright that a woman’s “place” is in the home, the current Vatican line that states that women are defined by their wombs is just as condescending and ridiculous.
Catholic liberals like to say that CST is the church’s best kept secret, but if you really examine CST, it’s not very progressive. There is a consensus among international development agencies — the World Bank, the United Nations, OxFam — that the best way to fight against global poverty is to empower women and girls. Since part of that empowerment process involves access to reproductive health services, the Vatican and CST is never going to be an enthusiastic booster of women’s rights. This is why the Holy See has no problem jumping in bed with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the rest of the religious rouges’ galley to fight against women’s rights at the UN:
Catholic liberals who fawn over Francis’ anti-poverty rhetoric need to ask themselves how he plans to help the poor without empowering women, and to take a hard look at what CST actually means, both in practice and in theory.