Responding to the “new” question of workers’ rights and organised trade unionism in the 19th century did not come easily for the Catholic Church. The papacy in particular was essentially a medieval monarchy in thinking, and up until 1870 it governed a chunk of what is now central Italy called the Papal States; this was wrested from the pope, much to his horror, by the forces of Italian unification.
The monarchical mentality can also be seen in the hierarchical structuring of the Church: at the top the pope (the king), beneath him the bishops (the equivalent of feudal lords), then the clergy (the functionaries of the lords) and then the laity (the peasants). The rise of capitalism and labour—captains of industry who fitted into none of the categories, and workers who were not bound to any lords but employees—shattered this classic pattern.
To make matters worse, the workers were restless—demanding greater political and economic rights, not least to bargain for their wages. Add to this the emergence of a socialist movement, often quite anti-religious, and one can see how complex the whole picture had become.
From 1891, papal Catholic Social Teaching tried to address these problems. Read from our perspective today, the early social encyclicals likes Rerum Novarum and Quadregesimo Anno seem cautious, even grudging in tone, at times even apparently attempting to defend a hierarchical socio-economic order that had already broken down: We must allow a just wage and the formation of unions (preferably Catholic ones to counter dangerous Marxist ideas!), but we must defend private property at all costs too. Moreover we should aim at a kind of compact between capital, labour and the state—often all too reminiscent of the social order of fascist states like Salazar’s Portugal or Mussolini’s Italy.
Gradually, however, Catholic social thought—driven, it should be noted, by the grassroots practice of Catholics in trade unions around the world who increasingly found common ground with their secular and even socialist comrades—came to see that this model could not work.
To their credit, successive popes like John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II saw the need for more forthright statements in defence of workers, to the point where John Paul II (in 1981’s Laborem Exercens) could say that when it came down to a conflict between the needs of workers and the interests of capital, labour should trump capital. Coming from a pontiff who was fiercely anti-communist, this was radical indeed!
How did this change happen? To a large degree we can see it as a fruit of Vatican II, where many bishops particularly from Latin America and Asia, insisted that the question of justice for workers be put on the agenda.
A significant section (paragraphs 64-72) of Gaudium et Spes (1965) addressed “economic and social life” directly. It insisted that economic activity should serve humanity and “be carried out in accordance with techniques and methods belonging to the moral order, so that God’s design for [humanity] may be fulfilled” (64).
Vatican II’s moral vision of work insisted that it not be “left to the judgment of a few individuals or groups possessing too much economic power, nor of the political community alone, nor of a few strong nations” (65), clearly rejecting radical free market capitalism, state socialism, as well the kind of dominance by a few (Northern) countries that many “world systems” theorists like Immanuel Wallerstein feared—in effect a new economic colonialism of unequal globalisation.
Vatican II called for greater equality between peoples, the narrowing of the wage gap between workers and employers, and an end to exploitative labour practices. Work had in effect to be humanised—productive certainly, but also creative and the fruit of collaboration between people. Capital and labour needed to collaborate so that all could benefit from work, including enjoying a just share in goods produced (66-69). It envisioned, too, a balance between private property and public ownership, where the latter would benefit everybody.
We can see the vision of Vatican II—in content and method—in subsequent social encyclicals. There are certain basic principles affirmed that need to be interpreted in the light of the “signs of the times”.
Thus one sees in recent social thought an acknowledgment of the reality of economic globalisation, but with a strongly principled call to making the benefits of global capital really accessible to all. And where capital has acted criminally and/or irresponsibly there is a demand for accountability and reform.