Outlines of Encyclicals


The summaries that follow are meant to encourage you to read the encyclicals themselves, by guiding you to the sections that contain material of interest.


Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 1891

On the Condition of the Working Classes or The Worker’s Charter

The great social problem of our time is the misery of the working classes (the poor) who, no longer protected by the Guilds, are oppressed by the yoke laid on them by a rich minority (6).


The Socialist remedy to this problem is to abolish private property, but this would be unjust, because ownership is a universal right. It would in any case make things worse, because what primarily motivates men to work diligently is the intention of providing for themselves and their families (7-18, 65-6).

The family (the society of the household) is older than the State, and has inviolable rights and duties of its own prior to those of civil society. For example, the father must provide security for his children by transmitting fruitful goods to them by inheritance. The State for its part should aid families in distress, and may act to protect the mutual rights of each family member when these are being violated, but must otherwise respect the family’s right to privacy and self-management (19-21).

Inequality and hardship are inevitable (and so the promise of utopia a lie). But Labour and Capital have complementary roles and are not naturally at war. They have duties to one another: employers are obliged in justice not to treat workers as slaves, to allow them opportunities to worship, not to burden women and children with inappropriate work, to pay a just wage (31-2, 58-60). A just wage is a living wage (61-5).

Christian charity goes beyond mere justice, and the rich are exhorted to give alms to help the poor once they have taken care of their own needs (36). Only a return to Christian life and institutions will heal our society. The Church trains humanity in virtue, as well as itself providing for the poor. (42-3).

The State is bound to serve the common interest, in particular by improving the condition of workers and maintaining distributive justice (48-51). Indeed the poor and weak are in greater need of its protection and foresight (54). Revolutionary violence and strikes are great evils, that the State should help to prevent by removing the causes of conflict (55-6).

But the responsibility to avoid conflict is not entirely on the State. Employers and workers themselves can accomplish a great deal. The development of Trades Unions and other associations for mutual aid, especially of workers (somewhat like the old guilds), with or without the involvement of employers, may play a particularly important part (68-79).



Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 1931

On Reconstructing the Social Order

Rerum Novarum is the "Magna Charta" of Christian activity in social matters. It effect was to help "imbue the minds of workingmen with the Christian spirit" and awaken "a sense of their true dignity", as well as overthrowing those "tottering tenets" of Liberalism that previously hampered the State from intervention on behalf of workers. Trades Unions have flourished since 1891 (associations of employers are regrettably less common). Catholic workers may join "neutral" unions if there is no danger for religion in them - developing their own religious and moral education alongside.

The right to property has both a social and a private character, and the dangers both of Individualism and of Collectivism must be avoided. The right to property must also be distinguished from its use. Profits (the fruits of production and of work) do not belong exclusively to the employer or to the employed. A wage contract should be modified where possible by a contract of partnership, so that wage-earners can share in ownership, management and profit.

A just wage (the level of which to be determined by negotiation) must also be a family wage. Higher wages may be paid in view of increased family burdens. Mothers must not be forced out to work, neglecting homes and children.

The properly organic form of social life requires that "a larger and higher organization" must never "arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower bodies" [subsidiarity].

Labour "cannot be bought and sold like any piece of merchandise". The proper ordering of economic affairs "cannot be left to free competition alone", but should be subject to a moral, judicial and social order defended by the State. In this context, industrial relations should be cooperative not adversarial. Big unions ("syndicates") can sometimes become too bureaucratic and political.

Since Pope Leo’s day, power has been concentrated in the hands not just of the owners, but of "trustees and directors of invested funds". Individualism increasingly sets the tone: "Free competition is dead; economic dictatorship has taken its place". Socialism has evolved into violent Communism on the one hand, and into a milder Socialism on the other that almost resembles Christian social thought. But this is an illusion: "no one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true Socialist", because Socialism is ignorant of the "sublime end both of individuals and of society". Christian Socialism is a "contradiction in terms." [Here the Pope clearly has materialistic forms of Socialism in mind.] The parent of Socialism was Liberalism, and its offspring is Bolshevism.

Renewal of the Christian spirit is needed especially in view of the growing evils of business and industry worldwide. Our society has fallen from rationalism almost into paganism: "dead matter leaves the factory ennobled and transformed, where men are corrupted and degraded". The Bishops must find and train lay apostles, and form Christian study-circles and associations into true "Schools of the Spirit".



John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 1961

New Light on Social Problems

The Pope summarizes the previous social encyclicals, and picks up on Pius XII’s point (in a broadcast of 1941) that the right to sustenance takes priority over the right to private property (43). Work is both a right and a duty, to be protected by the State.

Global economic development has resulted in grave disparity between rich and poor. True prosperity lies not in wealth but in the equitable distribution of wealth and in the fostering of human dignity. Need for international cooperation (68-81).

Workers should own shares. Craft-workers, family farms and cooperative enterprises should be supported by the State with training, taxation, credit and social security (85-90). In larger firms, too, the company must be seen as a "community of persons" engaged in a common enterprise, and workers encouraged to take more responsibility, through education and involvement in political decision-making and international organizations (91-103).

Increasingly, people are valuing wages, and the security that comes from insurance or welfare, over the possession of property. But "the exercise of freedom finds its guarantee and incentive in the right of ownership", provided such ownership is widely distributed through all classes of people. Public ownership, however, must be restricted by the principle of subsidiarity. Importance of charity reaffirmed (104-121).

Industrialization results in the growth of cities and the decline of agriculture. Governments must compensate by investing more in public services, and allowing special terms for taxation, credit, insurance and price protection, all to benefit farmers. The family-owned farm is the ideal. Farming has a special dignity. Need for mutual solidarity among farmers, and a political voice (122-49).

Economic aid must not be used as a tool of world domination, a new kind of colonialism. Nor must the pursuit of material well-being lead to the neglect of spiritual values (157-77). The poverty of underdeveloped nations is not to be blamed simplistically on overpopulation: the true picture is more complex and uncertain, and the resources of nature cultivated by human intelligence are "well-nigh inexhaustible". Any population policy must respect human dignity and the laws of life (185-99). Nations dependent on each other live in mutual fear and suspicion (arms race, etc.). The development of mutual trust and the integration of scientific advances in service of the common good depends on the recognition of God’s moral order (200-211).

Catholic social teaching is opposed both to materialistic ideologies and to the spirit of hedonism. It is based on the truth of human nature, and must be widely studied and taught, especially by the laity (212-35). This knowledge should not remain abstract and theoretical. Look – Judge – Act, within a framework of mutual respect and loyalty to the Church (236-41). Spiritual values take priority over material ones (importance of Sunday worship, etc.). The task of the Church is to humanize and Christianize modern civilization (242-57).



John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 1963

Peace on Earth

This was the first encyclical addressed not only to Catholics but to "all men of goodwill". It calls for a world-wide community of nations founded on common interests and the moral and social laws of human nature (1-7).

Each man is a person with intelligence and free will, rights and duties – for example, rights to life, respect, freedom, truth and education, the right to worship God and choose a state of life, the right to work and own property, to form associations, to emigrate and to participate in public life (8-27).

For each right there is a corresponding duty. Both rights and duties must be recognized and accepted. True freedom lies in accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Human society is founded on truth, and the first truth is God himself (28-45).

The authority of the State derives from God; laws contrary to the moral order need not be obeyed. The State’s purpose is to serve the common good, by promoting, coordinating and defending the whole range of human rights (46-62).

The State must promote social as well as economic progress: i.e. progress in essential services, insurance, employment, access to culture, etc. (63-6). The Church recommends the division of legislative, administrative and judicial functions, and a written constitution incorporating a charter of human rights (67-79).

Nations as well as individuals are the subjects of rights and duties. Relations between them should be based on the principles of truth, justice and freedom. Racial and cultural minorities must always be treated with respect. Refugees do not lose their rights. Where possible work must be brought to people where they traditionally live, rather than expecting them to move (80-108). Justice, right reason and human dignity cry out against the arms race. In the atomic age, war is no longer a fit instrument to repair the violation of justice (109-29).

Progress in science and technology has led to increased interdependence of all peoples. There must be a common authority, one not imposed by force and which respects the principle of subsidiarity, to safeguard the common good of all. The United Nations Organization, founded 1945, is a step in the right direction (130-45).

We need an educated and active laity. Catholics may and should collaborate with non-Christians and followers of false philosophies in pursuit of practical objectives, provided they are always guided by prudence and the other virtues (146-72).

Peace "is but an empty word, if it does not rest upon that order which Our hope prevailed upon Us to set forth in broad outline in the encyclical. It is an order that is founded on truth, built up on justice, nurtured and animated by charity, and brought into effect under the auspices of freedom" (167).



John Paul II, Laborem Exercens 1981

On Human Work

New technological and social developments are changing the world of work. The focus of Catholic social teaching has shifted from questions of labour and class to the global dimension of justice and peace. But work remains the essential key to the social question, which is the question of "making life more human" (sections 1-3). (A detailed spirituality of work is developed in sections 24-27 of the encyclical.)

Work is defined as something that only man can do, for he has been placed here "in order to subdue the earth" (cf. Gen. 1:28). His work bears "the mark of a person operating within a community of persons". He "reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe" by carrying out his mandate to "subdue" the earth through work, but remains at all times "within the Creator’s original ordering" and in his image, both male and female (4).

To "subdue" is to cultivate and transform the visible world (by agriculture, industry, art, science, etc.). In this task, technology is an ally, but can also displace or enslave man, who should always be the "subject" of work (5), working for the sake of his own self-fulfilment. The dignity of labour lies not in the work but in the worker (6). This is known as the "Gospel of work". Toil and suffering accompanies human work after the Fall (and in some social systems has been used to oppress or degrade), but it is still a good thing, by which man "becomes more a human being". Therefore industriousness is a virtue (9). Work is also an important foundation for family life (the family is the first "school of work") and for the common good of a nation (10).

The modern period was marked by a conflict between labour and capital, or rather between workers and the entrepreneurs who were exploiting them unjustly (11). Marxist ideology sought to bring about a dictatorship of the proletariat, and to eliminate private ownership of the means of production. The Church supports the right to private property: man receives natural resources as a gift from the Creator, and in order to make them bear fruit must take them over "by making them his workbench" (12). But this right is not absolute; it is subordinated to the right to common use (14). "Rigid" capitalism is unacceptable: the means of production should serve labour, if necessary by being socialized through intermediate bodies, or even some form of joint ownership, provided this means that "each person is fully entitled to consider himself a part-owner of the great workbench at which he is working with everyone else", and has a real sense that he is working "for himself" (15).

The Church thus opposes the error of "materialistic economism" (13), against which various movements of solidarity among workers have arisen and should arise: work is not a merchandise to sell to an employer; employees do not constitute a "work force"; man is not merely a "means of production"(7). The Church must defend the worker who is undervalued, underpaid or even unemployed (8). She rejects the separation of labour and capital because both involve "living, actual people" who cannot be reduced to an impersonal force (14).

Work is a moral obligation and therefore connected with various rights, including the right to work or alternatively to unemployment benefits (16-18) and to just remuneration (19) – e.g. a "family wage" or other measures must preserve the mother’s freedom to devote herself to her children and their education – cheap health care, rest, pension, insurance, etc. (19). There is also a right to form unions in order to secure these rights "within the framework of the common good" (20). All of this applies equally to the disabled (22) and the immigrant worker (23). Special attention should be given to restoring agricultural work as "the basis for a healthy economy" (21).



John Paul II, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 1987

On Social Concern

Through her social doctrine, the Church, supported by rational reflection and the human sciences, leads people to respond to their vocation as builders of earthly society (1). The present encyclical marks the anniversary of Paul VI’s Populorum Progressio, which was itself an application of the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes, inspired by an awareness of global poverty and underdevelopment, and of the many closely related ethical and cultural problems which call for the Church’s intervention (7-8).

PP pointed out the moral fact of unequal distribution of means of subsistence and of benefits worldwide, and appealed to the conscience of political leaders to take account of their own responsibility for this inequality in an increasingly interdependent world (9). It also insisted that development must be social, cultural and spiritual as well as material, and that the demand for justice can now only be satisfied at a global level: development is the new name for peace (10). SRS seeks to build on these points and take them further (4, 10).

Comparing the world today with that of 20 years before, there is now less optimism about prospects for overcoming the gap between rich and poor among nations, North and South, and even within rich countries themselves (12-13), a gap which may even have become worse thanks to the existence of certain economic and social mechanisms to be described later (16). The complexity of the problem and its ramifications is described (14 and 15). The right of economic initiative is emphasized, without which the worker becomes dependent upon a bureaucratic elite, as is the right to national sovereignty, both in the name of ‘creative subjectivity’ (15). There are many forms of poverty, including the diminishment of human life caused by the denial of basic rights. ‘Development’ must no longer be defined in purely material terms (15).

Global underdevelopment is characterized by lack of housing, lack of jobs and international debt (17, 18, 19), exacerbated by the existence of two opposing blocs (political, ideological, economic, military), generally termed ‘East’ and ‘West’ (20-21). Each bloc harbours a tendency towards imperialism or neo-colonialism, which hinders development in the third world and consumes vital economic resources (22). Connected with this tension between the power-blocs is the dangerous international arms trade, millions of refugees and a growth in terrorism (23-4).

There are also demographic problems, caused by a falling birthrate in the North and high birthrate in parts of the South. Economic and other pressures are imposed on the poor by developed nations without respect for cultural differences or freedom of choice: the sign of a perverse idea of true human development (25).

On the other hand, positive aspects of the present situation include widespread concern for human rights, awareness of interdependence and the generous work of many International Organizations (26).

SRS then moves on to a consideration of authentic human development (27-34). Development and ‘progress’ are not inevitable. The accumulation of material goods and services may even be oppressive, turning into a form of superdevelopment (consumerism: the cult of ‘having’) contrary to human happiness. ‘Quality and hierarchy arise from the subordination of goods and their availality to man’s "being" and his true vocation’ (28).

The human vocation is defined in Genesis, where the dominion of man over the rest of nature is subordinated to the divine likeness. His task as man and woman is to ‘cultivate the garden’ within the framework of obedience to divine law (29-30). ‘Development’ began at creation, and the redemption of human work is possible through Christ (31). Collaboration is a duty of all towards all, respecting other religious beliefs and universal human rights (32-3). True development must be based on love of God and neighbour, but also respect for other creatures and for the cosmos itself. We are not entitled to use and abuse the elements of nature at will (34).

Moving on to a theological reading of modern problems, SRS speaks of structures of sin rooted in individual moral decisions (36), and particularly in the desire for profit and power, combined with the idolatry of money, ideology, class or technology (37). The Pope calls for a conversion to the virtue of solidarity, a commitment to the common good (38-9). This is the only path to peace as well as to development (opus solidaritatis pax).

Christianity offers a new model of unity, which must inspire our solidarity and overcome the structures of sin: the life of one God in three Persons (communion), to which saints such as Peter Claver and Maximilian Kolbe bear witness (40).

The Church does not offer a ‘third way’ between liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism. She has no technical solutions to social and economic problems, insisting only that human dignity is promoted and her own freedom preserved. What she offers (as the basis for authentic human development) is the truth about Christ, and with that her social doctrine, which is for the guidance of Christian behaviour. Social doctrine belongs to the field not of ideology, but of moral theology (41), and to the Church’s prophetic and evangelizing role.

Social doctrine has an international outlook. It includes an option or love of preference for the poor, which imposes duties on individuals and leaders of nations alike (42), including the reform of the present international trade and monetary systems, careful attention to the transfer of technology and a thorough review of international organizations in the interests of the common good (43). Development also requires the spirit of initiative and responsibility on the part of the developing nations, and cooperation between them (44-5).

Development is intimately connected to liberation, but economic development alone will only enslave: development must include cultural, transcendent and religious dimensions (46). The obstacle to liberation is sin and the structures of sin, and it takes shape in the exercise of solidarity. The Church has confidence in man and in the possibility of true liberation, by peaceful means ‘to safeguard nature itself and the world about us’, and appeals to all men and women of every religion to take measures inspired by solidarity (47). The Eucharist reveals the meaning of our actions for development and peace, and the international crisis is entrusted to the intercession of the Virgin Mary (48-9).

‘Father, you have given all peoples one common origin, and your will is to gather them as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of all with the fire of your love, and the desire to ensure justice for all their brothers and sisters. By sharing the good things you give us may we secure justice and equality for every human being, and end to all division and a human society built on love and peace.’ [From Mass for the Development of Peoples.]



John Paul II, Centesimus Annus 1991


John Paul II’s major social encyclical begins by paying tribute to Leo XIII, who faced the social problems generated by a new form of property (capital) and a new form of labour (simply for wages). Work is part of the human vocation, but when labour becomes a commodity to sell, new injustices can and did arise. In Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo defended the essential dignity and rights of workers, together with the principle of solidarity (under its classical name "friendship"). Criticizing both socialism and liberalism, he stated that "the defenceless and the poor have a claim to special consideration".

After sketching the history of the last 100 years - including two world wars, the consolidation of Communist dictatorship, the arms race and the Cold War (complicated outside Europe by decolonization) - John Paul refers to three types of response to the Communist threat: (i) the European social market economies tried to end the situations of injustice that fuelled revolutionary movements by building a "democratic society inspired by social justice"; (ii) others set up repressive systems of national security, which risked destroying the very freedoms they were intended to protect; (iii) while affluent Western societies tried (successfully) to compete with Marxism at its own level, by demonstrating a superior ability to meet human material needs.

With this the Pope comes to "The Year 1989", and his analysis of the Fall of Communism, which he traces to the recovery and application of the principles of Catholic social teaching by Polish workers in the name of solidarity, faced with the inefficiency of the economic system and the spiritual and cultural void brought about by Communism. The consequences of 1989 apply to the Third World, in that they enable the Church to affirm "an authentic theology of integral human liberation" (26), and to Europe, where a great effort is now needed "to rebuild morally and economically the countries which have abandoned Communism". Disarmament should make possible a greater "mobilization of resources" for "economic growth and common development", both in Europe and in the Third World. But development is threatened by resurgent totalitarianism, materialism and religious fundamentalism.

The fourth chapter, on private property and the universal "destination" (purpose) of material goods, is the heart of the encyclical. An individual right to property exists but is limited by nature: it is created by human work, and since the earth as a whole was given to man in common, all possession should be subordinated to the common good. These days, the possession of "know-how, technology and skill" are just as important as material resources in the creation of wealth. This leads to new types of exclusion and poverty, especially in the Third World. To an unjust economic system where fundamental human needs remain unsatisfied and development impossible, one must oppose not socialism but a "society of free work, of enterprise and of participation", in which "the market is appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the State". In such a system, profit is not the only regulator of the life of business, monopolies are broken down and unpayable debts deferred or cancelled, and every effort is made to create conditions under which the poorer nations may share in development (35).

In advanced economies, the need for basic goods is replaced by the "demand for quality", leading to the danger of consumerism: lifestyles directed not towards "truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth" but towards acquisition for the sake of "enjoyment as an end in itself", where the definition of human needs has been distorted by a false anthropology. Consumerism alienates man from his true self, which can only be attained by self-transcendence and self-gift. It leads to the disordered consumption of natural resources and irresponsible destruction of the environment and the creation of "structures of sin" that impede human development (to which the Pope opposes the structures of "human ecology", starting with the family as sanctuary of life).

Despite its advantages, the market has limits. There are "collective and qualitative needs which cannot be satisfied by market mechanisms" and human goods which must not be bought and sold, but need to be defended by the State and society (40). Marxism has failed, but marginalization, exploitation and alienation persist. The Church endorses the "free economy", but only if economic freedom is "circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality", which is ethical and religious at its core (42). She offers her social teaching, however, not as a model but as an "indispensable and ideal orientation" towards the common good.

Human freedom depends on the recognition of an ultimate truth, without which "the force of power takes over", and democracy slides into totalitarianism (44-5). Human rights, starting with the right to life and culminating in religious freedom, must be protected, and the security of stable currency and efficient public services assured, by the State. Families and other intermediate communities and "networks of solidarity" on which the culture of a nation depends should be supported. However, the principle of subsidiarity militates against excessive State interference and control, as occurs in the "Social Assistance State".

The Church contributes to "a true culture of peace" by promoting the truth about human destiny, creation and Redemption, and about our shared responsibility for avoiding war. Peace is promoted by development, which in turn depends on "adequate interventions on the international level" and "important changes in established life-styles", especially in the more developed economies (51-2, 58). The Church’s social doctrine is inspired by her care for each human being, and forms a part of her evangelizing and salvific mission, revealing man to himself in the light of Christ. Though primarily theological, it is interdisciplinary, and rather than being merely a theory is a basis for action. With the help of grace, "Love for others, and in the first place love for the poor, in whom the Church sees Christ himself, is made concrete in the promotion of justice" (58).


[This precis is reprinted by kind permission of the Catholic University of America Press, from the forthcoming new edition of The New Catholic Encyclopedia.]