By Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai (AMDG)
As Africans respond to Pope Francis’ teaching ministry in seeking out new economic models for the continent, it might be helpful to situate the Pope’s teaching in a wider and broader perspective- the Catholic Social Teaching (CST).
The modern CST is traceable to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 social encyclical, Rerum Novarum. The new social conditions centred on Europe’s proletariat working conditions. Leo’s great social encyclical took the form of a critical response to the Socialists propositions divided into three areas: Church and State’s action, and the relationship of employers and employees. He defended workers’ right to strike owing to unjust wages and the formation of workers unions. He established the idea that the Church has a social doctrine, that there is a body of social principles rooted in Christian tradition and developed through reflection upon the person and society. Subsequent popes and bishop' conferences have built on this tradition which Leo XIII began, especially on the historical and pastoral tone which he set forth.
In 1931, Pope Pius XI wrote Quadragesimo Anno forty years after Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum during the Great Depression that had left millions in Europe and America unemployed. Fascism and Communism were becoming growingly attractive. The Principle of Subsidiarity is the enduring contribution of Pius’ encyclical: that the state and all other associations exist for the individual. Societies should therefore not assume what individuals can do, nor should larger societies undertake what smaller ones can do. The European Economic Community later adopted the Principle of Subsidiarity.
Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra - May 1961, was written at a time of great social upheaval: the advent of the atomic weapons. It introduced two new ideas into Catholic Social Teaching: the world’s non-industrialised nations; and the laity’s role in carrying forth the Gospel’s practical applications. It reaffirmed the right to private property and offered a measured critique of liberal capitalism. The Cuban Missile Crisis set the stage for John XXIII’s 1963 Holy Thursday encyclical, Pacem in Terris. Addressed to “all men and women of good will,” Pacem in Terris inserted Catholicism into the modern quest for justice, peace and freedom, trusting that all would hear its appeal for deterrence and disarmament.
The 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, is a work of the Second Vatican Council. The context of Gaudium et Spes is modernity: how do humans understand themselves when faced with a plethora of recent discoveries, urbanisation, immigration, mass media and secularism? Gaudium et Spes proposes an anthropology that sees the human being as whole and entire, with a body and soul, heart and conscience, mind and will. It is a human being with a non-material dimension that must rethink the whole question of war and the arms race.
Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom – Dignitatis Humanae (1965), constituted another milestone in the evolution of Catholic Social Teaching. The historical setting is on church-state relations that followed the revolutionary currents the French Revolution had unleashed. It argued against the privatisation of religion, putting forth a theory of freedom for religion that, while not sanctioning state religion, invites the state to make room for religious freedom, lived according to human conscience.
Paul VI’s 1967 social encyclical, Populorum Progresso, addressed the question of modern international development. He affirmed the Church’s support for those seeking to overcome hunger, poverty, ignorance, et cetera. With Paul’s encyclical, another name for peace became development. He asserted that the economy was at the service of human beings.
To mark the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum in 1971, Paul VI issued the apostolic letter, Octogesima Adveniens, in which he argued that political power shapes ultimate economic decisions and called for a responsible use of political power. Paul VI challenged communities to analyse, reflect, judge and act on their particular situations. He called on such economic constructive efforts to be founded on the principles of equality and participation.
On September 14, 1981, John Paul II, released Laborem Exercens. This worker-Pope from Poland wanted to help the Church in forming a spirituality of work that will help people to come closer to God, the creator and redeemer, through work. Work is to be considered a subjective dimension of human existence, intrinsic to the human being. By focusing on the spiritual dimension of work and its role in God’s plan, Laborem Exercens teaches the world that the social and economic question of work is also a moral and ethical one. John Paul therefore moved Catholic Social Teaching from the relationship of capital and labour to work as a character-forming and spiritual experience.
John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, sought to respond to the thorny reality of failed developmental and economic policies, especially in the developing world. What economic theory can best lift the developing world out of poverty? Outstanding in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis is its empirical approach to world economy: the value of entrepreneurship; the concern over increasing world protectionism, and the havoc of floating exchange rates. That said, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, has been criticised for not taking adequate account of the efficiency of capitalist production of goods and services, reducing the great engine of capitalism simply to the all-consuming desire for profit, a materialist conception of capitalism. Wealth should not be seen as a crime.
On the occasion of the centenary of the publication of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, John Paul II wrote Centesimus Annus, which focused on human freedom and the right ordering of culture, economics, and politics. To the delight of many in the free world, John Paul affirmed the place of the free market, democracy and faith: faith in freedom; faith in the human capacity to order human life properly; and above all, faith in God who created man and woman with intelligence and free will.
Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, focused on integral human development. The genuine novelty in Caritas in Veritate is the encyclical’s strong emphasis on life issues (abortion, euthanasia, embryo-destructive stem-cell research) as well as social-justice issues – which Benedict cleverly extends to the discussion of environmental questions, suggesting that people who do not care much about unborn children are unlikely to make serious contributions to a human ecology that takes care of the natural world.
It is within this fabric that we can understand Pope Francis’ The Joy of the Gospel as an added value to the Church’s response to the world’s mores and challenges. The above analysis shows this process as an accompanying thinking-through process of faith that does justice in the different world contexts.