Not so fast. Although the documents of modern Catholic social teaching normally begin with Rerum Novarum (1891), students should instead start with Pope Leo XIII’s Quod Apostolici Muneris(1878), an encyclical entirely devoted to socialism, in order to understand that socialism and the free market are not being described as equally objectionable. For while socialism is per se condemned, the market is criticized only for alleged abuses.
Nor could the Church condemn the market in and of itself, since it rests on the inoffensive principle of peaceful, non-coerced exchanges between rightful property owners. Breathless claims to the contrary notwithstanding, that is all the free market amounts to. With Leo XIII having described the rights of property as “inviolate” in one encyclical and “sacred and inviolable” in another — phrases the Left has spent the past century trying to explain away, I might add — the Church would have to acknowledge the essential justice of a market economy at some level, even if she might for whatever reason still have complaints to register here and there.
The real issue at stake, which is obscured by these straw-man objections, is this. Suppose an ecclesiastical document should recommend a particular economic policy as being morally necessary, because its drafters believe it will make the poor better off. Suppose further that they consider it so obvious that this policy will improve the lot of the poor that they do not consider the possibility that it could have any other effect, that there could be any good economic reason for opposing it, or even simply that a trade-off exists between the good outcome they hope for by the policy and unfortunate, unintended side effects of that policy. And now suppose that the policy will in fact not only not improve the position of the poor, but may also make it even worse. What are economically astute members of the faithful to do? Are they forbidden to observe that no one can make reality otherwise than it is, or make A cause B if in the nature of things A inhibits B?