Documentation: The Drafting of Quadragesimo Anno

In 1931 Pius XI issued the great social encyclical “Quadragesimo Anno” to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of “Rerum Novarum.” In “Quadragesimo Anno” the word “liberal” first appears in Catholic social thought—liberalism is therein condemned along with socialism—and the notion of a “third way” is introduced. To prepare the text of the document, Pius XI called on a young German Jesuit, Father Oswald von Nell-Bruening. In what follows Father von Nell-Bruening gives a fascinating account of the process by which “Quadragesimo Anno” was written. Interesting in their own right, these reflections also shed light on the preparation of episcopal documents by bishops in our own time.

Quadragesimo Anno (expleto)” or “Forty years have gone by,” ran the opening words of the encyclical that Pius XI issued to the world on the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum. Meanwhile, another 40 years have passed since that encyclical. For a number of years now, I have been the only one still living of those who cooperated on it. Records from which the story of how QA came about or from which the history of its development could be learned scarcely exist. I destroyed my own papers during the 1930’s in order to keep them out of the hands of the Gestapo. So it may be high time to write down a little of what still remains in my memory. Perhaps it is not without interest to draw a comparison between the way I, at 40 years old, saw my duty then, and how as an 80 year old I see it today in retrospect. The change that I discern in myself only reflects the change that the prevailing concept of ecclesial teaching authority generally and of Catholic social teaching in particular has experienced in the same space of time.

The most important statements on the actual course of events at the initiation of QA were already published in my article “The Koningswinter [Rhine town] Group and their share in QA,” in the Gotz Briefs Commemorative Book of 1968. I add here a little about my personal share.

With the intent of publishing a new encyclical on the Catholicism in Crisis/February 1985 40th anniversary of the encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pius XI, bypassing all Vatican offices, (only the Cardinal Secretary of State knew about it) entrusted its preparation to Fr. Wlodimir Ledochowski, Superior General of my order, who enjoyed his highest confidence. The Pope remarked that the German fathers would have to do most of the work. Fr. Ledochowski in turn gave me the assignment of preparing a draft—in strict secrecy, according to the custom of that time. Neither my house superior nor my provincial superior knew what work I had to do for the General. Since no one could be let in on the secret, I could not consult anyone and was left wholly on my own. Where did I get the courage, I ask myself today, to take on such a task, which was altogether too much for me?

When the job was given me, I had already been a few years in the disputes that at that time split the social Catholicism of the German speaking districts, that is, in the south German and Austrian regions. And I was able, although self taught, to consider myself, without presumption, one of the spokesmen in the science of political economy. In 1928 I obtained a doctorate in theology with a dissertation on the morality of the stock exchange. At the beginning of 1930, I gave a short lecture, recently reprinted, on morality and the reform of laws on stocks. It anticipated the requirements that were in part enacted in the German stock law of 1965. So I possessed a certain name, in the Catholic labor movement in western Germany and even beyond.

In the Konigswinter Group already mentioned, to which men like Theodore Brauer and Gotz Briefs belonged, I was accepted as a participant in their discussions. All of this gave me a certain self confidence. In addition, there was my confidence in the education in abstract thinking bestowed in the regular Jesuit course of training. This education conferred a superiority similar to that which the educated Marxist possessed toward his opponent.

The deciding confidence however, was given by my trust in the teaching office of the Church, in whose service I was to work. If you were trained at that time, you could simply not conceive that the teaching office, specifically when it spoke through the Pope, its head, could err sometime and make an unfounded statement, this even when you were clearly aware that the statement was in no way covered by infallibility. You were also convinced that the Holy Spirit was there to permit no false teaching even where He did not give the guarantee of infallibility. As I once expressed it: the Spirit would if necessary protect the Pope against his advisers. So every teaching statement was considered as undoubtedly true. To criticize one, to doubt its correctness seemed to be so misleading that a person who had hold of himself would not allow such a thought to arise. You put a similar confidence in the certainty of natural law deductions. That I was not a social philosopher, but an economist and a student of law, I was thoroughly aware; but I did not experience this as a defect, since the social and philosophical thought of my brother priest, Gustav Gundlach, that I soaked up like a dried-out sponge, seemed to offer the solution or at least the key to the solution of all relevant questions. I decided to incorporate his contributions unshortened into the draft of the encyclical. QA is in fact well saturated with Gundlach’s thought and so I could, if I wanted to speak about its authorship, point to the continuous help of Gundlach and coin the phrase: he has in QA set up for himself a lasting monument.

Accordingly, my trust was decisive. The presence of the Holy Spirit would protect the Pope. No error of mine could get into the official teaching statement.

I was with Pius XI just a single time, at the beginning of the work. Without going into details, he called the draft good; it should be worked up further. To my horror, they had given him my first draft, single spaced and done with a worn out ribbon in the typewriter. I recall exactly only his remark: “You have a poor typewriter.” Whether he had actually read through the whole thing remained unclear; he turned the conversation to other matters. He did at least examine sufficiently much the greater part of subsequent revisions—there were eight—as the corrections prepared by him of typing errors demonstrated. Only a few remarks on the subject were prepared by him. Changes that he required were mostly of a different sort. That Pius had himself worked on the many technical problems treated in the encyclical, seemed to me unlikely; how could he now take the time for it? Naturally, Fr. Ledochowski, at the many audiences he had with the Pope, did not neglect to draw his attention to the bases for controversial points, so that Pius XI knew the range of what was to be published in his name.

Shortly before the conclusion of the project, he sent a note on facism, written in Italian in his own hand, that was to be inserted in the appropriate place (91-96). Fr. Ledochowski gave it to me with the remark, the Holy Father asked me to say that we should see where the note can best be inserted. He continued in a very firm tone: “But if you have any doubts, you have the duty to inform me.” In view of the esteem that he enjoyed with Pius XI, he could be confident that if necessary he could prevail upon the Pope to alter his note. I read it and was convinced that here the Holy Spirit really was guiding the Pope’s pen. I was enthusiastic and notified Fr. Ledochowski that I had already found the place where the note fitted in smoothly. It needed only to be translated into Latin (the Italian translation of QA contains the original draft of the note—one of the few cases where the text of an encyclical was edited by the Pope himself). This my first opinion did not last very long.

What Pius XI wrote Cardinal Schuster (Milan) about facism aroused doubts in me as to whether Pius XI really understood the phenomenon of facism. Today I am firmly convinced that he did not understand it, that he was not acquainted with the social and political character of facism. This doubt, like my present conviction, leaves the official declaration undisturbed, just as it in no way disparages Pius XI’s great accomplishment, the resolution of the Roman question in 1929.

It is clear to me today that the insertion of Pius XI’s comments on facism bears the chief blame for the total misunderstanding of the picture of order, or rather outline of a social order, developed in QA, which in the German translation is called by the unhappy word “occupational” and in French by “corporatism.” This is no excuse for the inadequate delineation, that was my responsibility exclusively. On the contrary, I blame myself. I became confident because the Pope did not complain in any way about my exposition; and I blame myself far more because I approved the supplement to it written by him. I lulled myself into a false sense of security and undertook no further reflections.

Despite the warning of Fr. Ledochowski, no doubts stirred in me as to whether the paragraphs written by the Pope would combine with my text into a significant whole. Nor did I consider whether my text, in order to be made unmistakable alongside the Pope’s lines—written in a quite different style—would need either to be recast or completely rewritten.

But the other question I had to ask myself and still ask today; did I for my part understand rightly the Pope’s note? Already in my Commentary of 1932 and later, I continually interpreted these statements of Pius XI as diplomatic irony and I could refer to Mussolini for the correctness of this interpretation. He understood the encyclical as such an unfavorable criticism of him that he unleashed his anger over it against the Italian Catholic youth organizations. The Pope complained that Mussolini reacted so spitefully to the “benevolent nod” that he had given him. I believe this complaint was to be understood as diplomatic talk and I still would like to understand it as such. Naturally, I do not possess an account of how the Pope understood his statements or wanted them understood.

When, three years later, Pius XI expressed high appreciation of the “QA state” allegedly established in Austria through the Constitution of May, 1934, I was completely dismayed. For in my understanding of the social order picture of the encyclical, the term “QA state” is a direct self-contradiction; in any case inexplicable. Citizens of a state are expressly given, referring to Leo XIII, the right to choose freely the form of state (86).

The encyclical wants to establish no specific form of state; the state should merely be relieved of tasks that are not its business. What should be curbed is capitalistic class society, centered on the labor market; it should be converted into a class-free society (a pity that this apt phrase had not yet then been coined!). The structures of this society are regulated by the services of the various social groups, contributing to the common good of the whole.

It can be, naturally, that Pius XI, convinced of the good will of the Austrians, also assumed the goodness and correctness of their plans or their work. More lik4y, it seems to me, that he—thinking in terms of Roman law—regarded what they tried to undertake as the realization of the QA picture of social order.

In Austria it is still presumed ‘(occasionally even the determined assertion emerges) that the section on the “occupational order” goes back to the influence of the Vogelsang school or may lead back to Chancellor Ignal Seipel. No Austrian cooperated on the development of QA. In my work, no article coming from Austria came to my attention. However surprising it may sound, these QA thoughts arose exclusively from the Monchengladbach instituted Konigswinter Group, chiefly—as Erich Streissler recently determined—from the “extremely liberal” thinking of Gustav Gundlach. His was the expression used by Nuncio Pacelli at the Freiburg Catholic Convention of 1929, “From the confrontation between classes to the harmonious cooperation of professions” (QA 81), on which this whole section of the encyclical is “suspended.” Fr. Ledochowski was not prepared, without further consideration, to introduce these thoughts into the encyclical. I had to intercede strongly for it. I recall chiefly his doubting question, “How long do you think it will take to achieve this?” and my disarming reply, “It will never be achieved; it is much too sensible for people ever to do it.”

When I consider today, that this heart of the encyclical (for that it is, without any doubt) has brought about misunderstandings and has been disparaged in the widest circles of Catholic social teaching as “statist” or “restorative” or “reactionary.” etc.—quite apart from the political decisions referring to it and their consequences (Austria, Portugal)—then the thought is for me oppressive that without my insistence this section would surely not have been included in the encyclical. What I wanted to say in it and what I am convinced it does say unambiguously, I considered afterwards as before to be progressive, liberal, definitely democratic, against individualism and against statism; in short, correct. And this, despite all the unclearness of the unhappy phrase “according to occupational status” used in the German version for lack of a better term.

Basically, I am of the opinion that the expounding of an official document should depend exclusively on what the wording means, according to ordinary rules of interpretation, and not on what the author of the draft, or on what the teaching authority, presumed it meant. In the case of enacted laws, arising from the deliberations of a legislative body, it is clear that what an individual representative thought a law meant doesn’t matter. The same holds even for the monarchial or monocratic legislator and likewise for the bearer of teaching authority; the message does not depend on his view of it, but exclusively on his statements.

My commentary on QA interprets the lines of the encyclical in the sense that, in my plan, they were to bear, and that in my conviction, they actually do bear. To what extent Pius XI understood them as, in my belief, they should be understood, is beyond my knowledge. An exchange of views, where any possible misunderstanding or unclearness could have become apparent and cleared up, did not, as I said, ever take place. In general, I credit myself with the ability to express my thought in distinct and adequate language, and so I believe that the statements of QA are the adequate expression of the ideas that I wanted to put into it, apart from a few exceptions, where the Latinist was able to prevail against me.

In the drafting of the Vatican Council II Constitution Gaudium et Spes, there arose a dispute over the interpretation of QA. In the section of the Constitution treating of codetermination, there is at 68, footnote 7, the expression “curatio,” management, taken from the Latin text of QA. The question was raised, what this expression means at this place in QA and how the reference there to the inclusion of social law elements into labor relations is to be understood. They wanted to know what I thought of this at the time, what I conceived by “curatio.” To this I can only repeat my basic explanation; it is not at all a question of what I thought or conceived; it is only a matter of what the text and the context convey.

That I am inclined to project back into this section of QA my later acquired insights, doubtless already present germinally at that time, is obvious. For just this reason, I am aware that here I must distrust myself. Whether the choice of the word “curatio” was mine or the Latinist’s, I can no longer determine, since I no longer have any records. So I can only refer you to Latin dictionaries, where you can look up what the word “curatio” ordinarily means.

Similarly, I can say no more about the pair “vel” and “aut,” that is, “or” and “or” in the same sentence with curatio, than that, linguistically, it is possible to interpret the first “or” in such a weakening way that “sharers in management” approaches so near to “sharers in ownership” that you can consider the first as identical to or as flowing out of the second. Against this, the statement as a whole makes this meaning seem forced; there may be a simpler reason for the pairing. [The whole sentence runs; “In this way wage-earners are made sharers in some sort in the ownership, or the management, or the profits.”‘

The German version of QA that I prepared and for which I am responsible lets you recognize unambiguously that it understands “sharers in ownership” and “sharers in management” as two different concepts, clearly distinguished from each other, and that for me, “sharers in management” means sharers in administration. And yet it is not a question of my understanding of the sentence, neither my understanding then nor now, but solely of what the sentence means objectively.

Despite the duty imposed on me of maintaining secrecy, my membership in the Konigswinter Group offered me the priceless opportunity of bringing up, at the meetings, the subjects which, in my view, should be discussed in the encyclical. Only, I could not give any hint of the use I planned to make of the benefit deriving from this exchange of ideas. So later, the Group noticed to their astonishment how many of their stock of ideas reappeared in the encyclical. They regretted that they had not previously published their results, that were then receiving, through the encyclical, a confirmation that was, by the standards of that time, extraordinarily impressive. Without doubt, the Konigswinter Group had, even if unknowingly, a great share in QA. For me it meant a great support in being able to make myself ever more secure through the exchange of ideas in this group of specialists.

Nonetheless, the responsibility remained chiefly on me. True, my order General gave me at times a fellow priest (professor at our order’s School of Commerce in Antwerp) as a partner at my side. But my influence prevailed in all passages that I believed should be emphasized. The teaching part of the encyclical did include everything that I wanted to introduce into it, but—apart from a few lines—nothing else was included that was not my intellectual property.

On occasion, a few brother priests wild enjoyed in their own countries a certain respect on questions in the social field were consulted, not regularly, but just when a favorable opportunity arose. So they could only express their opinions on the questions that seemed especially pressing to them. I did not, so far as I recall, have in a single case to judge between conflicting opinions, with reasons and counter reasons.

But the final say as to what was to be incorporated in the encyclical could, in the circumstances, be made only by Fr. Ledochowski, the man appointed by the Pope. He accepted my material and as a rule agreed to my proposals. When, as an exception, he denied his approval, it was not because he was of another opinion on the subject and thought he understood it better, but as a matter of expediency. He did not want to awaken sleeping bears (whether Vatican or facist) needlessly. An encyclical on the “social question,” a question that, under the facist government, just as later under the Nazis, officially no longer existed (!) would provoke the wrath of Mussolini. This was naturally realized by both Pius XI and Fr. Ledochowski; they considered it adviseable not to stir him up unless that was unavoidable.

Formally, the whole responsibility lay with Fr. Ledochowski, though in fact he depended on me in technical questions. When I think back on it today, it seems to me that such a procedure, that allowed the whole bearing of an official document to be determined by a consultant—in order not to say by an editorial secretary—without establishing any counter check worth mentioning, seems frighteningly irresponsible.

As to how far the overtrustfulness went, consider the following illustration. The sections that I had sketched in rough Latin then ran through the hands of three Latinists, one after the other, who recast it in increasingly smoother Latin. With such linguistic retouching, there is inevitably the danger that the sense will be altered, or at least that fine points will be lost and essential distinctions distorted. This all the more, as the material was unfamiliar to the Latinists, and their whole concern was for elegance of language. No one except me was appointed to examine the final wording for correctness.

The German translation, naturally, came wholly from my pen. No one reviewed it; it went to press at the Vatican Press without anyone else having examined it. In contrast, I was given the job of checking translations prepared by others: French, English, Italian, and—despite my minimal knowledge of Spanish—even the Spanish translation. I carried out the task as well as I could in the time allowed. In those days, all this did not impress me too much. What is distressing for me now is the thought that even today, apparently, if the occasion arose, they would proceed in a manner similar to that for QA. But currently, the world is more demanding.

Today, people expect that announcements of the highest Church authorities—on questions in which the profane sciences also have a voice—be on just as high level as that of scientific statements of the most qualified international bodies. This presumes that an international group of recognized specialists in the science participate in the elaboration and assume the technical scientific responsibility for such new announcements.

  • Fr. Oswald von Nell-Bruening, S.J.

    Oswald von Nell-Breuning SJ (March 8, 1890 – August 21, 1991) was a Roman Catholic theologian and sociologist. Nell-Breuning was ordained in 1921 and appointed Professor of Ethics at the University of Frankfurt am Main in 1928. He was instrumental in the drafting of Pope Pius XI's social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931), which dealt with the "Social Question" and developed the principle of subsidiarity. Nell-Breuning was not allowed to publish from 1936 to the end of Nazi Germany in 1945. He died in Frankfurt am Main.

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