The Long, Slow Dawn of Social Catholicism

The history of Social Catholicism, that is, of Catholic social thought, may be said to have been moving in a direction all but parallel with the development of the “social question.” This, however, must not be interpreted to mean that the Church itself was always an alert observer, instantly responsive to the progressive disorganization of society which accompanied the maturing process of modern capitalism and the concurrent industrial revolutions. Furthermore, the two terms, “the Church” and “Catholicism,” cannot be simply identified. And it is certainly disputable whether one can still speak of the industrial revolution. For, we are, in the western world, no longer concerned with the rise and growth of a “proletariat.” What might be called the initial industrial revolution has been followed by new and, for that matter, more radical technological changes of even more far-reaching social consequences than those which followed the introduction of steam-driven machinery.

Be that as it may, at least in England, the country of “origin” of both classical capitalism and the first industrial revolution, it took a long time before the ecclesiastical authorities awakened to the doctrinal and moral implications of the original social question. There is a chance, though, that even leading Catholic churchmen mistook the views and deeds of the leaders of business and industry of that time as representing a conservative stance of socio -cultural continuity. Perhaps also, conversely, they mistook the drive of the so-called laboring poor for emancipation as endangering inherited patterns of thought and action. After all, if even so sage and discerning a lay leader as the pro-Catholic Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-1797) could confidently say that “breaking the laws of commerce, which are the laws of nature,” would be tantamount to breaking the laws of God,’ we can hardly blame the inexperienced and somewhat uneasy churchmen for refraining from publicly questioning the rectitude and validity of the prevailing socio-economic order, which was indeed based on the supposedly natural law of unfettered commerce. One must not forget either that, not only in England but also on the Continent, Catholics were in a position of defensive retrenchment. Any questioning of the legitimacy and morality of what Karl R. Popper has called “unrestrained capitalism” was likely to be regarded with suspicion, if not as impertinent “popish” meddling in the affairs of the ruling classes and, more or less simultaneously, with those of the established Church of England.

This does not mean that the prevailing socio-economic system and its rules of the game remained entirely unchallenged. In Great Britain, quite a number of non-Catholic writers’ did not hesitate to take on the state-sanctioned Establishment and to appeal to the conscience of the Anglican clergy. It seems that it was the English novelist Daniel Defoe (1659-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe, who first recognized and designated the “laboring poor.” Sir Frederick M. Eden’s monumental work The State of the Poor (3 vol., 1797) was a systematic survey of the conditions of the English working class of his time. But it seems to have been Robert B. Seeley’s The Perils of the Nation (1843) that gained the ears of Catholics. Inquiring into the actual conditions of the laboring poor in the manufacturing, mining, commercial and agricultural areas, Seeley also made it a point to look for the causes of “pauperism.” He appealed to legislators, the clergy and propertied classes “to promote the temporal comfort and welfare of the poor” and to do so “in the name of Him, who went about doing good” (p.313).

It was in all likelihood Seeley’s reference to “the selfish principle” as “an evil maxim” (1.c. p. 93f) and the root of the social evils which imperiled the English nation that attracted the attention of William G. Ward (1812-1882), a moral philosopher and, later, a convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. Seeley had reminded the Bishops of the Church of England of the duties of their office, particularly in regard to the “amelioration of physical sufferings” (1.c., p.294) among the sheep of their flocks. Ward felt that it was exactly the disinterest and inaction of the leaders of the Church of England which led them to fail to preserve the Church as a refuge of the poor, and which brought on this distressing situation. Ward prized highly the social thought of St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas and felt that only a Church based on uncompromising social principles could effect a lasting change. Thus, he was convinced that it was now the mission of the Roman Catholic Church to espouse the cause of the laboring poor.

It was, or so it seems, still simple “pauperism” Ward had in mind, a situation that could be controlled by charity and aid from public funds. But there are indications that he was not entirely unaware of the possibility of more deeply rooted, “systemic” causes, which called for a socio-cultural ‘reorganization, as John Stuart Mill had suggested. Still, there is no record that either Seeley or Ward met with any audible response from the Catholic leaders of their time. It must be said that “liberals” like Mill were ahead of the Church.

The same is true of Friedrich Engels’ exposure of the Conditions of the Working Class in England. This “classic,” while not entirely without bias in its design, must be recognized as an attempt to set forth a factual and objective presentation of the increasing misery of the English proletariat. Since much of it is really an inquiry into the sufferings of the Irish immigrants, toiling in English mills and mines, it is hard to understand why the Catholic clergy did not sit up and at least take notice. Were the Irishfolk not mostly “born” Catholics? Where were their shepherds? It is true that Engels himself did not show real compassion, when he reported about the Irish.’ He probably considered them as a “ragged proletariat,” the “great unwashed,” who, living far below the poverty line, did not develop any real class-consciousness and were not only unwilling but actually unable to join the masses that were fighting for their emancipation. Besides, deliverance could supposedly not come before capitalism had reached its summit of exploitation and thus played out its historical role as preparation for the post-capitalistic society of tomorrow.

Continental Europe, in the middle of the 19th Century, was marked by upheavals and revolutions, though mostly of a visibly political nature. Seditious ideologies and radical movements seemed to shoot up like mushrooms. Of the most far-reaching importance was the Marx-Engels “Encyclical,” the Communist Manifesto, which Theodor Brauer aptly called “the birth certificate of scientific socialism.” Though drawn up in German in January 1848, it was first published — in English, of course — in London and seems not to have come to the knowledge of the German public before the middle of that year. It announced “the most radical rupture of traditional ideas,” such as religion, which later Marx already in 1843 had declared to be nothing but the “opium of the people.”

It is quite likely that the rural pastor, Rev. William E. v. Ketteler (1811-1877), member of the democratic Frankfurt Assembly of 1848 (in the Paulus church in Frankfurt-Main), later to become the influential Bishop of Mainz, had as yet no knowledge of that Communist Manifesto, when he agreed to deliver a series of sermons on “the great social questions of the present time.” Nevertheless, it seems noteworthy that his sermons of Advent, 1848, which have been said to have laid the groundwork for the social teachings of the Church in the 19th and 20th centuries, were delivered in the very same year that the communist “encyclical” was first published. In other words, while the Catholic leadership in England and Ireland was still silent, there was now on the Continent some first steps in the direction of a Catholic answer to the initial social question.

However, while v. Ketteler, as a bishop, became increasingly more specific and incisive in his approach to the problems of labor and to the grave errors of the then prevailing socio-economic system, one can hardly say that his early sermons were of momentous and signal importance. They did indicate a public awakening, a real break-through, and they do mark the birthday of Social Catholicism in Central Europe. The people appeared in crowds to listen to v. Ketteler, an indication, or so it seems, that they felt like “sheep without a shepherd,” worried and abject (Matt.IX, 36), looking for a guide. Later, when v. Ketteler did indeed become shepherd of a diocese, and probably the leader of the early Catholic social movement, he continued to approach the social issues of his time more from a pastoral point of view, as becomes a bishop, than from that of a social reformer.

It would be erroneous to give the impression that Father v. Ketteler’s pulpit in 1848 was the only cradle of “social Catholicism” in Europe. There were other such “cradles,” though perhaps not as important. News about strikes, riots, arson and bombings in the larger industrial cities of England had reached the Continent, causing there, it seems, more uneasiness and worry than among the English gentry that enjoyed periods of commercial prosperity.° What, for instance, made leading German Catholics more sensitive and alert in social matters, was, originally at least, more the fear of an epidemic of socialism than a diagnosis of the prevailing socio-economic conditions that seem to be causing this apparent ideological infection.

What did the parish priest v. Ketteler’s oration of 1848 deal with? Significantly, first with the Christian concept of private property, then the obligations of Christian charity, the Christian concept of marriage and the family, the authority of the Catholic Church, etc. His approach, therefore, was, as yet, quite moderate, more protective and apologetic than pointing out the faults and defects of what he himself later called the conditions or circumstances that proved to be “analogous to a proximate occasion of sin.”

Space limitations do not permit a complete overview of the movements, gatherings and literary efforts in Europe that might be said to have paved the way for a more or less official comment on the part of ecclesiastical authorities. It took a long time before Rome began to take official notice of the fundamental economic, technological and, ultimately, social changes taking place first on the British Isles and, later, all over mid-continental Europe. Meanwhile, laymen like Adam H. Muller (1779-1829); Franz v. Baader (1765-1841); Franz Joseph v. Buss (1803-1878); and Carl Baron v. Volgelsang (1818-1890) drew attention to the social consequences and moral implications of these changes. In Austria, France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland committees and circles of men were formed, sharing a common interest in the social question. Some of these groups sent reports of their discussions to Rome. Leading among them were the Genfer Vereinigung; the Conseil des Etudes de l’Oeuvre des Circles Catholiques d’Ouuriers; the Circolo dei Studi Sociali ed Economiche; the Freie Vereinigung katholischer Sozialpolitiker; and the Union Catholique d’Etudes Sociales et Economiques a Fribourg. These associations consisted largely of members of the nobility, priests and socio-politically interested academicians, but — oddly enough — no representatives of craftsmen and the very wage-earners whom they aimed to defend and support. There was much discussion about a re-organization of economic society along guide-lines, the abolition of interest-taking (which was still regarded as usury), the replacement of the wage contract through a contract of partnership, and the like.

It would be interesting to inquire in depth into the reasons why so many members of the landed nobility took the initiative to form those socio-critical study circles and made their influence felt in these committees. There can be no doubt that the motivation of many of them was truly “noble”: genuine compassion for the innocent victims of rapid and rampant social change. But there is also a chance that their sympathies with the poor were mixed — perhaps subconsciously — with some sort of feudalistic ressentiment, directed against the new “chimney barons,” the cotton lords, and industrial magnates, who, rising rapidly to power in society, were gradually replacing the old-time aristocracy.

Looking for scapegoats, some found the Jews, especially the commercially successful ones, easy prey. We know that the socio-political ideologies of Karl Lueger (1844-1910), lord-mayor of Vienna and anti-Semitic follower of Carl v. Vogelsang — mentioned above — exercised a great influence on the young Adolf Hitler. Needless to say, nothing was further from the minds of the blue-blooded social thinkers than incubating a plebeian “Fuhrer” like Hitler. Their often romantic genre of anti-capitalism, however, did attract negativistic, anti-democratic forces, and some eccentrics, laudatores temporis acti, protectors of the past. Some were determined to bring to a halt all forward-looking movements and to undo actual advances, while fostering a return to past political systems and policies.

Although these undesirable side-effects must not be overlooked, there should be no doubt that the efforts of genuinely concerned laymen and clerical advocates of a reorganization of social economy did indeed represent the beginnings of a truly pioneering Social Catholicism. Books have been written which record and evaluate these efforts in France, Great Britain, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and the United States. In his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), Leo XIII did give credit to the “men of eminence meeting together for discussion, for the promotion of united action, and for practical work.” “Those Catholics,” he said, “are worthy of all praise — and there are not a few — who, understanding what the times require, have endeavored to better the condition of the working people” (No. 41).

One may wonder, though, whether the pre-en-cyclical lay initiative did not become somewhat impaired when eventually the Holy See and some of the hierarchy entered the scene. The history of Social Catholicism certainly attests to many valiant efforts on the part of the laity and individual priests to provide realistic answers to the ever more urgent “social question.” But it is to be admitted that these efforts lacked much in direction and coordination. There were different lines and schools of thought, some more conservative, others more liberal, some favoring more governmental intervention, some opposing it, some quite pragmatic, others rather academic. While social policy is, of course, primarily a matter of prudential decision-making rather than of axiomatic choice, thus permitting a variety of practical solutions, there was a need for some directional agreement and unity as far as fundamental verities and basic maxims were concerned. It was in this respect that the Magisterium of the Church (unfortunately often identified with “the Church”) seems to have felt it necessary to provide leadership and orientation. This may explain why Social Catholicism became more and more “encyclically” oriented, that is, dealing with, interpreting, commenting on, and drawing inferences from papal and conciliar pronouncements.

In other words, particularly after Leo XIII’s famous pronouncement Rerum Novarum, the Social Catholicism of the western world developed largely along “encyclical” lines. For some time treaties on Catholic social doctrine and programs of Catholic social movements were, to a considerable extent, commentaries on, as well as elaborations of, papal declarations on social principles.


  • Franz H. Mueller

    Franz Mueller (1900-1994) was a German intellectual who wrote about Catholic social teaching throughout his lifetime.

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