Posts Tagged ‘Social Catholicism’

French Radical Social Catholicism and its Demands for the Improvement of Conditions for the Working Class

May 16, 2022

The chapter I found most interesting in Aidan Nichols’ book, Catholic Thought Since the Enlightenment: A Survey (Pretoria: University of South Africa 1998) was on 19th century Social Catholicism. Social Catholicism is that branch of the church that seeks to tackle with social issues, such as working conditions and justice for the poor, women’s rights, the arms race, the problem of poverty in the global south and so on. It’s governed by the doctrine of subsidiarity, in which it is neither politically left or right. Nevertheless, there are some Social Catholic thinkers whose idea were very left-wing, at least for the 19th century. The chapter mentions two 19th century French writers, whose ideas could be considered socialistic.

One of these was Alban de Villeneuve-Bargemont, who retired from public life following for the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy, taking the opportunity to write a book on Christian political economy. He advocated state intervention, not only to relieve poverty and distress, but wanted it to ensure that workers could conduct their own economic activity aided by credit unions, mutual aid societies and other institutions. This was when the economy was still dominated by cottage industry and many workers were self-employed craftsmen.

Rather more radical was Philippe Benjamin Joseph Buchez, who wrote a forty volume history of the French Revolution, which was later used by the British right-wing anti-capitalist writer, Thomas Carlyle. In his treatise Essai d’un traite complet de philosophie au point de vue du Catholicisme et du progress and his journal l’Europeen, as well as his presidency of the French constitutional assembly during the revolution of 1848, called for the establishment of cooperatives for skilled artisans, the state regulation of working conditions and a minimum wage. (p. 92). The chapter also goes to note that other social Catholics favoured private initiatives and charity to tackle the problems of poverty. Others also went on to recommend a corporative solution to social problems, in which workers and masters would work together in decentralised self-regulating organisations based on the medieval guilds, very much like the corporate state as promoted, but not practised, by Mussolini’s Fascist Italy.

Villeneuve-Bargement’s and Buchez’s ideas ran directly counter to the laissez-faire economic doctrine of the 19th century and clearly anticipated some of the developments in the last and present centuries, such as the establishment of the minimum wage in Britain and America. While people can disagree with their theology, depending on their religious views, it seems to me that their ideas are still relevant today.

And I rather people looked to their Roman Catholic solutions to working class poverty and labour, than Iain Duncan Smith. Smith seems to use his Catholicism and his supposed concern with eliminating poverty as just another pretext to cut benefits and make the poor poorer.

So dump Smith, and return to 19th century French Social Catholic radicalism!

The 19th Century Social Catholic Warning Against Bozo

May 10, 2022

This morning I had the misfortune to hear the Queen’s Speech, actually given in her absence by Prince Charles. This obviously lays out the intentions of Johnson’s wretched government, and how nauseating they were. I’m still very weak with a dodgy stomach from the Covid booster, and this announcement of Bozo’s policies didn’t improve my condition. Johnson has pledged to remove the legislation he claims is restricting industry and so hindering economic growth, will repeal EU-inspired human rights legislation, and pass further law allowing the state to clamp down on ‘disruptive’ protests such as Extinction Rebellion’s.,

We all know where this is going. The removal of more workers’ right so that they can be hired and fired at will, as well as restrictions on planning permission and other laws preventing companies from trashing the environment. Meanwhile, the Tories will take away the right to protest for everybody on the grounds that it’s causing a nuisance.

One of the books I’ve been reading is Aidan Nichol’s Catholic Thought Since The Enlightenment (Pretoria: University of South Africa 1998). This is a short guide to the rich intellectual history of the Roman Catholic Church since the 17th century as it attempted to tackle issues such as the rise of atheism and scepticism, the competing claims of the national churches against the papacy, historical scepticism, the conflict between French Revolutionary attempts to destroy Christianity and particularly the Roman Church, as well as purely metaphysical issues. These latter, which involve complex arguments about ontology, epistemology – the theory of knowledge – and psychology rather go over my head. But I’ve been very interested indeed in the chapter on Social Catholicism. Social Catholicism is that branch of Roman Catholic theology and pastoral care directed at social issues, such as alleviating poverty, questions of political pluralism, protecting the rights of Roman Catholics in non-Catholic societies, and combating the poverty created amongst working people through modern industrial capitalism.

One of the founders of the Social Catholic tradition was Adam Heinrich Muller (1779-1829), a north German convert to the faith. Muller defended the family, respect for the traditional institutions that had developed under Christianity, such as the estates and corporations that focussed loyalties, duties and organised decision-making. Here he was influenced by Burke, the founder of modern Conservatism. From one perspective he’s a conservative. But he gave a speech to the Saxonian diplomatic corps warning against the dangers of liberal economics and absolutist government.

Liberal economics and absolutist government sounds precisely like Johnson’s dream.

I realise that what he was talking about then isn’t going to be the same as the current political situation. He was speaking at a time when democracy largely didn’t exist anywhere in Europe except Switzerland, and was feared by many, Roman Catholic and Protestant, because of the carnage caused by the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. But nevertheless, there’s still a point here for contemporary politics.

Johnson is the type of politician Muller warned us about.

New Things Revived: Rerum Novarum and Social Catholicism

July 9, 2013

A few months ago, BBC Radio 4 on one of their topical issues devoted an edition to the revival of interest in Social Catholicism in certain sections of the Labour Party. Social Catholicism is the Roman Catholic theological and political movement that seeks to grapple with the problems of contemporary industrial society, particularly the rights of employees, women and the family, and welfare issues. It began with the 1891 papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, of Pope Leo XIII. It was an attempted to provide a Roman Catholic alternative to secular Socialism and Communism, and also to provide institutional protection for Roman Catholics in aggressively secular states, such as France, or Protestant Germany during the Wilhelmine Kulturkampf. It condemned Socialism and Communism and supported private property. On the other hand, it demanded that worker’s should be paid a living wage, and allowed worker’s to join and form trade unions.


The encyclical stated:

‘Man’s labour has tow inherent natural characteristics; it is personal, since the active force is attached to a person, and is completely the personal possession of the man by whom it is exercised, and is by nature designed for his advantage: and secondly, it is necessary, for this reason, that man requires the fruit of his labour for the preservation of his life, and the duty of self-preservation is grounded in the natural order. It follows that if we consider merely the personal aspect there is no doubt that it is open to the worker to reduce the agreed wage to narrow dimensions. He gives his services of his free will, and he can, of free will, content himself with a slender reward, or even with none at all. But a very different conclusion is reached when we combine the necessary with the personal element, and indeed they are only separable in thought, not in reality. To remain alive is a duty incumbent on all alike, in fact, and to fail in this duty is a crime. Hence arises of necessity the right of acquiring the materials for the support of life; and it is only by the wage earned with their labour that the lower orders are supplied with these means. Therefore the worker and the employer should freely come to agreement, especially in regard to the level of wages … But there is an underlying condition which arises from natural laws, namely that the wage should be sufficient to support the worker, provided he is thrifty and well behaved. If the worker is compelled to accept harsher terms, or is induced to do so by fear of worse hardships, and these have to be accepted because they are imposed by a master or employer, this is submission to force and therefore repugnant to justice … If the worker receives sufficient payment to maintain himself, his wife, and his children, in comfort, he will be ready to practise thrift, if he is sensible, and will follow the promptings of nature by reducing his expenditure to ensure some surplus by means of which he may attain a modest property … The right of private property ought to be inviolate … for the attainment of these advantages it is an essential condition that private property should not be exhausted by inordinate taxation. The right of personal possessions is not based on human law; it is given by nature. Therefore public authority cannot abolish it; it can only control its use and adjust it to the common good.

Trades Unions

That men should commonly unite in associations of this kind (trades unions and the like), whether made up wholly of workers or of both classes together, is to be welcomed … Natural law grants man the right to join particular associations, and the state is appointed to support natural law, not to destroy it … and the statae arises from the same principle which produces particular societies, the fact that men are by nature gregarious. But circumstances sometimes arise when it is right for the laws to check associations of this kind; this happens if ever these associations deliberately adopt aims which are in open conflict with honesty, with justice, and with the well-being of the community.’

Quadrogesimo Anno and Social Questions

The encyclical Quadrogesimo Anno, issued by Pope Pius XI in 1931, contained further statements on the just wage, the responsibility of the state and the pernicious effects of unlimited competition in producing a predatory class of super-rich. It included the following passages:

The Just Wage

The Personal and Social Character of Labour … Unless the social and juridicial order safeguards the exercise of labour … unless intelligence, money and labour are allied and united, the activity of man is unable to produce its proper results. If the social and personal nature of labour be disregarded it cannot be justly valued nor equitable recompensed.

Three Principles

(a) The worker should receive a wage adequate for the support of himself and his family … It is the worst of abuses … that mothers should be compelled, because of the inadequacy of the father’s wage, to earn mony outside the home, to the neglect of their particular duties and responsibilities, especially the care of their children …

(b) In deciding the level of wages the condition of the productive organization must be taken into account. it is unjust to demand excessive payment which the business cannot stand without disaster to itself and subsequent ruin to its workers. But technical and economic inefficiency … is not to be considered an excuse for reducing wages…

(c) The level of wages must be adjusted to the public economic good …. Wages should be so regulated as far as possible by consent, that as many as possible may be able to hire their labour and receive suitable reward for their livelihood…

The Right Order of Society

The State’s Responsibility …. Public authority should delegate to subordinate bodies the task of dealing with problems of minor importance so that it may carry out .. the duties peculiarly incumbent upon it … (of promoting the common good, regulating the ‘hierarchical order’ of these free associations of bodies autonomous in their economic and professional spheres, and encouraging a ‘harmony of orders’ in place of a ‘rivalry of classes’.)

The Governing Economic Principle … The unity of human society cannot be based on the opposition of ‘classes’; the establishment of a right economic order cannot be left to a free trial of strength … economic power must be controlled by social justice and social charity …

(Changes since Rerum Novarum) … There has been not merely an accumulation of wealth but a huge concentration of power and of economic dictatorship in the hands of a few who are for the most part not the owners but merely the trustees and administrators of invested property, handling such funds at their arbitrary pleasure … This irresponsible power is the natural fruit of unlimited free competition, which leaves surviving only the most powerful, which often means the most violent and unscrupulous fighters.’

The Mater et Magistra of John XXIII

These encyclical and their provisions were reviewed, expanded and updated for the changed conditions of the very early 1960s by John XXIII in his encyclical, Mater et Magistra. This encouraging increasing participation by workers in the running of their firms.

In many economies today, organizations of moderate and large size often effect swift and extensive increases in productive capacity by methods of financing themselves. We hold that in such cases the workers should acquire shares in the firms which employ them, especially when they earn only the minimum salary … The workers should be able to share in the ownership of the business … (Noting the increasing danger of the loss of the sense of responsibility in those engaged in the large impersonal enterprises, the encyclical develops the directive of Quadrogesimo Anno; ‘business of small or moderate size … should be helped and encouraged by means of cooperative enterprises: in the larger firms it should be made possible to modify the contract of work into something like a contract of partnership’.) The workers should have a voice and a share in the running and development of their business … Unity of direction must be procured, and the authority essential for efficiency .. but the workers must not be reduced to mere ‘hands’ without a voice, and without the opportunity of applying their experience; they must not be kept entirely passive in respect of the decisions which guide their employment …

There has ben a wide development in recent times of associations of workers, and a general recognition of them in the legal codes of various countries, and also on the international level, for the specific purpose of cooperation, particularly in the form of collective bargaining. But … workers should exert effective influence beyond the boundaries of their particular businesses, and at all levels, for the particular businesses, however, extensive and efficient, belong to the social-economic complex of their political communities and are controlled by it. Thus the greatest importance rests, not in the decisions within the individual businesses, but in those made by public authorities, or by agencies acting on a world-wide, regional or national scale … We are glad to express whole-hearted approval of the work of the International Labour Organization which for decades has been making an effective and valuable contribution to the establishment in the world of an economic and social order characterized by justice and humanity, where the legitimate claims of the workers find expression.

These encyclical are part of and the basis for a large body of Social Catholic thought, which now includes problems of the arms race, and international poverty, development and justice. It’s particularly relevant as the Blairs and Ian Duncan Smith in the present Conservative cabinet are Roman Catholics. In many cases in contemporary Britain, it is indeed true that thrifty people are not being paid enough to support themselves and their families, in contravention of the stipulations of these encyclicals.

Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd edition (Oxford: OUP 1963).

Employee Ownership Day, John Stuart Mill and the Co-operative Movement

July 7, 2013

My brother, the eminently well-informed Mike Sivier, of the Vox Political website, has a piece on the attempts by the Lib-Dems to encourage the employee ownership in industry and the effective formation of co-operatives. This was launched on the Fourth of July, which the Lib-Dems declared as Employee Ownership Day. the demands for employee ownership and representation on the board have been around for a very long time. Lady Thatcher’s privatisation of state industries in the 1980s contained the provision that a portion of the shares were to be sold to the workers in those companies. These were later bought out, so that in effect very few workers ever had shares in the firms which employed them. Employee representation on company boards is a part of German and Austrian law, to the anger of the German Communist party. The KPD hated such arrangements as they boosted capitalism by giving workers a share in it, rather than allowing the Iron Law of Wages to operate to exploit and radicalise them. Demands for workers to have shares in their companies were one of the demands of the Papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which launched modern Social Catholicism in the 1890s. This was one of the first attempts of the Roman Catholic Church to combat the miseries of modern industrial society and protect their members from the threat of atheist radical Socialism and aggressively secular or Protestant nation states, such as France or the Germany of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf.

The Lib-Dems espousal of employee ownership is also in line with the views of the founder of modern Liberalism, John Stuart Mill. Mill’s On Liberty effectively founded modern conceptions of the freedom of the individual. While Mill opposed the Communist sects and organisations of his day, he had some sympathy with the early Utopian Socialist groups, such as the Fourierists and St. Simonians, and advocated the formation of co-operatives. Mill defended both private property and competition. He believed that private ownership allowed entrepreneurs to take beneficial risks that would otherwise be rejected by more cautious, collective managements. He advocated the establishment of co-operatives, however, as he believed these combined the best of Socialism with the best of capitalism. They also acted to educate and train their workers in habits of diligent work and individual self-reliance. Mill believed that co-operatives were so efficient and beneficial to society, that they would eventually replace individual capitalist firms, in which owners and managers were separate from the workforce.

Writing in his Principles of Political Economy, Mill states

‘Under the most favourable supposition, it will be desirable, and perhaps for a considerable length of time, that individual capitalists, associating their work people in the profits, sho8uld coexist with even those co-operative societies which are faithful to the co-operative principle. Unity of authority makes many things possible, which could not or would not be undertaken subject to the chance of divided councils or changes in the management. A private capitalist, considerably more like than almost any association to run judicious risks, and originate costly improvements. Co-operative societies may be depended on for adopting improvements after they have been tested by success, but individuals are more likely to commence things previously untried. Even in ordinary business, the competition of capable persons who in the event of failure are to have all the loss, and in case of success the greater part of the gain, will be very useful in in keeping the managers of co-operative societies up to the due pitch of activity and vigilance.

‘When, however, co-operative societies shall have sufficiently multiplied, it is not probable that any but the least valuable workpeople will any longer consent to work all their lives for wages merely, bot6h private capitalists and associations will gradually find it necessary to make the entire body of labourers participants in profits. Eventually, and in perhaps a less remote future than may be supposed, we may, through the co-operative principle, see our way to a change in society, which would combine the freedom and independence of the individual, with the moral, intellectual, and economical advantages of aggregate production; and which, without violence or spoliation, or even any sudden disturbance of existing habits and expectations, would realize, at least in the industrial department, the best aspirations of the democratic spirit, by putting an end to the division of society into the industrious and the idle, and effacing all social distinctions but those fairly earned by personal services and exertions. Associations like those, which we have described, by the very process of their success, are a course of education in those moral and active qualities by which alone success can be either deserved or attained. As associations multiplied, they would tend more and more to absorb all work-people, except those who have too little understanding, or too little virtue, to be capable of learning to act on any other system than that of narrow selfishness. As this change proceeded, owners of capital would gradually find it to their advantage, instead of maintaining the struggle of the old system with work-people of only the worst description, to lend their capital to the associations; to do this at a diminishing rate of interest, and at last, perhaps, even to exchange their capital for terminable annuities. In this or some such mode, the existing accumulations of capital might honestly, and by a kind of spontaneous process, become in the end the joint property of all who participate in their productive employment: a transformation which, thus effected, (and assuming of course that both sexes participate equally in the rights and in the government of the association) would be the nearest approach to social justice, and the most beneficial ordering of industrial affairs for the universal good, which it is possible at present to foresee’.

John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy with some of their Applications to Social Philosophy, in Elisabeth Jay and Richard Jay, eds., Critics of Capitalism: Victorian Reactions to ‘Political Economy’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1986).