A Reflection on St. Pius X and Contemporary Approaches to Catholic Social Teaching

Lamentably few Catholics today, outside of traditional circles, seem interested in reading Catholic Social Teaching or, better put, the Church’s social magisterium in holistic, continuous manner. Ideological fracturing within the Church has led various camps to adopt certain elements of Catholic Social Teaching for their own while discarding others which appear inconvenient to their oftentimes tendentious interpretations of the magisterium. In two earlier articles, one for the online venue Ethika Politika and another for The Angelus magazine, I shed critical light on the “hermeneutic of selectivity” which reigns supreme in contemporary discussions of Catholic Social Teaching. Although it is impossible to offer a clean taxonomy of the hermeneutic of selectivity, it typically appears in one of three forms:

  • First, the neoliberal/libertarian hermeneutic of selectivity which privileges the affirmation of private-property rights in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and the anti-communist tilt of John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus while leaving the question of labor unions, just wages, and a preferential option for the poor to the side. Where a tenet of Catholic Social Teaching appears to conflict with a tenet of “economic science,” the latter is privileged over the former, meaning that the interpretation and application of the social magisterium can be legitimately filtered through a liberal economic lens.
  • Second, the social-justice hermeneutic of selectivity which tends to leave to the side the entire social magisterium prior to the Second Vatican Council unless specifically reaffirmed in a post-conciliar encyclical. This approach attempts to isolate socio-economic matters from the larger teachings on natural justice, political and religious authority, and the social rights of Christ the King which undergird the pre-conciliar social magisterium.
  • Third, the socialist hermeneutic of selectivity which often pays little attention to the formation and development of Catholic Social Teaching from the 19th C. onward and instead cherry picks from various thinkers, some Catholic and some not, to manufacture an egalitarian vision of political and economic organization that has little regard for property rights, subsidiarity, or authority.

It is necessary to note here that there can be significant overlap between the latter two hermeneutics of selectivity, though the second tries to keep itself within the orbit of actual papal documents more than the third. The neoliberal/libertarian approach can itself be broken down into smaller pieces, with anarcho-capitalists such as Jeffrey Tucker and Tom Woods representing the most extreme form of this hermeneutical approach while certain Catholic thinkers associated with the officially non-confessional Acton Institute, such as Fr. Robert Sirico and Samuel Gregg, represent a more moderate, though still choosy, brand of hermeneutics. At the end of the day, however, all three hermeneutical approaches butcher the magisterium and leave Catholics believing that the Church has ratified, on the one hand, either free-market or New Deal-style liberalism or, on the other, set forth a radical social vision which is both frighteningly utopian and anti-hierarchical.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to see how any of these three hermeneutical approaches, and the results they reach, can be squared with St. Pius X’s contributions to the Church’s social magisterium. Without getting into details—some of which are set forth in my aforementioned article in The Angelus—a cursory glance at the encyclical Notre Charge Apostolique, which was directed against the French Sillonist movement, throws cold water on the egalitarian aspirations of socialist Catholics. In paragraph 23, the saintly pontiff writes: “Thus, to the Sillon, every inequality of condition is an injustice, or at least, a diminution of justice. Here we have a principle that conflicts sharply with the nature of things, a principle conducive to jealously, injustice, and subversive to any social order.” Today, both social-justice and socialist Catholics make much of inequality, arguing that its existence can be, and must be, stamped out without regard to the social vices which can attend such views. In fact, the egalitarian outlook ignores a fundamental truth, one found in Leo XIII’s Quod Apostolici Muneris and repeated by St. Pius X in his motu proprio Fin Dalla Prima Nostra, articles I and III: “Human society, as established by God, is composed of unequal elements, just as the different parts of the human body are unequal; to make them all equal is impossible, and would mean the destruction of human society” and, further, that “it follows that there are, according to the ordinance of God, in human society princes and subjects, masters and proletariat, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, nobles and plebeians, all of whom, united in the bonds of love, are to help one another to attain their last end in heaven, and their material and moral welfare here on earth.”

Lest one assume that Pius X, who continues to hold the reputation of being an arch-reactionary in the minds of many contemporary Catholics, limited himself to attacking radical social movements with nothing to say to those who are today attached to neoliberal/libertarian visions of the unbridled marketplace, it is important to look further at the text of Fin Dalla Prima Nostra which, inter alia, binds capitalists in justice to pay just wages, to not injure workers financially through usury, and to ensure that their family lives are protected (article VIII). In union with his predecessor, Leo XIII, and eventual successor, Pius XI, Pius X’s vision of capitalist/labor relations is a harmonious one maintained through private aid, insurance, trade, and professional associations. Instead of first seeking centralized, state-based solutions, Pius X advocated a fresh form of Catholic Action dedicated to reforming the socio-economic order.

While some, as Richard L. Camp observes in his book The Papal Ideology of Social Reform pgs. 89-90, have seen a greater emphasis on private charity over political reform in Pius X’s magisterial contributions, Camp concludes that this view is “not entirely fair.” He goes on to write:

It would have been more just to say that Pius X felt social Catholics were neglecting the role of charity too much in their zeal for reform, and he wanted to right the balance. He never rejected reform itself as a goal for Catholics as long as it was kept within the bounds of Catholic teaching and tradition. This was clear in his early encyclicals such as E Supremi Apostolatus (October 4, 1903) in which he took as his motto “The Restoration of All Things in Christ” and applied it to the social field. The Catholic Church was interested, he said, not only in the spiritual welfare of peoples but in their material prosperity as well. In a world restored to Christ, the wealthy would be both just and charitable to the humble, and the latter would endure in patience the privations of their less fortunate condition. In another encyclical [Il Fermo Proposito], he declared that the teachings of Jesus gave support to the material well-being of individuals and families in society. In so far as the clergy and laity were trying by just and charitable means to improve the economic conditions of the masses, they were performing a religious duty.

Pius X, in his wisdom and prudence, paid careful attention to how social movements involving Catholics ought to be conducted while, in Notre Charge Apostolique especially, warning against a false political ecumenism which prompts the faithful “to leave[ ] [their] Catholicism outside the door so as to not alarm [their] comrades[.]” When surveying the contemporary Catholic landscape and the numerous Catholic-backed movements, institutions, and publications which have absorbed not only a neutral view of Christianity, but a neutral view of religion, so as to advance their potentially dubious liberal or Leftist goals, it is necessary to ask if such enterprises are being carried out in a spirit of true conformity with the magisterial pronouncements of Pius X and thus, by extension, the Church’s social magisterium as a whole. Sifting through this troubling reality remains a project for another day, however.

2 thoughts on “A Reflection on St. Pius X and Contemporary Approaches to Catholic Social Teaching

Comments are closed.