Catholic Social Teaching: An Historical Perspective. By Robert Aubert; edited by David A. Boileau (Marquette University Press, P.O. Box 3141, Milwaukee, Wis. 53201, 2003), 288 pp. PB $35.00.
Little known to American readers, Roger Aubert is professor emeritus of history, the Catholic University of Louvain, and director of the prestigious revue d’histoire ecclesiastique. He is known especially for his interest in the Church’s 19th century social teaching. In this volume, David Boileau has collected and translated ten essays by Canon Aubert that trace Catholic social teaching from Wilhelm Emmanuel Baron von Ketteler (1811-1877) to Paul VI. To the translations, Boileau, chairman of the philosophy department at Loyola University, New Orleans, adds a valuable 40 page treatise of his own.
While Catholic social teaching does not begin with Bishop von Ketteler, he was one of the first to systematically address from a Catholic perspective the social issues confronting Europe as a result of the industrial revolution. Von Ketteler’s work greatly influenced Leo XIII when as Pope he prepared the encyclical Rerum Novarum. A champion of the working class and a critic of what was coming to be known as laissez faire capitalism, von Ketteler nevertheless condemned the budding socialist movement inspired by his contemporary, Karl Marx. Aware of the dangers of communism, he taught that owners are not the absolute masters of the property entrusted to them. Property carries with it a social responsibility. The true and complete right of property, von Ketteler held, belongs only to God. Man’s right to property is limited to usufruct (humans have only use, not possession). Man is obliged in his use of property to recognize the order established by God. Von Ketteler codified his social thought in Die Arbeiterfrage and das Christentum (1864), a work published three years before the appearance of Marx’s Das Kapital. His book was to inspire Catholic thought and social action for decades to come. Aubert makes it clear that von Ketteler did not trust the state to find a solution to the “social question.” Von Ketteler did not want the state to subjugate the wealthy by its fiscal demand in order to subsidize the poor by free benefits. Instead he promoted the formation of workers’ guilds so that the workers themselves might become entrepreneurs, an idea that inspired similar movements on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly in the French Canadian provinces. Von Ketteler also had great confidence in the social conscience of the German businessman, particularly those in his native Bavaria who could be counted on to deal equitably with his workers. Furthermore, he did not believe that Germany was experiencing the same problems that the socialists were addressing in England and Wales.
Socialists and Catholics alike discussed von Ketteler’s work. Aubert says of von Ketteler, “He left German Catholics a social doctrine, based on the principles of St. Thomas, the very concrete social program which the Center Party would defend courageously in the years to come.”
Subsequent essays in this volume address the “social question” as it arose in French Canada, Christian democracy as it developed in Europe, and the beginnings of so called “social Catholicism.” These essays are followed by others that examine the teaching of Leo XIII, particularly his encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pius XII, and John Paul II’s Centessimus Annus.
To Roger Aubert’s work, Boileau adds his own reflections on Catholic social doctrine. Boileau makes the point that the social encyclicals should not be read in isolation from the historical situations they addressed. Nineteenth century social teaching of the Church was developed and formulated as an effort to apply Christian moral principles to rapidly changing social and economic relationships. As a body of teaching it is a work in progress.
When we speak of Catholic social thought, we should not confine ourselves to statements officially promulgated by the Holy See or by national bishops’ conferences and fail to consult the work of social thinkers of the rank of von Ketteler, Sturzo, Nell Breuning, and John A. Ryan, for it is their thought that influenced or stimulated the pronouncements of episcopal leaders. Neither should we fail to probe the pre Leonine teaching of the Church. Boileau traces the social teaching of the papal encyclicals to the pontificate of Benedict XIV (1740-1758), where he finds a body of papal social teaching aimed against the Enlightenment. He discovers that nine popes from 1740 to 1877 warned that the erosion of communal life could have only a negative effect on the family, the Church itself, and political life.
Boileau’s treatise ends with what is implicitly an outline of his own social philosophy, a brief for the working class. It is not without reason that in his own diocese Boileau is regarded as a “worker priest” in the 19th century mold, a strong supporter of labor at a time when we are witnessing the export of many jobs to locations abroad.
Jude P. Dougherty
The Catholic University of America