Pius XI: Quadragesimo Anno

A Summary Article by Gerald Darring

Pius XI made several positive judgments about the society of his day. He saw that the poverty which Leo XIII beheld in all its horror was less widespread, and the condition of workers had been improved (a. 59). The ranks of the workers were showing signs of a social reconstruction (a. 140): workers' associations of all types had been formed (a. 31-36) and associations of farmers and other middle-class people were flourishing (a. 37). Many leaders of workers' organizations were striving to satisfy workers' demands and to harmonize those demands with the prosperity of everyone involved in their occupation (a. 140). Meanwhile, rulers of nations were promoting a better social policy than before (a. 26), and laws had been passed protecting life, health, strength, family, home, workshops, wages, etc. (a. 28)

The pope's negative judgments about contemporary society were more numerous. Associations of employers were uncommon (38), and the number of the non-owning working poor had increased enormously (a. 59).

Capital had been able to appropriate too much to itself, so that economic institutions had moved in the direction of giving all accumulation of wealth to the rich (a. 54). The result was a huge disparity between the few rich and the many poor (a. 58, 60). Free competition had destroyed itself; economic dictatorship had supplanted the free market (a. 109). A despotic economic dictatorship was consolidated in the hands of a few (a. 105), and the characteristic mark of contemporary economic life was a concentration of power and might (a. 107). This concentration of power generated conflict on the economic, political, and international planes (a. 108) with the result that society was in a violent condition and was unstable and uncertain because it was divided into opposing classes (a. 82).

One section of socialism had degenerated into communism, which sought unrelenting class warfare and absolute extermination of private ownership (a. 112). All existing forms of communism and socialism were incompatible with the Gospel (a. 128). Capitalism, on the other hand, was not to be condemned in itself; it was not of its own nature vicious (a. 101). And yet, capitalism was laboring under the gravest of evils (a. 128). Some people had come to believe that they could use any means to increase their profits and protect their wealth against sudden changes of fortune. In uncontrolled business dealings, they raised or lowered prices so as to make quick profits with the least expenditure of work (a. 132). Corporations gave individuals the opportunity to perpetuate injustice and fraud under the shelter of a joint name (a. 132), and governments had been delivered to the passions and greed of individuals (a. 109). An economic imperialism had developed on the international level (a. 109).

The rich social life that was once highly developed through associations of various kinds had collapsed into a situation in which there remained virtually only individuals and the government (a. 78). The social order that once existed, an order that met to some extent the requirements of right reason, had perished because people had become too selfish and disrespectful of authority (a. 97).

Many people involved in economic life had fallen away from the Christian spirit (a. 127). The social and economic system had become an obstacle to people's eternal salvation (a. 130), and people were confronted with a world that had almost fallen back into paganism (a. 141).

A body of economic teaching had arisen which gives completely free rein to human passions (a. 133). Families were being torn apart by poor housing conditions (a. 135). People and raw materials entered factories, which ennobled the raw materials and degraded the people (a. 135). The sordid love of wealth was the shame and great sin of the age (a. 136).

These negative judgments about society led Pius XI to see the need for a reconstruction of society. He decided that two things were especially necessary: a reform of institutions, and the correction of morals (a. 77). On the one hand, economic life must again be subjected to and governed by a true and effective directing principle (a. 88), and it must be led back to sound and right order (a. 136). The members of the body social should be reconstituted and the directing principle of economic-social life should be restored (a. 90). Economic activity should return to right and sound order (a. 110). On the other hand, there needs to be a reform of morality (a. 97). There must be a renewal of the Christian spirit (a. 127), and we long for a full restoration of human society in Christ (a. 138)

Pius XI laid down a number of guidelines for solving contemporary problems.

We should rely on the unchangeable principles drawn from the treasury of right reason and divine revelation (a. 11). The unchanged and unchangeable teaching of the Church should meet new demands and needs more effectively (a. 19).

We should seek in each kind of social and economic activity those purposes which God established for that kind of action and subordinate them to our supreme and last end (a. 43).

Our approach to ownership of property must avoid two extremes: individualism, denying or minimizing the social and public character of the right to own property; and collectivism, rejecting or minimizing the private and individual character of the right to own property (a. 46).

Commutative justice demands respect for the property of others; owners are obliged, but not by justice, to use their property in a right way (a. 47).

Ownership is acquired either by occupying something that is available to all but belongs to no one, or by one's labor (a. 52).

When a person works on another's property, the fruit of that labor belongs to both the owner and the laborer (a. 53), and both the wealthy owner and the poor worker should share the benefits (a. 57).

Those involved in producing goods can profit financially from doing so provided their increased wealth is obtained within the bounds of morality and reasonableness and without infringing on the rights of others (a. 136). The wealthy should remember, however, that material advantage is not the only, or even the highest, value (a. 118). If a person has superfluous income, he is bound by a very grave precept to practice almsgiving, beneficence and munificence (a. 50). The wealthy are virtuous when they invest their surplus incomes in ways that produce jobs (a. 51).

The distribution of goods in society should be more even, and everyone should have his own share of goods (a. 58): the social economy will not be in order until each and every person is provided with all the goods available through natural resources, technology, and social organization (a. 75).

People are born to work, just as birds are born to fly (a. 61), although labor is not the only way to earn a living (a. 57). Everyone should use his time and energies to provide for himself (a. 57), and the opportunity to work must be provided to those who are able and willing to work (a. 74).

It is wrong for businessmen to act in pure self-interest, ignoring the dignity of workers and what is just and good for all of society (a. 101). Christian social principles regarding capital and labor must be put into practice (a. 110).

The working poor should get enough so that they can increase their property by thrift and wise management (a. 61). Partnership-contracts should replace work-contracts, so that workers can become sharers in ownership/management (a. 65). The individual and social character of work demand that wages be established as follows: 1) the worker must be paid a wage sufficient to support him and his family; 2) the condition of the business must be taken into account; 3) the amount of the pay must be adjusted to the public economic good (a. 69-74). Wages should not be lowered so much as to produce poverty, nor should they be raised so much as to produce unemployment (a. 74).

Free competition is justified and useful, but the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces (a. 88). Free competition must be effectively controlled by the government (a. 110).

Catholics are not to compromise with socialism (a. 117). No one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist (a. 120).

The rich and powerful should develop an attitude of loving concern and forgiveness towards their poorer brothers; the working poor should learn to value their position in society (a. 137).

Workers should be apostles among workers, managers among managers (a. 141).

Women should work primarily in or near the home and should not be forced by economic circumstances to work outside the home (a. 71).

It is wrong to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do (a. 79).

The basis for the social order should be social justice and social love (a. 88). Charity cannot substitute for justice, but justice alone cannot bring people together in social harmony (a. 137). There should be international cooperation in economic life (a. 89) In discussing the means for a reconstruction of society, Pius XI proposed that professional guilds (vocational groups) should be re-established (a. 82), joining people not by their position in the labor market but by the respective social functions which each performs (a. 83). Unions should contribute to the development of vocational groups (a. 87). These vocational groups should give priority to the interests common to the whole industry or profession (a. 85). They can be organized however the members see fit (a. 86). Strikes and lockouts would be forbidden; if things cannot be worked out, the government will intervene (a. 94).

Of course, the only way to a sound restoration of society is the Christian reform of morals (a. 15).

Like Leo XIII before him, Pius XI saw an active role for the government. The function of the rulers of the state is to watch over the community and its parts, giving special consideration to the weak and the poor (a. 25). The government cannot take away the right to ownership, but it should define in detail the duties involved in ownership and determine what is and is not permitted to owners in the use of their property (a. 49). The government should let subordinate groups handle what they can (a. 80). It should strive to abolish class conflict, and it should promote cooperation among the vocational groups (a. 81), which it should try to re-establish (a. 82).

The government should be free from all partiality (a. 109). It should make all society conform to the needs of the common good (a. 110), and it should enforce strict and watchful moral restraint over corporate business (a. 133).