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Quadragesimo Anno


Encyclical letter of Pope pius xi on the reconstruction of the social order, issued May 15, 1931, "forty years after" Leo XIII's rerum novarum. Appearing in the depths of the worldwide depression which began in 1929, it attracted immediate attention as a critique of the prevailing economic system and as a program of institutional reform. A generation later, in mater et magistra, John XXIII summed up its teaching as twofold: First, the supreme criterion in economic matters "must not be the special interests of individuals or groups, nor unregulated competition, economic despotism, national prestige or imperialism, nor any other aim of this sort. On the contrary, all forms of economic enterprise must be governed by the principles of social justice and charity." Second, "man's aim must be to achieve in social justice a national and international juridical order, with its network of public and private institutions, in which all economic activity can be conducted not merely for private gain but also in the interests of the common good" (pars. 3840).

Quadragesimo anno begins with a review of developments following Leo's encyclical: the gradual formulation and application of a body of authoritative social teaching, the extension of social legislation, and progress in labor organization. A second section clarifies Catholic teaching on private property, the relations of capital and labor as social classes, the nature of social justice, and wages. The extension of property ownership to workers is advocated as a means toward their security and toward a fairer distribution of the fruits of industrialism. Reestablishment of an order of mutual cooperation among occupational groups analogous to the medieval guilds is presented as a demand of social justice. In this section principles of corporativism are exemplified, although Italian Fascism is explicitly rejected. The final section of the encyclical has a scathing indictment, not of the capitalist system as such, but of the trend toward concentration of economic power leading to a threefold conflict: within the economy, for the control of the state, and between states. Communism as an alternative system is condemned, and although the trend toward moderation in socialism is carefully noted, its essential doctrine is found incompatible with religion. Men are reminded that, ultimately, a solution through institutional reform will be dependent upon a prior reform of morals and of the Christian spirit.

The encyclical gave a strong impetus to Catholic social action. Attempts to give it practical effect through designs as specific as the industry council plan sometimes betrayed lack of appreciation of prerequisites for social change. But its significance for the development of Catholic thought on the economic order was made apparent by the application and development of its teaching in the pronouncements of Pius XII and John XXIII.

Bibliography: Official Latin text in Acta apostolicae sedis 23 (1931) 177228. English translation in d.j. o'brien and t.a. shannon, eds., Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (Maryknoll, NY, 1992) 4279. r. j. miller, Forty Years After: Pius XI and the Social Order (St. Paul 1947).

[r. j. miller]

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