Social Doctrine: Thoughts from St. Pius X

Source: District of the USA

While Rerum Novarum is considered the definitive document on Social Doctrine and workers, Pope St. Pius X was not silent on the subject:

To follow up on a previous post, “Labor Day: What Should Catholics Think?,” which surveyed Pope Leo XIII’s great social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, we present an overview of Pope St. Pius X’s 1903 motu proprio, Fin Dalla Prima Nostra. Recently reprinted in the July/August issue of The Angelus, this compact but illuminating document takes as its concern Catholic Action generally with five specific articles given on the relationship between workers and capitalists. Each directive is specifically rooted in the text of Rerum Novarum. We shall therefore quote each directive in full with some brief commentary to follow.

VII. The following are obligations of justice binding on the proletariat and the workingman: To perform fully and faithfully the work which has been freely and, according to equity, agreed upon; not to injure the property or outrage the person of masters; even in the defense of their own rights to abstain from acts of violence, and never to make mutiny of their defense."

This provision is straightforward enough. With an eye toward maintaining social peace and preventing the eruption of class warfare, St. Pius X directs workers to both fulfill their labor obligations and to refrain from acts of violence, even if their rights are trampled upon. This does not mean that workers have no recourse, however. Although not specifically stated, it stands to reason that workers who have been treated unjust should still have access to courts of law and other forms of mediation. Moreover, as Article XI of the motu proprio makes clear (see below), institutions should be established to help resolve disputes between workers and capitalists and create deeper ties within and between various economic sectors and firms.

VIII. The following are obligations of justice binding on capitalists: To pay just wages to their workingmen; not to injure their just savings by violence or fraud, or by overt or covert usuries; not to expose them to corrupting seductions and danger of scandal; not to alienate them from the spirit of family life and from love of economy; not to impose on them labor beyond their strength, or unsuitable for their age or sex."

Here the saintly Pope introduces strong medicine for anyone who believes that wages are “just” when set according to the prevailing market rate. As Leo XIII spelled out in Rerum Novarum, a just wage is one which allows a workingman to support himself and his family while building-up enough savings to acquire his own property. Further, as this article makes clear, capitalists cannot oblige or coerce workers into engaging in morally and spiritually destructive behavior, which can be taken to mean limiting the number of hours workers spend away from their families; ensuring that workers have the means to fulfill their Sunday and other holy day obligations; and not be required to depend in usurious lending from financial institutions to sustain themselves.

IX. It is an obligation for the rich and those who own property to succor the poor and the indigent, according to the precepts of the Gospel. This obligation is so grave that on the Day of Judgment special account will be demanded of its fulfillment, as Christ Himself has said (Matthew 25)."

Although all Christians are called by our Lord to perform acts of charity toward others, St. Pius X singles out the rich in particular to follow the precepts of the Gospel in caring for the poor and indigent. Note here that the Pope does not specify which mechanisms may or may not be used to ensure that the wealthy fulfill this obligation. While it may be said that private institutions at the local level may be best for ensuring that the least well off in society are provided the aid they need, government-run programs, fueled by equitable taxing measures, may also be justified depending on the state of need and social circumstances.

X. The poor should not be ashamed of their poverty, nor disdain the charity of the rich, for they should have especially in view Jesus the Redeemer, who, though He might have been born in riches, made Himself poor in order that He might ennoble poverty and enrich it with merits beyond price for heaven."

These consoling words are not intended to breed indifference toward the poor and their plight, but rather to remove the prejudice that those lacking in means are somehow second-class human beings who have been abandoned by God. At the same time, this article can be read as a reminder to all classes—rich and poor alike—of the special merits of poverty and that material wealth is not the final end of earthly existence.

XI. For the settlement of the social question much can be done by the capitalists and workers themselves, by means of institutions designed to provide timely aid for the needy and to bring together and unite mutually the two classes. Among these institutions are mutual aid societies, various kinds of private insurance societies, orphanages for the young, and, above all, associations among the different trades and professions."

This final article concerning capitalists and workers sets forth several suggestions for institutions which can both resolve issues between the classes and provide structures to help society’s needy in a timely manner. St. Pius X recognizes that matters will arise which cannot be resolved easily, and so the closer the different classes can be brought together with an eye toward their mutual interests, the more likely it becomes that society’s economic sphere can function smoothly with as little deleterious interruption as possible. While this ideal is still a long ways away from being actualized in our divided, atomized liberal-secular society, it is still an ideal Catholics must bear in mind when confronting concrete socio-economic disagreements.

Fin Dalla Prima Nostra is an important contribution to the Church’s social magisterium, but hardly the only one St. Pius X would make during his pontificate. Those seeking further elucidation on what Pope Sarto should consult his 1905 encyclical on Catholic Action in Italy, Il Fermo Proposito, along with the 1910 document, Notre Charge Apostolique, which bears directly on the permissible limits of Catholic political organization in liberal-democratic societies.