Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church

Peter Westmore

The long-awaited summary of the Catholic Church's social teachings

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace
(St Paul's Publications, 2005, 426pp, $39.95. Available from AD Books)

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is the long-awaited summary of the Catholic Church's social teachings, a project initiated by Pope John Paul II, and continuing the Church's long-standing commitment to analyse economic, political and social realities, and put forward the principles on which a just society is based.

While the Catholic Church has always been concerned about issues of justice, there can be little doubt that one of the consequences of the Reformation in the 16th Century was to focus the Church's attention on doctrinal questions and evangelisation, with comparatively little attention being given to the social order.

The French Revolution in 1789 showed how closely the Church had become connected to the monarchies which dominated Europe at that time, to the point where the French freethinker, Voltaire, proclaimed that the object of the Enlightenment was to destroy the Church, as well as the monarchy.

Industrial Revolution

It was only in the 19th century, under the influence of people such as the great French layman, Frederick Ozanam, that the Church began to look closely at questions of social justice, particularly in the light of the Industrial Revolution which had transformed societies, promising unparalleled wealth for some and delivering new forms of slavery for many others, notably in the urban slums which grew up in the great cities of Europe, America and Asia.

The Church's growing concern culminated with Pope Leo XIII's great 1892 Encyclical, Rerum Novarum (Concerning New Things), which analysed capitalist society, and put forward a Christian alternative to free market capitalism and Marxist collectivism.

Over the course of the next hundred years, the Church frequently addressed these issues, refining its social teaching to the point where it provided the intellectual foundation for the Christian trade unions of Europe in the 20th century, the Christian Democratic Parties which saved Europe after World War II, and organisations such as the National Civic Council in Australia.

These issues deeply concerned John Paul II. In his great letter, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of Truth), he wrote: "In the face of serious forms of social and economic injustice and political corruption affecting entire peoples and nations, there is a growing reaction of indignation on the part of very many people whose fundamental human rights have been trampled upon and held in contempt, as well as an ever more widespread and acute sense of the need for a radical personal and social renewal capable of ensuring justice, solidarity, honesty and openness."

The Compendium brings together the wisdom of over a century of consistent social thought, beginning with the industrial revolution, and ending in globalisation and the new challenges facing mankind in the 21st century, characterised by instant communications, transnational corporations and global markets.

The informed and informative text is organised into specific sections dedicated to revealing God's plan for humanity, and how it is enhanced in the good order of society. It emphasises the right of private property, and explicitly rejects the Marxist ideal of a property-free utopia. It insists that unbridled capitalism is a great evil, which is accompanied by exploitation of labour, particularly the underclass and the poor. It upholds the family as the fundamental unit of society, the dignity of work, the importance of trade unions and the right to strike. It endorses the family wage, and explicitly recognises the importance of small businesses and family bus- inesses, and co-operatives.

Implicitly, the Compendium rejects the notion of globalism which justifies the uncontrolled operation of corporations, particularly, transnationals. It states: "Globalisation gives rise to new hopes while at the same time is poses troubling questions ... There are indications aplenty that point to a trend of increasing inequalities, both between advanced countries and developing countries, and within industrialised countries. The growing economic wealth made possible by the processes described above is accompanied by an increase in relative poverty."

More can and should be said about the operation of companies, particularly in light of the right of limited liability, which should require equal responsibilities on companies and corporations.

The Compendium gives a powerful defence of the democratic system, of the need to protect the environment, and promote peace - within as well as between nations.

With an extensive "Index of References" and an "Analytical Index", the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is an appropriate and strongly recommended complement to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and will serve as a valuable resource for both lay people and religious, in Australia and throughout the world.

Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council.

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