The economic foundations of modern Catholic social teaching: Past and prospect

Mark Geoffrey Nixon, Fordham University


This dissertation describes how nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century, secular, solidarist economics and social thought, finding Catholic expression in the writings of Bishop Wilhelm von Ketteler, Matteo Liberatore, S.J., and Heinrich Pesch, S.J., served as the economic foundation of modern Catholic social teaching in Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum and Pope Pius XI's 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo anno . These encyclicals challenged laissez faire capitalism and the liberal economics and the individualistic, utilitarian assumptions that guided it. They significantly influenced world events when Catholics used them to help enact social legislation and create institutions that reflected their teaching, as evidenced by France's welfare state, the International Labour Organization, United States labor laws, and Germany's post-World-War-II economic reconstruction. The study traces how the Catholic principle of solidarity and the Church's advocacy of solidarist economic principles developed to address international concerns during the pontificates of Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI. Close attention is given to John Paul II's theological development of the principle of solidarity in his social encyclicals and his advocacy of solidarist economic positions, closely aligned with Pesch's economics, in Centesimus annus . These were influential in defining Poland's Solidarity Movement in the 1980s; but Poland's transition from a socialist to a market economy is appraised as an example of how commitments to solidarist principles and policies can be subverted by pressures to conform to a dominant capitalist ethic and institutional framework. The study argues that the rising influence of this capitalist ethic, supported by neoclassical economic theory and with the United States as model, has led to the diminished persuasiveness of the Church's solidarist positions for business and political leaders and the Catholic faithful. As a help in restoring the Church's influence, the study assesses contemporary economic research in social capital theory and in new-institutional, behavioral, and evolutionary economics. The study examines Benedict XVI's encyclical Caritas in veritate as an illustration of how this economic research, sharing the same economic roots, historical and inductive methods, and emphasis on social norms as Catholic solidarism, can increase Catholic social teaching's economic persuasiveness as part of a secular apologetic.

Subject Area

Ethics|Theology|Economic history

Recommended Citation

Nixon, Mark Geoffrey, "The economic foundations of modern Catholic social teaching: Past and prospect" (2013). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3611876.