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Quadragesimo Anno Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Pius XI begins Quadragesimo Anno by honoring and summarizing Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891). He recalls that Leo faced the Industrial Revolution, which contributed to inordinate wealth for a few and wretched working conditions for the majority. Leo critiqued both economic liberalism and socialism as found in the late nineteenth century, and he advised away from class struggle and toward recognition of mutual complementariness. Many applauded Leo’s reflections, but some remained critical. Before defending Leo from his critics, Pius first highlights the benefits that had flowed from Leo’s foundational encyclical.

Pius writes that Rerum Novarum had encouraged many Christian leaders to reflect on social issues within a Christian framework. He states that Leo’s encyclical had also won acceptance outside of the Catholic Church as evidenced by nations that instituted new labor laws. Further, Pius explains that although many were leery of worker associations prior to Rerum Novarum, many clergy and laypersons have since sacrificed much to provide organized support for underprivileged workers.

After summarizing Rerum Novarum, Pius clarifies and updates four issues that Leo had addressed: church authority, private property, just wages, and worker associations. First, Pius discusses the responsibility of the church to address social issues. Whereas Leo sought to defend the right of church leaders to speak on social issues, Pius’s writing style indicates that the church’s authority to speak on such issues is assumed rather then debated. Pius explains that while church leaders do not have authority to speak on matters of scientific technique, they do have authority to offer guidance on matters related to the moral law. Because economic issues overlap with the moral law, Pius writes that he has the responsibility to address the relevant issues.

Pius then discusses private property. Benefiting from the forty years of discussion that had followed Rerum Novarum, Pius writes that private property has a twofold character: individual and collective. Workers should have a right to attain private property, but the fruits of the land ought to be distributed for the benefit of the common good. The state should maintain the right to private property and should have limited authority to moderate the distribution of wealth to curb radical abuses. Pius maintains that the wealthy should be encouraged to distribute their wealth for the common good. Accordingly, Pius promotes investments aimed at producing jobs.

Pius’s discussion of the just distribution of wealth provides a transition to his discussion of just wages. He indicates that many factors ought to be considered in determining the appropriate wage for employees. He gives four considerations particular attention: the needs of the worker and his family, the condition of the business, the public economic good, and the relation of wages to those of other workers as well as the goods being sold. Next, Pius explains that without intermediary organizations like worker associations, the state is left to deal directly with individuals. As a result, the voice of impoverished individuals often remains unheard and the responsibilities of the state become overburdening. Pius promotes the subsidiary function, a principle that states that larger organizations should allow smaller associations to accomplish those tasks they are competent to complete. Pius argues that with intermediate associations, the gap between social classes will be reduced, the needs of individuals will be more easily addressed, and state leaders will be freed from performing small and distracting tasks. In particular, Pius encourages the formation of associations among those who work in the same or similar occupations.

Pius then provides an updated look at the manifestations of economic liberalism and socialism as found in 1931. He explains that while economic liberalism should not be condemned in itself, he argues that this economic...

(The entire section is 1,090 words.)