The Timeline of Major Catholic Social Teaching Documents

1891 Pope Leo XIII writes Rerum Novarum (Of New Things)

This groundbreaking encyclical addresses the conditions in which many workers labor and affirms workers’ rights to just wages, rest, and fair treatment,
to form unions, and to strike if necessary. Pope Leo XIII upholds individuals’ right to hold private property but also notes the role of the state in facilitating
distributive justice so that workers can adequately support their families and someday own property of their own. He notes the poor “have a claim to special consideration” (no. 37). Leo XIII criticizes both capitalism for its tendency toward greed, concentration of wealth, and mistreatment of workers, as
well as socialism, for what he understood as a rejection of private property and an under ‐ emphasis on the dignity of each individual person.*

1931 Pope Pius XI writes Quadragesimo Anno (The Fortieth Year)

This encyclical, written to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, reaffirms the Church’s concern for workers and defends workers’ rights, including just wages, and condemns the increasing disparities between the elite and suffering workers. Pope Pius XI notes the need for state intervention but also introduces the idea of “subsidiarity,” or the idea that we should help those people closest to a problem to resolve it with social support as needed. He proposes reconstruction of society into new systems that would involve all groups within society working together for the good of all. Pius XI upholds the right to private property and also says that goods also have a social purpose and must serve the whole human race. He warns against excessive individualism as well as collectivism, communism, and various types of socialism that have developed.*

1961 Pope John XXIII writes Mater Et Magistra (Mother and Teacher)

Pope John XXIII comments on changes in recent decades such as communication advances, increases in workers’ rights and social programs, and the decline of colonialism, or the political or economic control by stronger countries of weaker ones. He notes the world’s global interdependence and expresses profound concern about the arms race and the growing inequalities between rich and poor nations, noting that gains in science and technology should not lead to economic disparity but should instead benefit the common good. John XXIII also expresses concern about the plight of small farmers and rural areas, calls for greater participation of workers in industry and new forms of agricultural support, and notes that respect for culture must be emphasized in the Church’s missionary activities. Intervention by governments is needed to address global problems, he says, but should also respect the principle of subsidiarity (allowing the people closest to a problem to help resolve it with social support as needed). Finally, he proposes that Christians should engage in a process of observing, judging, and acting to put the Church’s social doctrine into practice.*

1963 Pope John XXIII writes PaceminTerris (Peace on Earth)

This was the first encyclical to be written to “all men of good will,” instead of just the world’s Catholics. In it, Pope John XXIII lifts up a moral order that should prevail between humans; persons and states; and states; and in the world community. He emphasizes basic human rights and responsibilities, calls for an end to the arms race based on trust and respect for human rights, and supports the creation of a world authority to protect the universal common good. He also urges the East and West to enter into dialogue, asking them to set aside “false philosophy” in the interest of addressing important social and economic questions. John XXIII notes both that the arms race impedes the development of societies and that under‐development and injustice threaten peace. He ends the encyclical with a prayer to the Prince of Peace.*

1965 Vatican II, GAUDIUM ET SPES (Church in the Modern World)

The Second Vatican Council (attended by bishops from all corners of the world) focuses on responding to “the joys and the hopes, the grief and the anguish of the people of our time,” especially the poor (no. 1). The Council develops a theological basis for the Church’s engagement in the world, noting how the Church must interpret the signs of the times, both positive (growing wealth, unity, and communication) and negative (hunger and disease, war, the wealth gap, divisions based on nation, class, and race, etc.) in light of the Gospel. The Council emphasizes the Church’s concern for human dignity, the solidarity of the human community, the important role of human work and activity in the world, and the engagement of the Church in society and the world. The second part focuses on marriage and family, cultural diversity, social and economic life, political life, peace and war, international cooperation, and the need for integral human development, which is person‐centered and includes spiritual development.*

1971 Pope Paul VI, OCTOGESIMA ADVENIENS (The Coming Eightieth Year)

In an apostolic letter on the eightieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum to then‐president of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace Maurice Roy, the Pope Paul VI urges local churches to develop responses to the social and economic problems facing their communities. He reminds Christians of their duty to participate in working for social and political reform to promote social justice. Paul VI identifies new societal problems related to urbanization, the situation of workers, women and youth, discrimination, and attitudes towards immigrants from poor countries and notes that “preferential respect” should be given to the poor (no. 23). Paul VI urges changes in policies on issues affecting the poor such as trade, debt, and economic policy, and warns against basing progress on economic growth alone. He notes the need for political participation by the poor and the correct use of political power and affirms the role of individuals and local Christian communities in shedding the light of faith on injustice as a way of living out the Gospel*

1971 Synod of Bishops, Justice in the World

The Synod of bishops who authored this document included many bishops from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Sensitive to the concerns of the developing world, it noted a “tremendous paradox” facing the world contrasting the abundance of resources with the divisions and “crisis of solidarity” facing the world (no. 7). (Solidarity is recognition that we are all one human family.) The Synod calls for structural change and “liberation from every oppressive situation” facing members of the human family. It notes the failure of development, overspending on armaments, environmental damage, the domination of the economic system by wealthy nations, and the lack of access by poor countries to those things necessary to fulfill their “right” to development.  Calling for solidarity with developing nations, the Synod writes that action by the Church “on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a “constitutive,” or essential, dimension of the preaching of the Gospel” (no. 6).*

1975 Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, (On Evangelization in the Modern World)

Pope Paul VI articulates a “new evangelization” that links social transformation with the proclamation of the Gospel. In light of many social challenges, he calls for an evangelization that transforms both individual believers and social structures. Evangelization is both personal and social, Paul VI writes, and includes the development and liberation of peoples from oppressive structures that cause famine, disease, and poverty; injustices in trade and economic activities; and the oppression of cultural and political colonialism (the control by stronger countries of weaker ones).*

1981 Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, (On Human Work)

Written on the ninetieth anniversary of the very first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II presents work as a fundamental dimension
of human existence through which the person achieves fulfillment as a human being. He emphasizes the dignity of labor and notes that through work, the human person can share in the activity of the Creator. John Paul II reminds readers that labor should be prioritized over capital—that the worker should be valued more than profit. For this reason, we must protect the rights of workers to employment, to just wages and to organize unions, among others. The Holy Father also calls for “new movements of solidarity of the workers and with the workers” (no. 8).*

1986 U.S. Bishops, Economic Justice for All

In this pastoral letter, the Catholic bishops of the United States call for a “new American experiment” for the common good (no. 295) in order to address economic issues related to poverty, employment, food and agriculture, and developing nations. The bishops argue that economic policies should be evaluated based on how the poor and vulnerable are faring. Workers, owners, stockholders, investors, and consumers should all be seen as economic agents, and must play a role in ensuring that the person is at the center of economic decisions. The bishops highlight the moral implications of the U.S. and global economies, and discuss the need for government guidance to ensure that the free market benefits,
instead of hurts, the poor.*

1987 Pope John Paul II, Solicitudo Rei Socialis (On Social Concern)

Pope John Paul II criticizes the “wars of proxy” fought as part of the Cold War by the Eastern and Western blocs in developing countries as they compete for influence, comparing the practice to colonialism (or the political or economic control by stronger countries of weaker ones. This was
commonly practiced until the 1960s and 70s) . He notes that besides the East‐West divisions, there are now also North‐South divisions, with the rich‐
poor gap continually widening. Building on the notion of development in On the Development of Peoples, which was written twenty years prior, John Paul II emphasizes the need for authentic human development which values being over having and which emphasizes the spiritual aspects of the person. He criticizes super-development and consumerism (putting excessive value on material things) as false forms of development. The Pope discusses the environment, noting the dignity of creation and humanity’s misuse of it. John Paul II notes the “structures of sin” such as the desire for profit and thirst of power that help create the evil of poverty and threats to life. He calls for solidarity (or the recognition that we are one human family) between rich and poor nations in order to attain true development and peace.*

1988 Pope Saint John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici (On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and inn the World)

The lay Christian, laity, who make up roughly 98% of the Body of Christ, is distinguished in this document as an active member in the People of God, participating in the mission of the whole church and as jointly responsible for the Church. The lay Christian is not ordained and is a non-religious. Yet, the lay person are sharers in Christ’s office of priest, prophet, and king, are holders of an important vocation, and critical participants in fulfilling the mission of the Church. Because of their specific nature, the lay person is engaged in world affairs, a trait that defines their particular vocation in the church and the world. Their main task then is through the testimony of their life to make Christ visible in the world, to permeate the world with his Spirit and to order it according to his will.  However, his first and indispensable duty consists in giving witness in his family, social and professional life.

1991 Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus (The Hundredth Year)

Pope John Paul II writes to recognize the hundreth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, a landmark document about the dignity of work the rights of workers which influenced many future documents. The Pope examines the fall of communism, brought about by the struggles of workers and the inefficient economic system that failed to protect human rights, private property, and economic freedom. At the same time, John Paul II points to the advantages and sometimes limitations of the market, which sometimes do not adequately respond to human needs and can prioritize profit at the expense of the dignity of the human person. John Paul II also restates themes of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical and calls for a just society based on the rights of workers, economic initiative, and participation.*

1995 Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life)

Pope John Paul II affirms the gift of life and the need to protect it at all stages. He proclaims the good news of the value and dignity of each human
life while decrying the culture of death and calling for a renewed culture of life. The encyclical addresses a wide range of old and new threats to life, especially abortion, euthanasia, experimentation on human embryos, and the death penalty. John Paul II argues that we must be people of life who stand “for all life and for the life of everyone” (no. 87). The culture of death, he says, is caused by an overemphasis on individual freedoms and a lack of recognition of relationship with others. This mentality, reflected in materialism’s emphasis on “having” over “being,” must be replaced by one of solidarity (recognition that we are all one family) and seeing life as a responsibility (no. 23). The pope notes that the family is the “sanctuary of life” (no. 59) and connects respect for life with the need for social and economic policies that support families and integral human development which promotes the dignity of the person (no. 18, 81). *

2005 Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love)

Pope Benedict XVI writes that the human person’s ability to love is rooted in the Father’s love for humankind and the person’s identity as created in the image of God. God’s love manifests itself in Christ, who gives of himself freely for the salvation of humankind.  The call to love neighbor flows from God’s love for humanity. Benedict XVI locates love for the poor at the center of Catholic life, noting that the “exercise of charity” is one of the Church’s three “essential activities, along with the administration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the word” (no. 22).  The Holy Father writes that the Church must form the consciences of the laity so that they can work for a just ordering of society. Their political activity should be lived as “social charity,” infused with the light of faith and love (no. 29).*

2009 Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth)

Pope Benedict XVI lifts up love, or charity, as the “extraordinary force” that leads people to faith‐inspired engagement in the world (no. 1). He identifies justice as the “primary way of charity” and notes the obligation of “every Christian” to “take a stand for the common good” and work for institutional change (nos. 6‐7). In the face of a global economic crisis, Pope Benedict XVI writes about the need for “a new vision for the future” (no. 21) guided by love, truth, and solidarity. These values, he writes, must inform all aspects of economic life, such as finance, trade, and globalization, which must be humanized and re‐oriented to the common good. Business owners, investors, and consumers all have a role to play in guaranteeing that businesses operate to benefit the common good. Benedict XVI criticizes modern society’s appeal to rights without acknowledging corresponding duties, and he emphasizes the international community’s duty toward solidarity which should be realized in many ways, such as attention to the needs of workers and immigrants and development assistance to poor countries, which should be implemented in a way that prioritizes respect for life and the authentic human development of the person. The Holy Father links concern for life with the duty to care for creation, emphasizing environmental concern more
than in any past encyclical.”

2013 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel)

One thing is very clear, in Pope Francis’ first Apostolic Exhortation, that every member of the Catholic faith is called to evangelize and is called to be a missionary disciple. He challenges the business leaders of the world by writing that “the dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies. Pope Francis also recognizes and appreciates the world of business as a noble vocation with one caveat, “Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.”

*The summaries of each encyclical are excerpted from the Caritas in Veritate youth resource for Catholics Confront Global Poverty, a joint initiative of USCCB and Catholic Relief Services. For more information, visit Copyright © 2010, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. This text may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration for nonprofit educational use, provided such reprints are not sold and include this notice.