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Historical Notes on the Church's Social Doctrine

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Historical notes on the Church's social doctrine

By Leela Ramdeen 04.09.2005

We focus today on Part 1, Chapter 2 III: The Church's social doctrine in our time.

Historical notes

a) The beginning of a new path

b) From Rerum Novarum to our own day.

The Compendium tells us that the term "social doctrine" goes back to Pope Pius X1 (Quadragesimo Anno, 1931). Laborem Exercens states that his term designates the doctrinal "corpus" concerning issues relevant to society which, from the encyclical letter Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII (1892), developed in the Church through the Magisterium of the popes and the bishops in communion with them.

The Compendium stresses that the "Church's concern for social matters certainly did not begin with that document, for the Church has never failed to show interest in society. Nonetheless, the encyclical letter Rerum Novarum (The condition of working classes), marks the beginning of a new path. Grafting itself onto a tradition hundreds of years old, it signals a new beginning and a singular development of the Church's teaching in the area of social matters." (Catechism, 2421)

"In her continuous attention to men and women living in society," states the Compendium, "the Church has accumulated a rich doctrinal heritage. This has its roots in Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels and the apostolic writings, and takes on shape and body beginning from the Fathers of the Church and the great Doctors of the Middle Ages, constituting a doctrine in which, even without explicit and direct Magisterial pronouncements, the Church gradually came to recognise her competence.

"In the 19th century, events of an economic nature produced a dramatic social, political and cultural impact. Events connected with the Industrial Revolution profoundly changed centuries-old societal structures, raising serious problems of justice and posing the first great social question - the labour question - prompted by the conflict between capital and labour. In this context, the Church felt the need to become involved and intervene in a new way: the res novae ("new things") brought about by these events represented a challenge to her teaching and motivated her special pastoral concern for masses of people. A new discernment of the situation was needed, a discernment capable of finding appropriate solutions to unfamiliar and unexplored problems."

In response to the first great social question, Pope Leo XIII promulgated the first social encyclical, Rerum Novarum



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