3.2.1 Finding CST’s view of the role of government

Back to 3.1.6

Unit 3 Contents


So far in this unit, we have seen that the role of government is to do justice, and that this comprises distributive justice and retributive justice.

To understand this much is highly important.  But by no means is it to say enough.  This is because we have not yet gone much further than looking at the formal meanings of those words.  We need also to ask the substantive question: according to CST, what does justice require in practice?  In other words, what would a just society actually look like, one characterized by distributive justice as CST understands this, and in which there is corresponding practice of retributive justice?

We have to ask this because, as noted earlier, there are several different conceptions of justice and, therefore, of what government should do. These include liberal, conservative and socialist views. How does CST’s vision of a just society compare and contrast with those?

For the rest of Unit 3, we shall examine CST in order to discover how it describes the state’s positive role of ensuring there is distributive justice.  We shall leave further study of retributive justice until Unit 5.

But our task for this unit is harder than on some other topics, because there is no document of CST that contains a single, overall statement of the role of government.  In the period since Rerum Novarum, there has been no encyclical or similar statement devoted to spelling out what the state’s responsibilities for distributive justice actually are.  The Compendium has a chapter headed ‘The Political Community’, but only about four pages in this state some of the things that government is to do, and this is rather piecemeal. (See ##388-9, 394, 397-8, 402-5; earlier you read ##402-5 in connection with retributive justice.)

Nevertheless there are a number of aspects of CST that can enable us to see the way in which it gives a more substantive answer to this question.

The first of these, and perhaps the most important, is in fact more about what government should not do than about its positive tasks. This is the principle of subsidiarity.

You should already have a sense of what the principle of subsidiarity means as we looked at it in Unit 1 (1.3.7).  However, we gave little time to it there precisely because of the fuller study of it in this unit.

In order to examine the principle of subsidiarity, we need to turn to the second major encyclical that came to be seen as part of modern CST.  This is Quadragesimo Anno (QA), issued by Pope Pius XI in 1931.  It was published at a time of depression in the world economy, following the Great Crash of 1929, and of severe tension between the Papacy and the fascist regime of Mussolini in Italy. It was in this encyclical that the principle of subsidiarity was spelt out explicitly.

To appreciate what QA says about subsidiarity, it will be helpful to look at the context of this within the document as a whole.  Therefore, the rest of this screen will introduce QA, and on the next we shall focus on subsidiarity directly.

As you know, Quadragesimo Anno marked the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum (RN).  Given this, the first half of QA is basically all about RN.  Often in striking rhetoric – which was characteristic of Pope Pius XI – it reviewed what RN actually said (##1-39), and then commented on two particular issues addressed in RN that had been subject to intense debate in the intervening decades (##40-76).  (These two issues were private property and wages.)

Within this first half of QA, Pius XI re-emphasised the point that Leo XIII made in RN that it really is the state’s role to ensure that there is justice for workers.  He also celebrated the ways in which, since 1891, there had been major moves to legislate exactly along the lines RN had called for.  He praised the role of the clergy in calling for such reforms:

Sacred ministers of the Church, thoroughly imbued with Leo’s teaching, have, in fact, often proposed to the votes of the peoples’ representatives the very social legislation that has been enacted in recent years and have resolutely demanded and promoted its enforcement.

A new branch of law, wholly unknown to the earlier time, has arisen from this continuous and unwearied labour to protect vigorously the sacred rights of the workers that flow from their dignity as men and as Christians. These laws undertake the protection of life, health, strength, family, homes, workshops, wages and labour hazards, in fine, everything which pertains to the condition of wage workers.

(QA, ##27-28; the Latin ‘in fine’ means ‘in the end’ or ‘in short’.)

While some historians might judge that the Pope here exaggerated the influence of the Church in bringing about such changes, Christian workers’ movements had indeed been in the vanguard of such reform in some largely Catholic countries and regions.  One fascinating example of this is given by the figure of Adolf Daens, a priest in Flanders in Belgium in the late nineteenth century.

In the years immediately after RN’s publication and directly inspired by it, Daens became dissatisfied with what the then dominant political party in Belgium, called the Catholic Party, stood for.  He broke away from it in order to campaign for better conditions for workers, formed the Christian Social Party, and was elected to the Belgian Parliament in 1894.  His election led to him having to stop priestly ministry and put him at the centre of controversy.  Continuing his work inside and outside Parliament until his death in 1907, he had great influence in the development of both trade unions and the Christian Democratic political movement in Belgium.  A film of his life was released in 1992, simply called Daens, and was Oscar-nominated as Best Foreign Language Film.  In 2005, mainly Flemish-speaking Belgians voted Adolf Daens one of the greatest figures in Belgian history.1

Daens is only one person among very many for whom RN had been a charter for involvement in Christian workers’ organizations. Another was Joseph Cardijn, also from Belgium and himself directly inspired by Daens.  As founder of the worldwide Young Christian Worker movement, Cardijn has been hugely influential. We shall give attention to him in Unit 5.

The section of QA in which Pius XI both reaffirmed RN’s understanding of the role of government and celebrated the work of figures like Daens and Cardijn is well worth reading, not least for the rhetorical flourishes.


Reading (2pp)

The link takes you to the start of the encyclical, so scroll down to #25.

Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, ##25-28

Note  The quotations in #25 are from RN.


As noted, Pius XI took the whole of the first half of QA to look back at RN and to discuss issues directly raised by it.

At the half way point in the encyclical, the Pope moved beyond direct comment on RN and into new territory.  He said that two additional areas needed to be addressed, to which he gave the headings, ‘reform of institutions’ and ‘correction of morals’.  The second half of QA consists of discussion of these two in turn.  (The latter heading turns out to cover a range of more specific issues, but the focus is on morality in economic activity.)

As soon as Pius XI begins this second half, on ‘reform of institutions’, he outlines the principle of subsidiarity.

I have paid attention to the structure of QA because this shows that the discussion of subsidiarity, although short, is at a pivotal point in the document.  Quite self-consciously, Pius XI was here going beyond RN.  He was adding to its teaching by giving an explicit statement of something that had previously been only implicit.2

Eighty years later, the principle of subsidiarity is just about the only thing from QA that is regularly referred to in writing about CST!  The structure of QA explains why this is not surprising and indeed is appropriate.  It was the main way that QA marked a significant development of what was in RN.3



End of 3.2.1

Go to 3.2.2 Quadragesimo Anno on subsidiarity

Module B outline

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  1. Sources for this paragraph are http://www.daens.org/, the website of the ‘Daensist’ movement, and Wikipedia entries (used with necessary caution) for ‘Adolf Daens’, ‘Daens (film)’ and ‘De Grootste Belg’, all accessed 14 June 2013.  In the poll, Daens was voted the fifth greatest Belgian; as it happens, the winner of was also a Catholic priest. 

  2. Moreover, much of the rest of the section on ‘reform of institutions’ can be seen as arguing for what subsidiarity means in practice (##81-96). 

  3. The Compendium refers (#185) to the principle of subsidiarity as having been articulated before QA, noting RN #13. (In fact the reference there is to “RN 11”, but this is using a different numbering system from that in RN at www.vatican.va which is used in the VPlater modules.) While RN #13 is certainly consistent with the subsidiarity, it is not a general statement of the principle such as is given later in QA, as it relates only to family life.