Poverty and human dignity: The magisterium of the Catholic Church on the interaction between the two

Paul Van Geest*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

Abstract

Pope Leo XIII laid the very foundation for a Catholic social doctrine with his encyclical Mum Novanun. This came about because of his consciousness of the gap between rich and poor that arose in the social and societal upheavals of the late nineteenth century as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

Focussing on the eradication of poverty, this contribution seeks to depict the visions that Pope Leo XIII's successors had developed from 1878 onwards in their respective encyclicals and speeches, on the basis of pope Leos doctrine. In scrutinising successive encyclicals, a certain trend may be discerned regarding directives to all people of good will to reduce poverty. Even though Popes Leo XIII, Pius XI, John Paul II and Benedict. XVI did not always explicitly mention poverty in their respective social encyclicals; they constantly denounced the economic mechanisms that made the rich ever richer while simultaneously increasing poverty for large sections of the population. This is done on the one hand, by identifying the causes of these mechanisms and, on the other hand - in a solution-focused way - by raising awareness that the solution to the problem of poverty lies in a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, in solidarity as well as in empathy in an essential commitment to people living below the poverty line.

In Catholic social doctrine, economic activity is not seen in isolation from its underlying human motives and attitudes with which it is associated Morality and the market are intrinsically linked, and there is a constant interaction between an understanding of one 's own morality and an understanding of how an economy can contribute to the dignity of as many people as possible. This is constantly shown in the encyclicals under discussion in this article, as it also becomes clear that contributing to human dignity is the main purpose of any economic transaction. Attention to the interaction between virtues and the market, between economic and ethical realities, also entails the reflection on human dignity. In this context, the successive Popes stress the importance of the principle of subsidiarity, the primacy of labour over capital, because of the intrinsic value of labour for human dignity. They do not condemn capitalism, but argue that the market should be regulated by the state, because the greed of the haves can undermine the social position and the market position of the have nots, further exacerbating the poverty of the have nots.

Like his predecessors, Pope Francis also criticizes the dominance of unbridled liberalism and of a free market which is not regulated by the state. he, too, advocates state intervention in order to guarantee the dignity of the human being, which stems from labour and which, in this way, does justice to his intrinsic dignity.

But he is much more assertive and explicit than his predecessors in his articulation of criticism of economic developments. Even though he praised Europe's struggle for human rights and dignity in the European Parliament, he is at the same time highly critical of the individualism, indifference and unbridled consumerism of many Europeans, because he sees this as one of the causes of the poverty ofnon-Europeans. According to him, the latter are not "seen"; there is no solidarity or commitment towards fellow brothers and sisters in "the common house", the earth.

It is possible that the occasional biting tone of the pope is a little too vehement. Even though this is understandable and can be traced back to his own increasing awareness o f economic inequality and to Medellin k influence; Western democracy has also had very positive effects on the distribution of capital.

Pope Francis, in particular, emphasizes the intrinsic link between the purity of personal motives and morals and the dynamics of the market economy. The market economy is only good if it is based on principles, in which human dignity is predominant. If empathy and compassion among the rich were to be abandoned, it would inevitably result in increasing inequality with regard to the prosperity of all peoples.

Original languageDutch
Pages (from-to)646-657
Number of pages12
JournalTydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe
Volume60
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2020

Keywords

  • poverty
  • Catholic social doctrine
  • economy and increase in poverty
  • economy and morality
  • inner motives and economy

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