The inauguration of modern Catholic social teaching that occurred when Pope Leo XIII published the first modern social encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 marked a new stage in the Catholic Church’s engagement with the modern world. It also breathed life into Catholic commentary on numerous political, social and economic questions.
Exploring, analyzing and critiquing that tradition is the focus of a new collection of essays on Catholic social teaching, entitled Catholic Social Teaching: A Volume of Scholarly Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Edited by the legal scholar Gerard V. Bradley and the theologian E. Christian Brugger, and forming part of the Law and Christianity Series edited by Emory University’s John Witte Jr., the book contains an introduction and 23 chapters. They cover subjects ranging from analysis of particular encyclicals (yours truly authored the chapter on Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno), to specific themes such as immigration, socialism, international finance, and globalization as well as evaluative and critical reflections on Catholic social teaching.
Among the authors contributing to this volume are scholars such as the philosopher Joseph Boyle, the legal theorist John Finnis, the economist Catherine Ruth Pakaluk, the journalist Russell Shaw, and the political scientist Daniel Mahoney. A variety of disciplinary perspectives are thus brought to bear upon the modern Catholic social tradition.
It’s fair to say that, taken together, the essays see many strengths in modern Catholic social teaching but also some significant weaknesses. It’s not that any of the authors believe that the Church should say nothing about questions conventionally labelled “social.” But they raise important questions about, for instance, the appropriate scope of Catholic social teaching, what it should and should not be addressing, and the respective roles of the clergy and laity in applying Catholic ethics to political, social and economic questions, to name just a few.
Like most academic books these days, the text is expensive and beyond the budget of the average undergraduate and graduate student. Hopefully, however, many libraries will purchase the text as it provides a particularly comprehensive and in-depth analysis of modern Catholic social teaching, with a number of insights into how it might fruitfully develop more than 128 years after Rerum Novarum first appeared.