2.4.6 How is CST related to liberalism, conservatism and socialism?

Back to 2.4.5

Unit 2 Contents


That was the basic shape of political debate that the French Revolution bequeathed to Europe and, during the twentieth century, to much of the rest the world.  It is still reflected in the way politics happens in many countries, where there are parties which have represented those three traditions, even if they do so now very loosely and ambiguously.  Britain exemplifies this, its three main political parties being the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and the Labour Party.

We need to look at how CST fits in relation to those three basic stances.  In fact, we shall return to this question throughout the module, but here I’ll give a very short summary.  This will complete the historical outline.


In what is now seen as the founding document of modern CST, Rerum Novarum published in 1891, Pope Pius IX rejected the economic philosophy by which people defended the new industrial capitalism – that is, laissez faire liberalism.  I put it this way because Pius IX did not actually use the word liberalism in the encyclical. That rejection of liberal capitalism was even though he also very strongly supported the right to hold private property. These two things, opposition to laissez faire liberalism and insistence on private ownership, can be seen as among the pillars on which subsequent CST has been built.

You can study what CST says about these and related issues to do with business life in Module A, especially Unit 5.  For this reason I don’t say more about this here.

In fact, CST has rejected ‘liberalism’ in all meanings of this world, and this is explicit in various documents.  Nevertheless, in relation to ‘political liberalism’, things aren’t quite as simple as that implies.  This is because of the huge developments in the Catholic Church that occurred in the 1960s.  One writer has labelled what happened in CST then as the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’.1. This label is fair because at that time the Church strongly endorsed a view of the liberties and rights of persons that, on the face of it, looks strikingly similar to what political liberalism had long stood for. It can appear as though the 1860s rejection of political liberalism was reversed in the 1960s!

From Unit 1 you are already aware of the two most important documents in the CST’s ‘human rights revolution’ (1.3.4, 1.3.5). They were:

  • Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), 1963, on human rights in general
  • Dignitatis Humanae (On the Dignity of the Human Person), 1964, on religious freedom.

Given this ‘revolution’, what CST says in relation to political liberalism is more complicated than straight rejection.  It can be summed up in this way: the Catholic Church discovered that there are good reasons deep within Christian theology for affirming some of the same things as political liberalism claims.  But those reasons are very different from the arguments liberalism had made for them.  Therefore, that partial agreement does not mean Catholic embrace of liberalism.

We’ll be returning to the vexed subject of CST and liberalism several times in this module, especially in Units 3, 4 and 8.


Again, the renewal of Catholic teaching which took place in the 1960s, especially at Vatican II, is very significant for what can be said about conservatism.  At risk of oversimplifying, CST’s alliance with conservative social forces can be seen, by and large, as continuing until about that decade (as Thompson’s book indicates; see p. 28).  Even though Vatican teaching had in the 1930s clearly rejected the far-right political movements of that time (fascism and Nazism), there were no major statements articulating a position that doesn’t easily fit with conservatism until the 1960s.

But the ‘Catholic human rights revolution’ in this decade cannot easily be squared with conservatism.  Rather, if human rights are actually going to be protected in the way Pacem in Terris and Dignitatis Humanae called for, far-reaching political reform in many countries would be needed.  Therefore this teaching was in tension with conservatism – as in principle conservatism opposes major programmes of political change.

Moreover, in 1967 Pope Paul VI published a ground-breaking encyclical on global poverty and international development, Populorum Progressio, which also called for much more radical changes than fit easily with conservatism.  The 20th and 40th anniversaries of this document have been marked by two further encyclicals on the same theme:

  • John Paul II, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, 1987
  • Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 2009 (not 2007, the actual anniversary, as its publication was delayed, partly so that it could respond to the global financial crisis).

The ‘Catholic human rights revolution’ and this series of three documents on international development together mark out a position that it is very hard to square with conservatism, as you’ll see in working through the rest of the module.

We shall address the specific topic of international development in Units 5, 6 and 7.


As was noted above, Rerum Novarum opposed socialism – it did so explicitly.  Ever since then, other documents of CST have done the same.  You can study this more fully in Module A, with its focus on issues to do with capitalism and its socialist critics (as mentioned above), and we shall also look at this in Unit 3 of this module.  For these reasons, I’ll add just add just one point about socialism here – but it’s an important one.

Even though CST has rejected socialism, they have one major thing in common.  They both have a vision of humanity in which, if people are to be fully human, to enjoy human wellbeing, they can do so only with others.  In other words, the human good is an irreducibly common good.  You should understand what this means from your study of ‘the common good’ in Unit 1 (1.3.2).

This way of seeing human wellbeing has been basic in Christian thinking throughout the Church’s history.  But it is equally basic in socialism – it’s one of the reasons why the label ‘socialism’ is used.  For socialists, the reason for favouring common ownership of property is not just an economic one.  In other words, it’s not just to produce an equal outcome.  Rather, common ownership is a means by which people can participate in a common project – in which the reward people receive comes in part because the shared activity is itself good and satisfying, and not only from the monetary benefit they each individually take out.



These last two paragraphs might be worth reading again – partly as they might be difficult to understand, and partly as they put across an important point.

If people find that some of the reward comes participating in a common enterprise – you could think about a school, a manufacturing company, a charity, or a religious order, for example – they are likely to be satisfied with a much more equal economic distribution than if they think the only reward comes in the wages they individually take out.


Some influential socialist thinkers have been Christians, although not many have been Catholics – not least because CST so clearly rejected socialism.  One Christian socialist was Richard Tawney, a British economic historian who published a trio of influential books in the years after World War 1.  I mention him because he can be interpreted as advocating an overall position that is remarkably similar to CST, yet he labelled it socialist.  It is especially the way in which, in both CST and socialism, there are visions of human wellbeing as intrinsically a common good that means there is some shared ground between them, despite the basic differences that CST has emphasised ever since Rerum Novarum.

As we come to the end of this outline of the historical context of the development of CST, here is one further comment that is indirectly about socialism.  I said earlier that, in the century after the French Revolution, whereas conservatives said, “Stop!  This will be a disaster!’, what socialists said was “The liberal revolution has proved a sham, and if we’re really going to get ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’, we need to go much further. We need another revolution…”

The history of CST since the 1960s can, in part, be seen in a similar way.  As soon as Vatican II was over, many voices called for the developments it had started to be taken much further.  To be clear, one difference with that characterization of the nineteenth century is that such post-Vatican II voices didn’t regard the Council as a sham.  On the contrary, they backed it strongly, but they thought there was very much further to go.

Prominent among such voices were those of the movement called Liberation Theology.  This emerged from ‘Third World’ contexts of great poverty, notably in Latin America.  Some of its leading figures did identify with socialism, implicitly if not explicitly, and some supported political revolution.  They argued that it wasn’t enough to endorse people’s rights to basic freedoms but that much more radical social and economic changes were needed that would liberate the poor from oppression.

This led to much tension between the Vatican and those who identified with such positions, from the 1970s to the 1990s.  The Vatican criticised Liberation Theology as holding that it was possible to build the reign of God on earth by means of politics.  There was a huge debate about whether such lines of critique were fair, or whether Liberation Theology was in fact just calling for the great CST statements of the 1960s to be taken seriously and acted on.

While discussion about Liberation Theology is now less prominent, one can see much continuing discussion about Catholic Social Teaching broadly in those terms.  How much more is needed, both in terms of further thinking and, more importantly, in what must be done, if all that CST has come to stand for since Rerum Novarum and especially since Vatican II is to be made a reality?


End of 2.4.6

Go to 2.4.7 Conclusion of historical outine

Module B outline

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  1. G. Weigel, ‘The Catholic Human Rights Revolution’, a lecture given in 1995 at a conference in Rome marking the 30th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, published in Crisis magazine, Jul/Aug 1996, accessible (June 2011), at: http://www.ewtn.com/library/CHISTORY/HRREVOLU.TXT. This is discussed fully in Module A, Unit 7; see esp. 7.2.3). 

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