Bishop von Ketteler and Catholic Social Teaching: A Book Review of Robert Aubert’s “Catholic Social Teaching”

Wilhelm Emmanuel, Baron von Ketteler (25th. Dec. 1811-1877) was Bishop of Mainz . His social teachings became influential during the papacy of Leo XIII and his encyclical Rerum Novarum.

From Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Catholic Social Teaching: An Historical Perspective. By Robert Aubert; edited by David A. Boileau (Marquette University Press, P.O. Box 3141, Milwaukee, Wis. 53201, 2003), 288 pp. PB $35.00.

Little known to American readers, Roger Aubert is professor emeritus of history, the Catholic University of Louvain, and director of the prestigious revue d’histoire ecclesiastique. He is known especially for his interest in the Church’s 19th century social teaching. In this volume, David Boileau has collected and translated ten essays by Canon Aubert that trace Catholic social teaching from Wilhelm Emmanuel Baron von Ketteler (1811-1877) to Paul VI. To the translations, Boileau, chairman of the philosophy department at Loyola University, New Orleans, adds a valuable 40 page treatise of his own.

While Catholic social teaching does not begin with Bishop von Ketteler, he was one of the first to systematically address from a Catholic perspective the social issues confronting Europe as a result of the industrial revolution. Von Ketteler’s work greatly influenced Leo XIII when as Pope he prepared the encyclical Rerum Novarum. A champion of the working class and a critic of what was coming to be known as laissez faire capitalism, von Ketteler nevertheless condemned the budding socialist movement inspired by his contemporary, Karl Marx.

Aware of the dangers of communism, he taught that owners are not the absolute masters of the property entrusted to them. Property carries with it a social responsibility. The true and complete right of property, von Ketteler held, belongs only to God. Man’s right to property is limited to usufruct (humans have only use, not possession). Man is obliged in his use of property to recognize the order established by God. Von Ketteler codified his social thought in Die Arbeiterfrage and das Christentum (1864), a work published three years before the appearance of Marx’s Das Kapital. His book was to inspire Catholic thought and social action for decades to come. Aubert makes it clear that von Ketteler did not trust the state to find a solution to the “social question.” Von Ketteler did not want the state to subjugate the wealthy by its fiscal demand in order to subsidize the poor by free benefits. Instead he promoted the formation of workers’ guilds so that the workers themselves might become entrepreneurs, an idea that inspired similar movements on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly in the French Canadian provinces. Von Ketteler also had great confidence in the social conscience of the German businessman, particularly those in his native Bavaria who could be counted on to deal equitably with his workers. Furthermore, he did not believe that Germany was experiencing the same problems that the socialists were addressing in England and Wales.

Socialists and Catholics alike discussed von Ketteler’s work. Aubert says of von Ketteler, “He left German Catholics a social doctrine, based on the principles of St. Thomas, the very concrete social program which the Center Party would defend courageously in the years to come.”

Subsequent essays in this volume address the “social question” as it arose in French Canada, Christian democracy as it developed in Europe, and the beginnings of so called “social Catholicism.” These essays are followed by others that examine the teaching of Leo XIII, particularly his encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pius XII, and John Paul II’s Centessimus Annus.

To Roger Aubert’s work, Boileau adds his own reflections on Catholic social doctrine. Boileau makes the point that the social encyclicals should not be read in isolation from the historical situations they addressed. Nineteenth century social teaching of the Church was developed and formulated as an effort to apply Christian moral principles to rapidly changing social and economic relationships. As a body of teaching it is a work in progress.

When we speak of Catholic social thought, we should not confine ourselves to statements officially promulgated by the Holy See or by national bishops’ conferences and fail to consult the work of social thinkers of the rank of von Ketteler, Sturzo, Nell Breuning, and John A. Ryan, for it is their thought that influenced or stimulated the pronouncements of episcopal leaders. Neither should we fail to probe the pre Leonine teaching of the Church. Boileau traces the social teaching of the papal encyclicals to the pontificate of Benedict XIV (1740-1758), where he finds a body of papal social teaching aimed against the Enlightenment. He discovers that nine popes from 1740 to 1877 warned that the erosion of communal life could have only a negative effect on the family, the Church itself, and political life.

Boileau’s treatise ends with what is implicitly an outline of his own social philosophy, a brief for the working class. It is not without reason that in his own diocese Boileau is regarded as a “worker priest” in the 19th century mold, a strong supporter of labor at a time when we are witnessing the export of many jobs to locations abroad.

Jude P. Dougherty
The Catholic University of America
Washington, D.C.

(Reprinted from the April 2005 issue of HPR)

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8 Responses to Bishop von Ketteler and Catholic Social Teaching: A Book Review of Robert Aubert’s “Catholic Social Teaching”

  1. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Von Kettler says that he did not want the State to take from the wealthy to ‘subsidise’ the poor – a huge error. The poor subsidise the rich and always have done.

    VK trusted in the ‘social conscience’ of German businessmen. He may have done so, but no worker of any perception would have. No one wants charity or paternalism. But people do want the wealth they have produced.

    VK fails to understand the amorality of capitalism. Many who share his illusion are today finding out just how amoral it is.


  2. JabbaPapa says:

    Von Kettler says that he did not want the State to take from the wealthy to ‘subsidise’ the poor – a huge error. The poor subsidise the rich and always have done.

    I’ve rarely agreed with one of your comments as strongly as I do with this one.


  3. The Raven says:

    I would have thought that the experience of the welfare state in the United Kingdom over the last sixty years has categorically demonstrated the unfitness of the state as an agent in society.

    Much of the damage to our society can be placed directly at the feet of the perverse incentives towards degeneracy that our welfare state has created.

    Von Kettler was spot on the money in his emphasis on voluntary action and the organisation of welfare support by those most likely to use it. Where I think he should have gone further was in emphasising the obligation on the wealthy to provide funding to help make voluntary action a powerful force: I agree with him that a law levying taxation that goes into state coffers for state welfare programs will and has been a wretched failure; however, laws requiring employers and the wealthy to directly fund workers’ organisations and to take part in fulfilling society’s obligations to the poor can only be a good thing.


  4. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Raven, society’s obligation to the poor means ensuring that they are never robbed in the first place by those of power and privilege.

    It is a huge worry that the general emphasis of Christianity is towards a seeming need for the poor to exist in order that charity be dispensed by the great and good. The poor are tired of platitudes and handouts and dont want this sticking plaster (non)solution, for it has been on offer for a very long time. And you should know that right now in the midst of this ‘financial crisis’ the rich are further increasing the gap. That is, the same people who are being touted as benefactors of the poor. Come off it.

    The Liberation Theologists of the ’80s were moving towards a real undersanding of the causes of poverty, till these brave people were suppressed.

    Raven, never forget that it is labour which creates all wealth. The rich are wealth consumers, not wealth producers. It is not for businessmen and the wealthy to decide who gets what; what an appalling vista you make.


  5. JabbaPapa says:

    It is a huge worry that the general emphasis of Christianity is towards a seeming need for the poor to exist in order that charity be dispensed by the great and good.


    Christian Charity functions horizontally, not top-down. The wealthy are expected to provide more but only because they *have* more, but typically the better sources of Christian Charity are impoverished nuns, ordinary working people helping out as they can, and so on…

    The reasons why the Liberation Theologians were condemned had exactly NOTHING to do with their charity work, which has always been praised.

    FWIW though, I’m rather dubious of Raven’s proposals, too…


  6. Wall Eyed Mr Whippy says:

    Jabba, you miss my point, I fear. We need an end to rich and poor. That this exists shows there is no ‘horizontal’ function. Charity needs the poor to exist. I reject charity as part of the problem.

    Yes it’s an ideal, but so are many values.


  7. JabbaPapa says:

    Christian Charity absolutely does not require the existence of rich and poor.

    I did not fail to understand your point ; I was disagreeing with it.

    Christian Charity is to take care of those around you who are in need, for whatever reason ; poverty is only one possible reason for the existence of need.

    It is to take care of people who are ill, those who are alone, to help those who are on pilgrimage, or any other cases of special need.

    It is to treat the flesh of others as the incarnation of their souls, and to care for their souls by caring for the needs of their flesh.

    Money is irrelevant to Charity in the properly Christian sense, though in this world of ours, the lack of this money is one more cause of distress. Especially given that capitalistic society defines nearly everything in financial terms.


  8. The Raven says:

    Dear me, Whippy, I can’t have explained myself very clearly: who said anything about the poor being given a dole of rich-man’s charity?

    I said that I thought that welfare should be organised by and for the people who need it and that the rich have an absolute obligation to support poorer people by providing funding to such user-owned welfare systems (I wrote in terms of obligation, not of largesse).

    I am afraid that I see in your comment the fatal conflation of “State” and “society” that has bedevilled post-war Britain.

    I also don’t agree with your pious assertion that wealth is created by labour alone: without capital and enterprise labour is useless; labour, capital and enterprise should each have their fair reward.

    The goal of a just and moral society must be that workers, capitalists and entrepreneurs are treated fairly and no party should be free to exploit the other; and that those unable to participate in the economy should be supported by their community on terms that do not degrade or patronise them.

    Your solution: to levy taxes for the apparatus of the state to redistribute is a dysfunctional non-solution to problems created by a state that has meddled in the economy already and has invested too much power in the hands of one or other player in the economy.


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