About the Catholic Reading Project

The Catholic Reading Project is a "virtual reading group" that will read and discuss (online) key works that explain or elaborate the Catholic faith. In the initial year, 2012-2013, we will be studying the development of Catholic social doctrine, by reading magisterial documents from Rerum Novarum (1891) to Caritas in Veritate (2009).

We need guidance

Last spring, as the presidential campaign season was heating up just as the HHS mandate was beginning to make headlines for its assault on religious liberty, I began reflecting on the need for Catholics to know, understand, and be guided by basic Catholic principles, in our public as well as private lives. Depressed by the prospects for the coming political elections, I wished there were a political party that operated strictly according to the principles of Catholic social teaching (hereafter sometimes abbreviated as CST). Then I realized that most Catholics don’t really know what the principles of Catholic social teaching actually are – although we may have a caricatured notion of them, which is probably not very helpful (I, for instance, imagine butch-looking plainclothes nuns marching in workers’ rallies or chained to fences outside nuclear power plants). When I started talking with my friends about the need to elect officials who would respect the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, I found that most of them didn’t really know what these terms meant, although they felt vaguely that they should. So I began to think about how we all could become better informed and better equipped to be effective – Catholic – members of our society.

Since I have only a passing knowledge of the sources of Catholic social doctrine – I used to teach Rerum Novarum in my humanities classes, and I’ve read some of the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II, but I’ve never formally studied Catholic social teaching – I began to conceive a reading group that would read and discuss the foundational, magisterial documents of Catholic social doctrine, at the rate of one per month. I planned to invite everyone in my parish to take part, and to make it a reading group rather than a class, so that everyone would feel free to contribute their insights. Knowing that some who would like to take part would be unable to attend at whichever meeting time we set, I thought of creating a blog with notes and comments, so that people who couldn’t make some or any of the meetings could follow along on their own.

A virtual reading group

For various reasons, I may not be able to organize the parish reading project as I first conceived it, but I’ve decided to start a “virtual reading group” online and invite any and all interested parties to take part, by reading the documents as we go along and taking part in the discussion online via comments. I REALLY hope people will do this, as I am not an expert in these matters and I know that whatever I may have to say about the documents will be greatly enriched by the insights of others. Also, I may sometimes overlook or neglect important considerations that those more expert than myself can supply. If you are interested, please let me know, so that I can make sure you stay informed of developments.

I want this project to complement other initiatives for the Year of Faith that began on the fiftieth anniversary of the convening of the Second Vatican Council, 11 October 2012, so rather than do all twelve of the papal encyclicals on CST that I had originally planned, I’ve cut that list back to six or seven documents strictly relating to Catholic social teaching (I’m leaving out some of those focused closely on “peace and justice” issues, and sticking those more general), and adding in some of the encyclicals and apostolic letters of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which are addressed to spiritual problems and needs of our hurting society at this crucial moment when there is an ever-growing need for the spiritual consolations of the true Faith, just as public expressions of the Faith are being repressed, marginalized, and even demonized by the growing forces of secularism.

Proposed reading list

Here is the tentative list of readings I’ve put together. All of these may be obtained in digital form from a variety of sites online at no cost; printed copies are easily obtained from Catholic publishers at very little cost.
  1. Rerum Novarum, encyclical, Pope Leo XIII (1891). Not only the foundation of all later teachings in the Catholic social doctrine tradition, but also (I believe) the first papal encyclical addressed to the whole world rather than just the Catholic faithful. It was a direct response to the threat of Communism/Socialism, which was beginning to gain traction in Europe.
  2. Quadragesimo Anno, encyclical, Pope Pius XI (1931). As the title indicates, this encyclical was a follow-up to Rerum Novarum, forty years after that document was promulgated. Written as the Western world was sliding into the Great Depression, and as many parts of the world were being threatened by totalitarianism, Pius addresses the growing problems caused by increased industrialization.
  3. Divini Redemptoris, encyclical, Pope Pius XI (1937). This letter proposes that Christian life can correct the evils perpetrated by Communism, and offers a systematic critique of Communism.
  4. Mater et Magistra, encyclical, Pope John XXIII (1961). Written in observance of the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, this letter speaks to the new social, economic, and political conditions that have arisen in recent decades and addresses, among other things, the extent to which governments should be involved in health care, housing, and foreign aid.
  5. Gaudium et Spes, pastoral constitution of the Second Vatican Council (1966). Sometimes titled in English “The Church in the Modern World,” this document addresses social and economic goods in the light of a Christian anthropological outlook and the mission of the Church.
  6. Dignitatis Humanae, declaration of the Second Vatican Council (1966). This document addresses the right to religious freedom, based on the inherent dignity of the human person.
  7. Centesimus Annus, encyclical, Pope John Paul II (1991). As previous popes had done, Bl. John Paul revisits Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and the condition of the world one hundred years after that first social encyclical, noting (among other things) the collapse of Soviet socialism and the need for solidarity among all peoples.
  8. Evangelium Vitae, encyclical, Pope John Paul II (1995). In the light of alarming social and technical developments, P. John Paul II reaffirms the inherent dignity and worth of every human life and reasserts the Christian perspective on such issues as contraception, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and care of the elderly.
  9. Deus Caritas Est, encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI (2005). An examination of the nature of Christian love (charity) and the way it should be exercised in the world, particularly in the context of social justice and charitable outreach to the needy.
  10. Spe Salvi, encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI (2007). An examination of the nature of the theological virtue of Christian hope and the way it differs from the empty promises of the world, particularly those of Communism and other ideologies which hold out promises of material well-being.
  11. Caritas in Veritate, encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI (2009). A social encyclical addressing the problems of global development and the common good, the pope emphasizes the need for charity to be grounded in truth in order best to serve the needs of the world and the individual.

Subscribe to this blog and join the discussion

My plan is to read these documents in chronological order, in order to see how they build on one another, and how each takes into consideration the peculiar needs of the time in which it was written. I hope to complete one document per month (in several installments), to publish my own summary and commentary or reflection on each one, and to present questions for discussion as we go along, in order to encourage readers to join the discussion.