“When a society is perishing,” wrote Pope Leo XIII in 1891, “those who would restore it . . . [should] call it to the principles from which it sprang.” These words are as true today as they were 125 years ago. In our own time of social upheaval, insecurity, and anxiety, we ought to take Leo’s guidance to heart. To help us remember the principles on which Christian social reflection has been founded in the modern age, it is worth returning to two texts that appeared in 1891: Leo XIII’s encyclical on the relationship between labor and capital, and Abraham Kuyper’s speech to the first Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam, “The Social Question and the Christian Religion.”

These two works are foundational sources for twentieth-century Christian social thought in their respective traditions—Roman Catholic and Reformed. Although many of the particular circumstances and the dynamics at play are different today from what they were more than a century ago, the thought of these two theologians—one an Italian scholar-pope and the other a Dutch Reformed pastor, professor, and politician—provide enduring wisdom for developing and articulating a Christian witness in the modern world.

Property and Stewardship

Perhaps the key point of departure for both Leo and Kuyper is a particularly Christian conception of humankind. In the context of social change, they emphasize that a Christian vision of the human person does not make ultimate distinctions based on class or other social constructs. Each person’s innate dignity and equality must be respected within the context of the diversity of dispositions, gifts, talents, and responsibilities.

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For Leo, a key aspect of the ordering of the relationship between labor and capital lies in respecting the property rights of everyone, rich or poor, owners and workers alike. “The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property,” writes Leo. The major socialist threat to private property is government seizure of the fruits of labor and the reserves of capital. Against the socialization of property, the pope asserts that “Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.”

If the derogation of property rights is a hallmark of the social­ist error, the absolutization of property rights is characteristic of liberal, individualist theory. The Christian vision of property and the human person opposes the latter mistake as well. Thus Leo distinguishes between the right to own property and the right to dispose of it in any way: “it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have a right to use money as one wills.” In other words, property rights always come with the responsibility to be a good steward of that property.

Kuyper opens his positive vision of the social question by asserting the foundational reality of human work and responsibility. He writes, “Our human nature is placed in the nature that surrounds us, not in order to leave nature as it is, but to work on nature instinctively and irrepressibly, by means of art, to improve and perfect it.” The fruit of this cultivating work is property as well as cultural development and technological prog­ress. This work is oriented not primarily to self-aggrandizement or the satiation of selfish desires. Rather, it should be focused on the service of others in obedience to God’s commandment.

The Christian, says Kuyper, “has to bear witness that there can be no question of absolute ownership except in the case of God himself, and that all our possessions are only held on loan from him. We manage our pos­sessions only as a form of stewardship.” The consequence of this is twofold. First, there is a clear responsibility to put these gifts into productive service: “none but God the Lord can release us from our responsibility for managing those possessions.” Second, there is a social, other-directed orientation of that management: “we can never have any other property right than in association with the organic coherence of mankind, hence also with the organic coherence of mankind’s goods.” Leo likewise connects the fundamental rights to property to the clear moral obligations to employ that property in the service of others:

Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God’s providence, for the benefit of others.

Subsidiarity and Sphere Sovereignty

Forty years later, the ideas laid out in Rerum Novarum on the theme of stewardship and social responsibility were formally articulated as the principle of subsidiarity. The classic statement of this principle appears in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of Pope Pius XI, promulgated in 1931. As Pius writes,

Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.

In this way, subsidiarity is a principle aimed at respecting social diversity. As Leo writes, “There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition.” This inequality is not necessarily damaging or the result of sin. In fact, avers Leo,

Such inequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition.

The corresponding concept in Kuyper’s thought is the principle of sphere sovereignty. Kuyper had previously articulated this principle in his defense of the foundation of a new educational institution, free of direct control by either church or state. Whereas the modern Roman Catholic articulations of subsidiarity tend to emphasize a hierarchy of social institutions (Pius’s “greater and higher” associations and “lesser and subordinate organizations”), Kuyper’s principle of sphere sovereignty is a distinctively Reformed version of the principle that emphasizes the formal equality of all social spheres and institutions before God. “Our human life, with its visible material foreground and invisible spiritual background, is neither simple nor uniform but constitutes an infinitely complex organism,” asserts Kuyper. And the complexity of social life must be respected through an understanding of the sovereignty of these institutions derived from and authorized by Christ: “Human freedom is safe under this Son of Man anointed as Sovereign because, along with the State, every other sphere of life recognizes an authority derived from Him—that is, possesses sovereignty in its own sphere.”

These versions of subsidiarity, while not identical, are best understood as embodying different, and perhaps even comple­mentary, emphases. One is more hierarchical, while the other is more egalitarian. Both, however, are intended to reflect and respect the rich diversity of social life and the institutional expressions of human sociality. In the context of the social question at the end of the nineteenth century, this principle of diversity came to particular expression in concerns about the legitimacy and scope of state intervention in social relationships, whether in the family or the workplace. Both Kuyper and Leo allow for the validity of state action in the life of the different spheres, but clearly limit such action to a func­tion of temporary intervention with the aim of revitalizing and restoring corrupted and malfunctioning institutions. Such state action should not be a permanent or unconditioned feature of social life.

Solidarity and Sphere Universality

If subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty respect social diversity, the principles of solidarity and sphere universality respond to the realities of social unity. State action will often be necessary to alleviate suffering, for instance, precisely because each person is created in the image of God and there is a shared identity and bond that connects all human beings to one another. As Leo writes, “If Christian precepts prevail, the respective classes will not only be united in the bonds of friendship, but also in those of brotherly love.” Pope John Paul II later explicated the moral responsibilities arising out of solidarity in connection with the family and working outward from this primary institution of love. The family, says the pope, is the first and most formative school of solidarity.

Deeply concerned for the poor, Kuyper indicts Christians who are complacent about their plight:

there is no excuse for a situation in which our heavenly Father with divine generosity causes an abundance of food to come forth from the ground and that through our fault this bounty is distributed so unequally that while one person has more than enough to eat the other goes to bed with an empty stomach—if he even has a bed.

He emphasizes the necessity of immediate action, not mere sympathy or high-minded attempts to restructure society. Thus, he writes, “actions, acts of love, are also crucial. Obviously, the poor man cannot wait until the restoration of our social structure has been completed.”

Less well-known than the concept of sphere sovereignty is the corresponding concept of sphere universality. These spheres are not absolutely isolated and unrelated aspects of social order. They must relate positively to one another and be united in an orientation toward human flourishing. The unity that the concept points to is not simply a temporal unity, however. It is oriented toward the eternal unity of human persons in relationship with others and with God. In this way, sphere universality accords with solidarity and the common good since they are rooted in God’s transcendence.

For Leo, the grounding of temporal existence in eternity is likewise necessary:

The things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will know no death. Exclude the idea of futurity, and forthwith the very notion of what is good and right would per­ish; nay, the whole scheme of the universe would become a dark and unfathomable mystery.

Solidarity is also connected to the Roman Catholic idea of the universal destination of goods. As Pope Paul VI writes in his encyclical letter Populorum Progressio, “No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life.” This obligation is grounded in the idea that the earth is itself intended for common use and the common benefit of all and leads to the understanding that each person has the right to work and provide for oneself and one’s family.

Solidarity and subsidiarity are rightly understood as necessary complements. They can be used as principles for understanding whether the realities of diversity and unity are being respected and acknowledged. For instance, when an institution helps a family that is suffering material deprivation, this help can be understood as an expression of true subsidiarity only if the needs are met in such a way that people are not driven apart and community is not fragmented. In order for the aid to be genuinely helpful, it must heal and sustain community. The goal for such intervention must be to restore the proper functioning of the ailing community, thereby supporting its continued existence. Help must thus be offered as a response to the reality of solidarity, but in a way that respects institutional sovereignty and diversity.

The Social Question Then and Now

Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and Abraham Kuyper’s “The Social Question and the Christian Religion” inaugurated more than a century of sustained modern Christian social thought. The wisdom that Leo and Kuyper communicate in these texts is helpful for Christians today because they demonstrate intellectual rigor and a keen sense of the social question in their own time. They combine these virtues with fidelity to the Christian religion, and thus communicate timeless insights to us, and in so doing point beyond themselves to the first principles of Christian social thought. As Leo writes of social life, “to fall away from its primal constitution implies disease; to go back to it, recovery.”

Christians seeking to address the pressing social questions of today and tomorrow should follow the lead of Leo XIII and Kuyper, beginning with a proper understanding of God’s will for human life and the constitutive nature of human identity created in the image of God. It is our responsibility to diagnose the ills of our culture and understand the needs of our neighbors to determine what kind of action we are called to take in response.

Dr. Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, where he also serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is a general editor of Abraham Kuyper: Collected Works in Public Theology and the editor most recently of Makers of Modern Christian Social Thought: Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper on the Social Question. This essay is adapted from the introduction.