Quadragesimo Anno


The world was in the grip of the Great Depression when Pope Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno. Published in 1931, it celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. The encyclical is also known by the English title On the Reconstruction of the Social Order. After World War I class struggle was becoming more bitter and totalitarian regimes were on the rise in Europe. Pius XI updates Leo XIII’s teachings, builds on them, and applies them to his contemporary situation.

Major Issues

Pius XI wanted to restore harmony in society. He was critical of both socialism and capitalism. His vision centred on functional or vocational groups which he believed could bind people together “not according to the position they occupy in the labour market, but according to the diverse functions they exercise in society” (n 83). In this way he asserted the importance of society above the economy. According to Pius XI’s vision, the common interest should prevail within each group and their activities should be directed to the common good (n 85).

Pius XI commented approvingly on corporatist structures in place in Italy at that time. He saw in them an effort to find a ‘third way’ between socialism and capitalism. He believed that they had the advantages of “peaceful collaboration of the classes, repression of socialist organizations and efforts, the moderating authority of a special ministry” (n 95). Pius XI argued that it was necessary to direct social policy “towards the reestablishment of functional groups” (n 82). This vision suggests nostalgia for the medieval guild system.


The methodology of Quadragesimo Anno followed Rerum Novarum”s approach. It is deductive, applying natural law principles to the social reality. It relies almost entirely on reason and does not draw on Scripture to a great extent.

Contribution to Catholic Social Teaching

Although later papal teachings did not take up Pius XI’s corporatist ‘third way’ approach, Quadragesimo Anno remains a major document of Catholic Social Teaching. It introduced the term ‘social justice’ into the social teachings, using it to describe the just relationships between groups in society required by recognition of the demands of the common good (n 57). Another lasting contribution is its formal articulation of the principle of subsidiarity (n 79 – 80).

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