Hegel and Catholic Social Teaching

In his 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris, Pope Leo XIII lamented the proliferation of false philosophy and called for a return to scholasticism, especially to the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Even though his name is not mentioned in the document, it stands to reason that it was G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831) and his school that the pope considered to be one of the main proponents of the dangerous and false philosophy of the time. Josef Kleutgen, who was reportedly one of the pope’s main advisors on this encyclical, was an outspoken and fierce enemy of Hegel’s idealism.[1]

However, interest in Hegel’s thought has been on the rise among academic philosophers and theologians in the last couple of decades. This is also true in Catholic circles, which has led to the question of whether Catholics actually must hate Hegel. There are good reasons to be skeptical about whether Hegel’s understanding of God is compatible with basic Catholic doctrine—or even with what C.S. Lewis has called “mere Christianity.” However, when it comes to social philosophy, there is surprising—and yet to be fully explored—agreement between Hegel and Catholic Social Teaching. As we shall see, it is an irony of history that the foundation of Catholic Social Teaching was laid by Pope Leo XIII with his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarumthe very pope that tried to push back against the prevalent Hegelianism of his times shared—unbeknownst to him—Hegel’s core ideas about social philosophy.

1. Three Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic social teaching emerged due to the social problems connected to the industrialization of the nineteenth century. While overall economic prosperity was rising, many workers remained poor or were even living in squalor. Therefore, they saw themselves in a hostile opposition to the owning class of the capitalists. In this situation, Catholic social teaching turned against both liberalism, which focused on the individual and which had contributed to this situation in the first place, as well as the collectivist ideologies of socialism and communism, which sought to rectify social problems by abolishing private property (the means of production). Instead, Catholic social teaching is built upon the observation that there is a natural human need to live in a community and that the individual and the community are therefore fundamentally interconnected.

The need for community becomes particularly evident when one considers the close connection between procreation, education, and a stable family—a connection that is not characteristic of the animal world, but unique to human beings. From birth, human children are completely helpless and require intensive care that one parent alone can hardly provide. And even after they have gained some basic control over their bodies, children continue to require nurture from their parents. In addition, children need moral and intellectual education by their parents for many years. It is only due to the natural family (or, in the case of its absence, a substitute institution that takes over its functions) that children can become independent adults who then in turn can start and take care of families of their own. But since one family unit alone is not likely to be self-sufficient, there is a natural tendency to form larger, independent communities that can properly be called “political.”

This line of argument that connects human individuals to the community was first expressed by Aristotle’s famous characterization of man as a “zôon politikon,” as a communal or political being. Through St. Thomas Aquinas this Aristotelian insight entered the Catholic theory of natural law, which in turn became the basis for Catholic social teaching. The latter has (at least) three basic principles, which are all rooted in the communal nature of man: (1) the common good principle, (2) the solidarity principle, and (3) the subsidiarity principle.

(1) The principle of the common good assumes that the good of the individual and the common good are interdependent. To develop and flourish as a person, the individual needs various social institutions (ranging from the family to the state). On this view, the common good is thus nothing other than all that makes the good of the individual possible. Oswald von Nell-Breuning SJ, who played a crucial role in drafting the social encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931) of Pope Pius XI, defined the common good as follows:

The common good is . . . the epitome of all prerequisites (preconditions) and facilities (institutions) of a general or public nature, which are necessary so that the individuals as members of society can fulfill their earthly destiny and successfully create their own earthly well-being through their own activity.[2]

Clearly, the principle of the common good does not tolerate any encroachment on the rights of the individual. Rather, the common good consists in those social institutions that allow the individual to care for his own well-being.

(2) The principle of the common good implies the principle of solidarity, which refers to the fact the individual and the community are ordered towards each other, or to quote von Nell-Breuning again: “The individuals are by their nature ordered toward the community; conversely, the community, which exists only in its members and for its members, is wholly oriented towards these members.”[3] This reciprocal ordering is, however, not merely descriptive but, as part of the natural order, also normative: since it is essential for the happiness of individuals to live as communal beings, they also should act in a solidary manner with their community, of course without giving up on their individuality. Rather, according to the principle of the common good, individuals should always be able to secure their earthly well-being through their own initiative and actions.

(3) What is true of the relation between the individual and the community also applies to the relation between smaller, subordinate social institutions and the larger, superordinate ones: The larger ones may and should only intervene in the affairs of the smaller ones when the latter cannot help themselves. This is the core of the principle of subsidiarity, which was first stated in Quadragesimo Anno:

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.[4]

The principle of subsidiarity thus teaches a well-ordered division of human society. The social whole should resemble a healthy organism whose members interact in a mutually supportive manner, without disturbing each other. Just as the principle of the common good and the principle of solidarity, the principle of subsidiarity is clearly both anti-individualistic and anti-collectivistic. In contrast to individualism, it recognizes that the individual is ordered towards a multiplicity of communal institutions. And in contrast to collectivism, neither are individuals to be absorbed by the community nor are smaller institutions to disappear within larger ones.

Based on these principles, Catholic social teaching promotes the creation of institutions that further the interests of workers within the social organism as a whole. Following the example of the medieval guilds (or corporations) that provided social security for their members, Catholic social teaching called for the creation of “workingmen’s unions” and the “re-establishment of the Industries and Professions,” i.e., the renewal of the corporative social order.[5] It is only through such an institutionally structured political community that multiplicity without unity (i.e., individualism and isolation), as well as unity without multiplicity (i.e., collectivism and massification), can be avoided.

2. Hegel’s Anticipation of the Principles of Catholic Social Teaching

Hegel’s social philosophy, which received its most thorough treatment in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820), fundamentally differs from Catholic social teaching, insofar as it is not rooted in Classical natural law theory. Instead, Hegel’s approach is grounded in the notion of freedom as self-determination. The basic idea can be summed up as follows: Hegel believes that the notion of freedom as self-determination is intrinsically linked to the concept of practical normativity, of actions and behavior being right (or wrong). According to this idea, human beings achieve true self-determination only when they act in accordance with what is right.

In this regard, Hegel remains close to Kant’s theory that morality and autonomy are basically one and the same. However, Hegel departs from Kant by arguing that self-determination is not achieved by following some merely formal principle (such as the Categorical Imperative), but rather by living according to the social roles of what Hegel calls “ethical life” (“Sittlichkeit”). The term “ethical life” basically refers to the social reality of institutions and the common ethos that is constitutive of them. More specifically “ethical life” in the Hegelian sense is made up of the institutions of the family, civil society (which is predominantly the sphere of economics), and the state.

On Hegel’s view, these institutions are crucial to an individual’s self-determination, because they provide a non-arbitrary and thus objective normative framework for one’s actions. Within the institution of the family, for example, fathers and mothers are confronted with certain obligations toward their children. Normative standards are, so to speak, built into the roles of fatherhood and motherhood and therefore cannot be altered by any particular mother or father. At the same time, being a parent is not something that just happens to an individual. Instead, it requires a free, that is, uncoerced, and longstanding identification with this specific social role. Taking over such social roles also means becoming independent from one’s volatile natural inclinations. Hegel’s understanding of marriage is a case in point.

Marriage may build on natural affection, but its essence consists in honoring and loving the spouse regardless of one’s emotional whims. This means that within marriage love must be transformed from a mere feeling into a stable act of the will.

The main take-away from all this is that self-determination for Hegel does not consist in certain one-time choices, but rather in a steady way of life. Freedom as self-determination does not lie in the decision to marry a certain partner, but rather in the continual participation in the institution of marriage. The kind of self-determination that Hegel has in mind is also tied to a certain sense of identity.

Imagine being confronted with the question, “Who are you?” and wanting to give a substantive answer. It would be rather misleading to do so by naming characteristics such as one’s height or eye color. Instead, one would typically answer by stating the social roles that one is inhabiting (to take me as an example: “I am a husband, a father, a German, a Catholic, an academic . . . ”). This demonstrates that individuals obtain a substantive and self-determined identity only by belonging to certain communities. Paradoxically, it is through the assumption of social roles, which commit us to certain attitudes and patterns of behavior that are removed from our whim, that we gain a stable individual identity.

In light of this brief sketch of Hegel’s social philosophy, its similarities with Catholic social teaching should start to become apparent. An individual’s relation to social reality and its normative frameworks is constitutive of his self-determined identity. The individual is what he is only in relation to the normative social roles provided by the community.

Thus, the normative standards that individuals encounter in these roles are (at least typically) not experienced as external constraints, but rather as conditions of possibility of their own freedom (self-determination). Thus, the common objection against Hegel—made popular by the likes of Karl Popper—that his philosophy promotes the total subjugation of the individual to the state is simply false.[6] On the contrary, Hegel emphasizes that it is the freedom of the individual that is realized within different social institutions and especially within the state as the largest, overarching institution.[7]

Thus, Hegel’s social philosophy and Catholic social teaching share the view of an ontological as well as normative interrelation between the individual and the community. Unsurprisingly then, all three of the Catholic principles discussed above are also present in Hegel’s Elements, albeit under a somewhat different guise.

(1) Similar to the principle of the common good, Hegel’s notion of “ethical life” refers to the epitome of the social conditions and institutions through which individuals actualize themselves. The main difference, of course, is Hegel’s focus on self-determination instead of natural law. (2) The principle of solidarity is also inherent in Hegel’s social philosophy. For, as we have seen, Hegel clearly shares the belief that individuals are ordered towards the community and that the community itself is oriented towards its members through which it exists. And because their communal life is constitutive of their identity, individuals are obligated to behave in a solidary manner towards their institutions. (3) Hegel’s social philosophy also advocates a subsidiary order of society.[8] For Hegel, the polity as a whole resembles an “organism” whose members—the family, the institutions of civil society, and the institutions of the state—provide mutual functional support, without interfering with or absorbing each other.[9] But this idea that social institutions are supposed to provide functional support to each other, without the larger ones absorbing the smaller ones, is, at its core, the principle of subsidiarity.

Finally, there is a striking similarity between Hegel’s philosophy and Catholic teaching with regard to the plight of the workers under capitalism. In his Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel argues that “despite an excess of wealth, civil society is not wealthy enough—i.e., its own distinct resources are not sufficient—to prevent an excess of poverty and the formation of a rabble.”[10] It must be noted that “rabble,” for Hegel, is not only an economic but also a moral category. The rabble is comprised of those individuals who, due to their economic situation, stand outside the common social order and thus have lost the “feeling of right, justice, and honour which comes from support­ing oneself by one’s own activity and work.”[11]

The countermeasures against the constitution of a rabble that Hegel proposes do not consist in direct state interventions. To the contrary and in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, he calls for the establishment of professional associations, so-called corporations. The corporations are supposed to provide economic security as well as moral support to their members. Ultimately, Hegel regards the corporation as a kind of second family that shields the individual from isolation and social neglect.

Therefore, according to Hegel, the “sanctity of marriage and the honour attaching to the corporation are the two moments round which the dis­organization of civil society revolves.”[12] The institutions of marriage and corporation are, in other words, the central forces that protect the individual from economic exploitation and social isolation. Hegel’s remedy for the plight of the working class thus essentially coincides with Catholic social teaching, which also calls for the formation of workers’ associations and the renewal of society’s corporative order.

All in all, just like Catholic social teaching, Hegel’s social philosophy recognizes the fundamental interrelation between the individual and the community and therefore rejects both individualism and collectivism. Despite the differences, i.e., Hegel’s focus on self-determination versus the Catholic focus on natural law, it seems that one can be a Hegelian and a Catholic when it comes to the understanding of the social world. If one considers the historical context, one might even say that Hegel’s social philosophy is, in a certain sense, a prefiguration of Catholic social teaching.[13]

UPCOMING CAMPUS EVENTS with the author (open to the public): Fall Forum: Sebastian Ostritsch, "Hegel's God" on Wed Sep 27, 2023 at 5:15 pm - 6:30 pm in 220 Malloy Hall; The Ethics of Gaming: Playing – Killing – Loving in Virtual Worlds on Fri Sep 29, 2023 at 11:30 am - 12:30 pm 126 in DeBartolo Hall.

[1] See Bernhard Caspar: “Hegel in der Sicht Joseph Kleutgens,” in: Georg Schwaiger (ed.): Kirche und Theologie im 19. Jahrhundert, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975, 167–174; and Lawrence S, Stepelevich: “Hegel and Roman Catholicism,” in: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 60/4, 1992, 673–691.

[2] Oswald von Nell-Breuning: “Gemeinwohl”, in: Oswald Nell-Breuning and Hermann Sacher (eds.): Zur christlichen Gesellschaftslehre (Beiträge zu einem Wörterbuch der Politik, Heft I), Freiburg 1947, col. 47.

[3] Ibid., col. 27.

[4] Pius XI: Quadragesimo Anno, §79.

[5] Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum §49; Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno §82.

[6] See Karl Popper: The Open Society and Its Enemies, London/New York: Routledge, 2002, 246.

[7] See G.W.F. Hegel: Elements of the Philosophy of Right, ed. by Allen W. Wood & transl. by H. B. Nisbet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991, §257.

[8] See Jakob Barion: “Hegels Staatslehre und das Prinzip der Subsidiarität,” in: Die Neue Ordnung, 7 (1953), 193–201; 279–287.

[9] Hegel: Elements, §142; §260, addition.

[10] Ibid., §245.

[11] Ibid., §244.

[12] Ibid., §255, remark.

[13] The common root of both is most likely Aristotle’s social and political philosophy, which Hegel was familiar with and which he held in high esteem.

Featured Image: Bust of Hegel in Jena, photo by ; Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Sebastian Ostritsch

Sebastian Ostritsch (University of Stuttgart/Germany) is the author of four books in German: Hegel's Philosophy of Right as Meta-Ethics (2014), Existence (with A. Luckner, 2018), his bestselling Hegel—Der Weltphilosoph (2020), and Let's Play or Game over? The Ethics of Computer Gaming (2023).

Read more by Sebastian Ostritsch