From reciprocity to welfare: Rerum Novarum, Catholicism, and early social security in Latin America

Andrés Biehl, Rodrigo Pérez de Arce

Religion Compass.

Abstract: This article explores the role of Catholicism after the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), in shaping early Latin American social security. While social security is often interpreted as the outcome of organized distributional struggles, recent scholarship has begun to pay attention to the religious origins of a variety of social security systems. Building on this “religious turn”, the article reviews how research on religious traditions and the welfare state illuminate Latin American early developments of social security. By placing these experiences within welfare research at the beginning of the 20th century, this review aims to shed light on two understudied themes. First, new questions emerge connecting cultural understandings to their institutionalization through social policy. Second, Rerum Novarum and the social doctrines of the Catholic Church provided a vocabulary to nurture and legitimize secular state interventions in line with traditional ideas of reciprocity and charity. Social security models inspired by early German and French experiences, through the recommendations of the International Labour Organization, were adapted to local realities without challenging previous forms of social organizations that favored Catholic notions of in-kind support and encouraged personal relationships. Building on recent scholarship, the article ends by calling for further research on how Catholic in-built conceptions of reciprocity shape secular policies.