To understand any work, you need to understand the context in which it was written or created. Consider, for instance, trying to make sense of any papal encyclical if you didn’t know anything about Christianity. So before we start our discussion of Rerum Novarum, I wanted to put it in context. (If you look at the 4-step method of reading that I published earlier, you’ll see that, at every step in your analysis of what you’ve read, I emphasize the crucial importance of context.) What follows is as brief as I can make it (albeit not actually very brief), and therefore perhaps a bit oversimplified, but you are welcome to read further elsewhere on the internet if you wish to know more.
Economic & Social context: Industrial Revolution
The papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, was promulgated in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, a little more than a century after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a period in which new technological developments (factories where cloth could be woven on huge mechanized looms, for example) began to radically alter the way most people in Europe and North America lived. The middle (i.e., neither peasants nor aristocrats) class, who invested in these new technologies and whose standard of living rose as a result of them, grew in number and in wealth and political prominence, while the old aristocracy began to lose its preeminence and power.
Within a few decades rural people who were the descendants of medieval serfs could no longer support themselves with cottage industries (family owned and operated), so they left the countryside to seek work wherever it could be found. More often than not, this meant either working in mines (e.g., digging coal which was used to power the new industries) or in factories (making textiles and, eventually, a wide array of products that formerly had been fabricated in small workshops by skilled craftsmen. Virtually overnight, entire societies went from being largely agrarian to highly industrialized. The new factories paid very poorly, demanded long hours of labor, provided brutal working conditions, and paid extremely poor wages. People accepted these low wages because they were desperate.
Entire new cities sprang up where these new factories were built, ugly and functional with little accommodation for a humane way of life. Housing for industrial workers was hastily constructed, cramped, often unsafe and unsanitary (no indoor plumbing or running water), and very expensive. Disease became a huge problem, at a time when modern medicine was still a thing of the future.
Country folk who had abandoned their rural homes found themselves living hellish, desperate lives; children who had helped herd sheep, raise vegetables, spin wool alongside their parents were now toiling beside them 14 hours a day for pennies (public schools were as yet unheard of at the beginning of this period). The factory and mine owners grew immensely rich at the expense of the workers, who could barely afford to live and often died as a result of their living and working conditions. This was a far cry from the agrarian culture of a generation or two earlier, where aristocratic landowners still honored the feudal bond, a moral code that acknowledged the reciprocal duties and obligations that lords and underlings owed each other. Virtually overnight, the world had become a much more brutal and impersonal place; for many it was a kind of nightmare from which there was no waking. (For a fuller picture, read Charles Dickens’s Hard Times.)
Political context: The Communist Manifesto
There were many theories put forth about how to deal with the problems caused by the industrial revolution. The most famous and influential is that propounded in The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which masterfully plays on the desperation of urban industrial workers. Adapting philosopher G. F. Hegel’s theory of historical dialectic, they radically transformed it into a view of human history in which, in every age, there is a small, wealthy, and powerful overclass that owns all the land and lords it over a vast, wretched, and powerless underclass who own nothing and have no power over the conditions of their own lives. According to this theory, historically a segment of the downtrodden underclass slowly gains power and eventually becomes the new overlord class; in this way, slowly over time the overlord class is overthrown by those rising out of the underclass, and those who had been slaves/serfs/workers become the new oppressive overlords. The contemporary power class, say Marx and Engels, was the bourgeoisie, the middle class that rose out of the peasantry in the Middle Ages and now owned the factories or “means of production.”
The Manifesto asserts that the only way to make the world better is to break this inexorable cycle, by destroying all class and building a new, classless society. The Manifesto incites workers to recognize their collective power, to rise up and overthrow the middle class by violent means, destroying not only the “bourgeoisie” or “capitalists” (owners of factories, or the means of producing wealth) but also every aspect of the entire culture in which they have flourished. This would require violent revolution everywhere in the world, the destruction of all existing culture, in order to create a “blank slate” on which a new, classless culture could be created, which would span the entire globe, and in which all means of production would be owned in common, thus avoiding divisive class structure.
To create this new, classless culture, all trace of the old, stratified class structure must be obliterated. To achieve this the architects of the new society would need to control all ideas and dissemination of ideas; therefore, they would need to destroy or control: religion, education, art and literature, all means of publication and communication, and the family as the basic unit of society. This is why the revolution had to be global and total, as any competing ideologies could infiltrate the new society being constructed and exercise a subversive influence. The Manifesto insists that reform of the existing conditions, propounded by competing socialist theories of the time, would not suffice; only total, violent revolution would secure the conditions for building the new society.
The call to arms presented in the Manifesto instigated a variety of violent revolts around Europe, appealing as it did to the unrest and frustration of workers in many places. And, of course, several years after Pope Leo promulgated Rerum Novarum, it would give rise to a successful, organized revolution in Russia and, later still, in China.
Religious context: The Church’s denunciation of Modernism
It may be useful to compare the encyclical Rerum Novarum to an earlier papal document, the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX (1864). Both documents respond to ideas gaining force in the modern world, but the way they address them (it seems to me) is quite different. The Syllabus is a response to certain intellectual ideas gaining prominence and respectability, which the Church determined not only to be erroneous but also to be damaging to the role of the Church in society. Many have characterized it as a reactionary document. (A good discussion of the Syllabus may be found here on the website of Catholic Answers magazine.)
The Catholic Encyclopedia sums up the significance of the Syllabus in this way (emphasis added):
The importance of the Syllabus lies in its opposition to the high tide of that intellectual movement of the nineteenth century which strove to sweep away the foundations of all human and Divine order. The Syllabus is not only the defence of the inalienable rights of God, of the Church, and of truth against the abuse of the words freedom and culture on the part of unbridled Liberalism, but it is also a protest, earnest and energetic, against the attempt to eliminate the influence of the Catholic Church on the life of nations and of individuals, on the family and the school. In its nature, it is true, the Syllabus is negative and condemnatory; but it received its complement in the decisions of the [first] Vatican Council and in the Encyclicals of Leo XIII. It is precisely its fearless character that perhaps accounts for its influence on the life of the Church towards the end of the nineteenth century; for it threw a sharp, clear light upon reef and rock in the intellectual currents of the time.
One of the encyclicals that served as “complement” to this defensive document is Leo’s Rerum Novarum, which is pro-active rather than reactive, practical rather than theoretical. That is, it strives to demonstrate the value of religion to modern society and to propose constructive, rather than destructive, ways to deal with the very real problems created by the conditions of modern industrial society, to argue for the social benefits of the Church rather than to assert the political force of the Church. Much as The Communist Manifesto urged a practical application of Marx’s political theory, Pope Leo’s encyclical offered a practical application of Christian charity to the problems of the modern world. Perhaps because of this, it was well received and exerted a widespread and lasting beneficial influence on society in the Western world.
That being said, let’s start reading Rerum Novarum. First reading: paragraphs 1-25. I’ll supply a summary, analysis, and commentary. Readers may pitch in by posting comments on my post. Please do contribute, as I do not pretend to be an expert and will certainly not be able to give a definitive reading. Collaboration is not only invited but encouraged! Expect to see my post on the first 25 paragraphs by Sunday, 4 November.
And of course your comments, corrections, amendments, and other response to the present post is also invited.