The first thing to notice is that, although this document is addressed to the Bishops of the Church (as all encyclicals are), it clearly is intended for the world at large. Here Pope Leo is not instructing merely the Bishops or the Catholic faithful, but all those who recognize the problems between workers and capitalists and are concerned to find a feasible solution. The second thing to notice is that the Pope is directly refuting socialist theory – this document reads like a point-by-point refutation of The Communist Manifesto. All of the key claims and proposals of the Manifesto are shown to be erroneous and unjust: the idea that class warfare is inevitable, the proposal to eliminate private property, the notion that the State should control of the family. So the encyclical begins by saying, in essence, “Yes, there is a problem concerning the condition of workers, and something must be done, but the socialist project is not the solution.”
The second thing to notice is that the first twenty paragraphs of the encyclical base this counterargument entirely on natural law, not religious doctrine. One does not have to be a Christian to recognize that Socialist theory contravenes natural law and natural justice, and therefore cannot be expected to succeed in the long run.
The encyclical goes on to claim that ownership of private property is a natural right, basing this claim on a natural anthropology which acknowledges that what distinguishes Man from Beast is his rational nature – the ability to look toward, and plan for, the future, to think not only of his own needs but those of his posterity. One of the problems of socialism is that it tends to think of man in materialistic terms, to reduce him to an animal whose physical needs must be met without considering his moral and spiritual needs. In such a materialistic view, the family is not an intimate society but a collection of discrete individuals who cling together simply out of mutual need; if the State can meet their needs, the family can be dissolved. Leo reasserts the idea that the family has its own integrity and value.
It is worth noticing how this case is made: man (the individual) is prior to the State – this means both that there are individuals before there is any organized State, and that the individual “takes priority” over the State. When a man marries and generates children, he creates the most basic kind of society: father, mother, and children. This is “natural society,” which, again, is prior to the State, both with respect to time (there are families before there is any larger, organized society) and with respect to importance (the State serves a larger society made up of families). The claim of a “natural right” to own property is based on this understanding: a laborer’s work for wages is motivated by his desire to provide for himself and his family, not just for their present subsistence, but for their continued well-being; also, property allows a man to “make his mark,” to impress his own effort and personality on the land he cultivates, thus truly making it his own, and something that will be an inheritance for his children. To interfere with this right is to act both unnaturally and unjustly, as it would also be for the larger community (the State) to interfere with the internal governance of more basic society (the family) – except in those rare cases when the family is experiencing troubles that it cannot deal with on its own.
The encyclical continues to apply the measure of nature as it considers the makeup of the larger society, asserting that the Socialists also err when they claim to be able to make all men equal. While people may be morally equal, they are not equal with respect to abilities and talents; the just society must allow each one to contribute according to his abilities and must not impose an unnatural conformity. Not only would this violate human dignity, but it would work against any natural motivation to do well, creating instead an environment in which envy would flourish, whenever any individual did better than others. So the egalitarian society envisioned by the socialists would be, again, both unnatural and unjust.
Having pointed out the absurdity of the socialist project to reduce all men to “one dead level,” the Pope goes on to assert that the natural inequality of men is actually advantageous for society, because a well-ordered society requires many different kinds of labor and talents, allowing each person to contribute what he has been given by nature. Moreover, since hard work is natural and salutary, and suffering is inevitable, it is absurd for socialists to claim that they can build a world in which all will be free from pain and trouble.
One more key claim of the socialists, the inevitability of class hatred, is refuted. In fact, says P. Leo, quite the opposite is true: capitalists need workers, and workers need employers, so the classes are bound together by mutual need, and a just society will acknowledge this and encourage concord and mutual respect between the classes, and remind them of their duties toward each other.
All of this, the encyclical suggests, should be evident to any objective, rational person, so a just and well-ordered society is attainable just by respecting natural law and justice. But P. Leo also wants to make a case for the indispensable value of the Church in modern society, from which it was being marginalized even in his day. While natural law can show that different social classes are bound together by mutual need, only Christian charity can unite them in bonds of brotherly love and motivate them to go beyond mere duty in dealing with one another. When we realize, as Christ has taught us, that our ultimate happiness cannot be served by anything this world offers, we will not cling to wealth, comfort, and social status – the wealthy will be more generous and acknowledge their responsibility toward the less fortunate, the poor will be less envious and grasping when all recognize that Christ himself did not scorn poverty or suffering, and that their true reward is in Heaven.
In this early part of Rerum Novarum, we see that many key doctrines which have since been recognized as the pillars of Catholic Social Teaching do not depend strictly on a Christian viewpoint: subsidiarity, the inherent dignity of the human person, the primacy of the family in society, solidarity with the poor. It also touches on topics being contested in our own day, such as the nature of marriage and the family. This document has persuasive force for Christians and non-Christians alike.