Before I get into the meat of the matter, let me get one thing off my chest: while the original, Latin title of this document is Rerum Novarum (the genitive form of res novae, which is itself plural), translating it into English as “Concerning New Things,” as has sometimes been done, is not only wrong, but misleading. First, let me explain why it is wrong, from a purely linguistic point of view. From ancient times, the Latin phrase res novae has meant “revolution” (the literal, violent kind, not the figurative kind as in “revolutionary new toothpaste!”); yes, the word “res” means “thing(s)” (same spelling singular or plural) and the adjective novae means “new” (plural, feminine), but when you put them together they mean revolution. (This meaning did not change from the time of Cicero until the present.) “Rerum novarum,” being the genitive form of “res novae” means “of revolution.”
You may know that, as is usual with papal encyclicals, the official title (Latin) is taken from the first phrase of the document in its original language. You see this in the first sentence of the official English translation of the document: “That the spirit of revolutionary change, which has long been disturbing the nations of the world, …” Notice that the “official” English title of the document is usually something like “Concerning the Conditions of Labor,” which sums up what the document is about, rather than translating the opening phrase.
Now, why does this matter, if you’re just a reader and not a linguistic scholar geek? I would say it matters because it misleads the reader regarding the tone and subject of the encyclical. It is not just a rejection of “new things” but a refutation of the Socialist/Marxist claim that workers can find justice only through violent revolution, destroying the bourgeois class, stealing their property so that it can be “redistributed” or held “for the collective” by a socialist State, etc. To call this document “Of New Things” is to suggest that it is a reactionary, “anti-progressive” document (a charge often levied also against Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors), rejecting new notions simply because they are new, which is not the case at all. Far from being reactionary, this encyclical is itself “revolutionary” (in the figurative sense of changing the way we think about things) and proactive, in that it is perhaps the first encyclical intended to address problems pertinent to the world at large, rather than the Church per se. Pope Leo could see things heading off down a dangerously wrong path, and wanted to help steer them back in a better direction. He also wanted to demonstrate that the world needs the Church as a civilizing influence.
Prophetic rejection of socialist principles
And, as history has shown, P. Leo was absolutely right about the Socialist project, as we have already seen in the dismal failure of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or the “Communist Union”). Dragging everyone down to the same level was demoralizing and made workers much less productive. When I was a teenager, I took part in a summer program called the American Citizenship Seminar; the keynote speaker that week was Dr. Nicholas Nyaradi, former Hungarian Minister of Finance, who had survived the Communist takeover of his country by hiding for weeks in the cellar of a bombed out building and then escaped to the United States, where he became a well-known public speaker about the evils of Communism and, later, worked for the U.S. State Department. I didn’t know anything about politics in those days, but I remember vividly Dr. Nyaradi’s tales of the way Soviet Socialism brainwashed the citizenry to believe that they were lucky to live in the miserable conditions that prevailed there, convincing them that people in capitalist countries were much worse off. (Take a look at this video of Dr. Nyaradi speaking on U.S. television about the conditions in which people lived behind the Iron Curtain.)
In the 1980s, when Communism was clearly on its last legs in the USSR, they tried an experiment in allowing some of the thousands of collective farms to benefit directly from their own farm’s productivity (something like share-cropping?). They found that farm workers who were paid a percentage of their farm’s output worked harder and were happier, as well as being much more productive – so the experiment was a success, right? No, because workers at neighboring farms – the more “traditional” collective farms, where there was no incentive to excel – despised their productive neighbors, attacked them, destroyed their equipment, etc. Striving to excel may be laudable in a free society, but under socialism it was considered … well, anti-social. The experiment was abandoned.
Anyone paying any attention at all these days will know that in countries where socialism (a.k.a. communism) is still in place — Vietnam, N. Korea, China, Cuba – people live in miserable conditions. In recent years, starvation has been a terrible problem in Vietnam and N. Korea, for instance, while China has been able to avoid starvation so far only by such brutal and barbaric measures as their despicable “one child” policy. My point is simply that Pope Leo, writing more than 25 years before the Bolshevik revolution, was prophetic in foreseeing the evils that would be produced by enactment of socialist political theory.
What I find saddest about reading Rerum Novarum is that many of the ideas upon which Pope Leo based his argument – those taken from natural law – are even more embattled today than they were more than one hundred years ago: the sanctity of human life, marriage, the family. In fact, natural law theory itself, which dates back to the philosophy of ancient Greece, has been written off by contemporary secularists as being religion thinly veiled. You will not find any pubic figure or pundit who denigrates religion yet embraces Natural Law theory, whereas in Pope Leo’s day one could easily be agnostic or even an atheist and still appreciate the Natural Law.
This discrepancy is due, at least in part, to the deeply pervasive Darwinian view of the human person as merely a highly-evolved animal, with no special “nature” setting him above other intelligent primates. In fact, in countries such as Spain (where socialism has been given pretty free reign over the last 30 years), laws have even been passed granting apes equal rights with humans; at the same time, the family has been all but destroyed by laws liberalizing divorce, granting children “rights” to sue their parents, denying parental rights when minor children seek abortion or contraception, and now, in many places, redefining marriage to include civil unions between same-sex couples.
Yet natural law still obtains
However, if you take another look at Leo’s reasoning, it still makes sense: no matter how vehemently you try to claim that a gorilla is pretty much the same as a man, no gorilla is able to plan for the future, cultivate land, or provide for its children and grandchildren. Gorilla households will not be counted on any nation’s census, nor will any gorilla go to court to divorce its mate nor contact its congressional representative to demand better roads, lower taxes, or greater respect for gorillas. Clearly, human beings are different from highly-evolved apes; our intelligence differs from that of apes not just quantitatively but qualitatively, and 99.99% of people not living in mental institutions would recognize this.
To anyone reading these words who recognizes that men differ from apes in some real way, it should be clear that that Leo is right when he says that man is prior to the state – i.e., there can be no “State” without people. Actually, this is true even if you do conflate apes and men – even gorilla herds have a leader, and there can be no leader without someone to lead, no government without someone to govern. So at least with regard to temporal progression, we must concede that the human individual comes before the government; does that mean that we must recognize the more figurative precedence or priority of man over State, i.e., that the human individual is of greater importance, sanctity, significance than the faceless State? You will find cultures that do not necessarily affirm this kind of human priority – but, then, they tend to be places where Socialism has gotten a firm hold (see those listed above); and, perhaps, those where socialism or some other brand of brutal totalitarianism may yet get a grip.
When differences are not respected
Another important idea that P. Leo brings up which has gotten lost in recent decades, at least in the United States, is the need for a just society to provide honorable employment for people of all kinds of talents and abilities. Before so many manufacturing jobs were shipped overseas, before menial jobs were relegated to illegal aliens, before all high school students were brainwashed to believe that they had to invest the time and expense required by a college education, before children began to be aborted for possessing the wrong gene or having too many chromosomes, we accepted this truth. But now we just try to crush everyone down into the same cookie-cutter molds and churn out the “educational product” that the market demands. When we can’t produce the kinds of workers “needed,” we either export the jobs or import the workers – forget about our own people who need honorable employment.
Saved from Socialism, but not from Capitalism?
The fact is, however, that many of the ideas put forward in Rerum Novarum did make a difference for the better, encouraging employers to create better working conditions, providing better compensation and paid leave. The idea that workers and employees are necessarily at odds with one another has, I hope, been put to rest. However, all those improvements have created a new kind of wage (or salary) slavery. These days Americans, at least, are more affected by the extremes of capitalism than those of socialism. Most Americans, it seems, are employed by huge, faceless mega-corporations which have been granted legal status as “persons” (although unborn individual human beings are not); salaried workers are often required to be on call virtually around the clock and are tethered to their jobs by computers and smartphones even when they are on vacation. Workers theoretically accrue days off that they are never allowed to actually take off. One guy I know has to threaten to quit in order to get a few days’ vacation approved. While, of course, infamously, the heads of these megacorps are pulling in obscene salaries and bonuses – even when they do a lousy job. Even if they tank the business.
Here in America the American dream has become, for many, a nightmare. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but just about everyone I know who has a job (and many do not) is so overworked and overstressed that they dream of being able to quit and do something, anything, else. Those of us who have lost our jobs are enjoying the time to recuperate from the job stress (even as we deal with the no-job stress), and we’re not really eager to leap back into it by becoming employed again. Many of us would be happy to make do with less pay if we could just have better lives (no, that doesn’t necessarily mean a new car every two years, and the latest high-tech gadgets in every room of our oversized homes). “Homeowners” don’t actually own their homes, the banks do. And in many of those zero-lot-line suburban homes, many are once again dreaming of owning enough land to raise a few vegetables and a couple of goats and chickens, far from the madding crowd (perhaps Candidewas right, in the end?).
In my analysis of this section of Rerum Novarum I said, “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.” That was true in 1891 and it’s still true today, but unfortunately the modern world has lost all respect for natural law and natural justice. Our laws no longer enshrine justice, they just enshrine legality, which is by no means the same thing. (Need examples? Oh, don’t get me started! I’ll bet you can think of five unjust laws before drawing your next breath.)
Clearly, Pope Leo was right to suggest that the world needs religion to keep it on course, because our rational human nature is also fallen human nature and, left to our own devices, we will make a Hell on earth for ourselves, be it a socialist or a capitalist Hell. The more the Church is marginalized and scorned, the more She is needed to help bind up our wounds and put us back on our feet, on the right path. Well, let’s read on, and see what else the good pope has to tell us. Maybe he’ll have something that will speak to our twenty-first century woes. Up next: paragraphs 26-42.