A series reading, summarizing, and commenting on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, generally considered the founding document of the Catholic Social Teaching tradition.
Category: Rerum Novarum (page 1 of 2)
Remember the Year of Faith decreed by Pope Benedict XVI? It began in October 2012, coinciding with the height of the political season here in the United States, as we prepared for national elections. I’ll admit I was, then as now, rather jaded about our national politics — we seem usually to have a choice between “bad” and “even worse.” At the time, I entertained a little pipe dream about a political party that would be founded on the principles of Catholic social teaching, emphasizing subsidiarity, solidarity, and the inherent dignity of the human person.
I still think it would be a capital idea. In fact, I think a lot of people, in addition to Catholics, could get behind a party that promoted these key principles:
- Subsidiarity — the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or most local competent authority, beginning with the family itself, the nucleus of society. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.
- Solidarity means that we stand together for the common good. The poor, the weak, and the oppressed are not “other” than us, but our brothers and sisters. One person or group must not prosper at the expense of others.
- The principle of human dignity acknowledges that each human life, from the moment it springs into existence until natural death, is endowed with inestimable value which must be acknowledged and respected. There are no “worthless” people who may be discarded or denied opportunities because others find them useless or unprofitable.
Now, I don’t want to get into political polemics on this blog — that sort of thing generally produces more heat than light — but I would like to discuss a document that first brought those three principles, the core of Catholic Social Teaching, to the attention of the world at large. So I’m going to re-publish here on this blog a series of posts that first appeared on a different blog that I created back in the Year of Faith, in which I read, analyze, and comment on Rerum Novarum, an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII which has come to be known as the foundational document of Catholic Social Teaching.
Making the modern world a better place
Rerum Novarum (1891) was the first of a long string of papal encyclicals that set out the principles of a Christian response to the problems of the modern world. It addressed problems that were experienced by many people throughout the world, irrespective of creed or country, and thus had a much broader audience than papal writings generally do. Pope Leo XIII, in writing Rerum Novarum, offered a direct response to the Marxist call for revolution, which was firing the imaginations of many who sought to “free workers from their chains” of industrial servitude. In the Communist Manifesto, published almost fifty years earlier, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had insisted that the only solution to the world’s problems was the violent destruction of existing culture, beginning with the warfare of workers against the owners of industry. Their Manifesto struck a deep chord, and many thought it presented the answer to the wretched working conditions under which many people labored in the newly-industrialized world.
Pope Leo wanted to remind the people — Catholics and others — that the destruction called for by the socialists was not the way to build a better world. He proposes a better way for workers and employers to enjoy mutual prosperity, based on mutual respect and a sense of decency. Many ideas P. Leo enunciates in this encyclical have, in fact, had enormous influence in the century or so since it was written — the world is a better place than it would have been without Rerum Novarum.
You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate Catholic social teaching
From the promulgation of Rerum Novarum up to the present day, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has never been just for Catholics, any more than the concepts of charity and the common good are restricted to Catholics. Shortly before our last round of national elections, in an article on the website of the Acton Institute, two Protestants, one Baptist and one Reformed, praise Catholic Social Teaching and its articulation by American bishops in this political season. Hunter Baker and Jordan Ballor wrote:
For people of faith, and even for people of no particular faith whatsoever, CST represents a praiseworthy model for responsible civil engagement in a diverse and plural culture. The tradition of social encyclicals was inaugurated just over 120 years ago with the promulgation of Rerum Novarum (Of the New Things)* by Pope Leo XIII, which focused on the problem of poverty and social upheaval in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. This encyclical ushered in an era of sustained and substantive reflection on the social implications of the Catholic faith in the modern world, continued by a long line of noteworthy publications, papers, books, conferences, and debates. The most recent social encyclical appeared from the current bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2009 under the title Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), which deals with (among other things) the challenges and opportunities of globalization and economic and political instability.
[*I’ll have something to say about the title of this encyclical — and the reasons “Of New Things” is such a wretchedly inappropriate translation — in a later post.]
They go on to cite several tenets of Catholic Social Teaching as being of especial importance in the current political campaigns: subsidiarity, solidarity, and religious liberty. In conclusion they say:
To the extent that the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church reflect truth about the human person and society, they represent a boon to our broader social life as well as a challenge for other traditions to think as deeply and responsibly about the social implications of our respective faiths. The American political scene is better off for having Catholic Social Teaching, and faithful Catholics, involved in the public square.
Rerum Novarum and the current political season
As we approach another round of national elections, we all should be thinking about what is best for our country. I think reading and reflecting on Rerum Novarum is one good way to get us all thinking about the principles that should be guiding our political choices, and, more generally, our lives in modern society.
If you would like to read Rerum Novarum along with me, there are two different English translations freely available on the Internet. One (which I think is the more readable of the two) may be found on the New Advent web site; the second is more widely available (although slightly less readable, in my opinion) and can be found in many places on the internet, including the Vatican web site. If you would like a free version that can be read on a mobile device or ereader, you can download in Epub or Mobi (Kindle) format from Papal Encyclicals Online.
In my next post on this subject, I’ll provide some background to set this work in context, so that we’ll have a better idea of what prompted Pope Leo to write Rerum Novarum. In later posts, I will summarize and comment on the document section by section. I must point out that I am by no means an expert on Catholic social teaching or papal encyclicals — I am simply an educated Catholic who wishes to gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of the Church’s treasury of wisdom, so that I can live a more effective witness in the world. I welcome comments, corrections, and other insight from anyone who cares to comment on Rerum Novarum, particularly those who have a more thorough knowledge and understanding than I.
If you’d like to know more about subsidiarity, a key principle in Catholic social teaching, check out this great video from CatholicVote.org.
©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas
In this week’s selection, the encyclical continues making the case for the Church’s legitimate and beneficent role in society, not competing but cooperating with the State for the common good. And, indeed, Pope Leo cannot refrain from pointing out that the Church, motivated by Christian charity, can and will go much further than the State in alleviating the suffering of the poor, in both their spiritual and their material needs. Not only that, but She influences the hearts and minds of citizens also to desire to do good toward their fellows. So governments should not seek to marginalize religion, because it helps the State do its legitimate job, i.e., maintain a safe environment in which all its citizens may prosper.
This view of the nature of government, and the Church’s relationship to it, is laid out more fully in Leo’s encyclical Immortale Dei (“On the Christian Constitution of the State). The third paragraph of that document sums it up nicely:
It is not difficult to determine what would be the form and character of the State were it governed according to the principles of Christian philosophy. Man’s natural instinct moves him to live in civil society, for he cannot, if dwelling apart, provide himself with the necessary requirements of life, nor procure the means of developing his mental and moral faculties. Hence it is divinely ordained that he should lead his life, be it family, social, or civil, with his fellow-men, amongst whom alone his several wants can be adequately supplied. But as no society can hold together unless someone be over all, directing all to strive earnestly for the common good, every civilized community must have a ruling authority, and this authority, no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has consequently God for its author. Hence it follows that all public power must proceed from God. For God alone is the true and supreme Lord of the world. Everything without exception must be subject to Him, and must serve Him, so that whosoever holds the right to govern, holds it from one sole and single source, namely God, the Sovereign Ruler of all. “There is no power but from God.”
Thus, both the Church and the State ultimately serve God. Not only that, but some kind of State (i.e., governing structure) is necessary and natural if individuals and society as a whole are to prosper.
Once the case for the Church and her agencies has been made, the encyclical goes on to delineate the State’s legitimate role in ordering society. First, it is pointed out that it is in the State’s best interest to see to it that its laws and institutions allow people to live good lives, as this will promote peace and the common good. In particular, the State should see to it that the rights of the working class are protected, since they make up the bulk of society and their labor serves the whole of society. In other words, it would be foolish and impractical to allow workers to be victimized by their wealthy employers, because without a healthy working class everything would grind to a halt.
Still, the State’s job seems to be, not to interfere in and manage the daily lives of its citizens, but to see that justice prevails in public and private matters. That is, it should stand by in case things go wrong, or appear to be about to go wrong, and to intervene only when necessary to avoid a breakdown (such as work stoppages or riots) in the normal operations of society and industry, and only until peace and justice have been restored, which would include addressing the causes of such disturbances — e.g., the lamentable conditions that drive workers to strike. Bearing in mind the dangerous ideas put forth by Socialists, Leo also addresses specifically acts of class warfare that would violate justice, such as workers’ seizing the property of the owners of capital, as well as greedy capitalists’ treatment of workers as wage slaves in order to wring the maximum profit from their labors — either of these would be grossly unjust, and the State should guard against them.
However, the State’s role is also to safeguard the good of the individual, even when the individual might not want it to do so, much as a father must sometimes do things for his child’s good, even if the child does not recognize that action as good. So, for instance, a worker desperate to earn money might agree to poor wages, excessively long hours, or bad working conditions, but the State should not allow it. It is interesting that Leo claims that the State should safeguard not only the material well-being of its citizens, but also their moral well-being, by making sure that workers have time not only to recuperate from their labors, but also to spend time with their families and to worship. This is in accord with the Church’s view that the State “no less than society itself, has its source in nature, and has consequently God for its author.”
|Australian Senator John Madigan|
As we’ve seen in our reading so far of Rerum Novarum, one of the key ideas is that citizens — both business owners and their employees — and the State should cooperate for the common good. Injustice results when one element is favored over the other. This idea still “has legs” in our contemporary world, and it animated a lecture presented by Australian Senator John Madigan when he spoke recently during the 2012 Rerum Novarum Oration at Australian Catholic University.
The Rerum Novarum Oration is an annual event sponsored by the Office of Justice and Peace of the Melbourne Archdiocese, to commemorate Pope Leo’s encyclical as the encyclical “that formed the foundation of the Church’s social doctrine in modern times.” In addition to Senator Madigan, Dr Matthew Tan, Lecturer in Theology and Philosophy at Campion College, Sydney, also gave a keynote address.
Click here to read transcripts of the two speeches or listen to the podcasts.
Vatican Radio has begun broadcasting interviews discussing works of the Catholic Social Tradition. The first addresses Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, and includes a discussion of the context in which the first social encyclical was written, and its reception in the world at large. Click the link at the end to find the audio links to the interview.
Leo XIII: father of social encyclicals…(Vatican Radio) Leo XIII who died on the 20th July 1903 has gone down in history as the first pope ever to have written a social encyclical.
It was 1891 and the title of this document was “Rerum Novarum,” Latin words highlighting the novelty of the theme explored [sic — a misunderstanding of the title, as I pointed out in my commentary. –LN].
Veronica Scarisbrick asks Professor of Catholic Social Teaching at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas here in Rome, Dominican Father Alejandro Crosthwaite, to place this encyclical into an historical context for us.
While Father Crosthwaite explains how the Catholic Church’s concern in social issues dates back to the times of the Fathers of the Church, he also notes how this document breaks new ground. As for the first time in history a Roman Pontiff begins to realise the need to address social issues in a new way, expressing concern for the condition of workers.