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Category: Rerum Novarum (page 2 of 2)

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.

Tell me what you think

Rerum Novarum §26-42: Summary

[On the respective roles of Church and State in the lives of citizens]

Catholic Social Teaching
[26]The Church’s role is not merely to teach what is right, but to influence the hearts and minds of men so that they willingly act according to their duty, control their passions and appetites, love God and their fellow man, and cultivate virtue. [27] History shows many examples of civil society being revived and restored by Christian institutions, restoring all things in Christ. If society today is to be healed, this can happen only by a return to Christian life and the principles upon which it was built. [28] The Church is not so preoccupied with men’s spiritual well-being that she has no concern for his material good; on the contrary, she deeply desires that the poor may better themselves and, by urging Christian morality, she helps men avoid the greed of possession and the thirst for pleasure, resulting in social equity and temporal prosperity that are pleasing to God. [29] The Church does not merely teach virtue, but also acts directly to alleviate the suffering of the poor, which even her enemies have praised throughout her history. [30] Yet now there are those who blame, rather than praise, the Church for her care of the poor and the suffering, claiming that this is not the Church’s job, but the job of the State. But the State will never display the heroic devotion and self-sacrifice of Christian charity, a virtue which can be nurtured only in the Church and drawn from the Sacred Hear of Jesus Christ.

[31] Nonetheless, the agencies of the Church and those of civil society should be united in their common concern, so that the greatest good can be achieved. Therefore we should consider what role the State can justly play in providing relief. [32] The State, properly speaking, refers not to any particular form of government but to any government conformable to right reason, natural law, and the dictates of Divine law, as set out in the encyclical On the Christian Constitution of the State [see also Catholic Encyclopedia online]. Its chief duty is to make sure that its laws and institutions promote and protect public well-being and private prosperity; this being so, it should promote everything that makes its citizens better and happier, including public morality, well-ordered family life, respect for religion and justice, moderate taxation, productive use of land, etc. If these things are seen to, there will be fewer poor and less need for public relief.

[33] The State should recognize that all parts of society must be well regulated and well served, and therefore should not favor the rich over the poor, but provide distributive justice toward each and every social class alike. [34] Although it is right to honor those who directly serve the State, public servants engaged in legislation and administration of the government, nonetheless it must be recognized that the commonwealth could not prosper without the contributions of the laboring class, through whose efforts the State prospers. Therefore, whatever promotes the welfare of workers is good for the society as a whole, and should be favored.

[35] While, as we have said, the State must not absorb the individual or the family, nonetheless it should show a paternal interest in the well-being of its individual members, just as it should safeguard the commonwealth as a whole. [36] Since the State’s responsibility is to secure the public good, it may intervene in public or private affairs when that general good is threatened by circumstances or events; for instance, when workers are not afforded time to carry out familial or religious duties, or if they are required to work in unhealthy or immoral conditions, or if a threatened labor strike would endanger the public peace. In such cases, the law may intervene, provided that it do no more than required to remedy the situation.

[37] While all legitimate human rights must be protected by law, the poor and the needy should be especially protected, since they have no resources to fall back on as the rich do, aside from the State’s assistance. [38]  Nonetheless, the right to private property must be protected by law, nor should private property be seized and redistributed under pretext of justice. [39] The State should ensure humane working conditions and reasonable pay, in order to forestall workers’ strikes, because the disruptions caused by strikes are injurious to the public peace.

closed Sunday for family and worship
[40] The State should also protect the working man’s spiritual good, for his duty to God is sacred. To interfere with a man’s duty toward God is to violate God’s rights, not just man’s. [41] Therefore, Sundays and holy days should be days of rest, which allow man to turn his attention from mundane concerns to the worship he owes to God.

[42] The human condition of workers should be respected, in such a way that they are not used simply as tools to create profit for their greedy employers. Therefore, the hours and conditions of work should not be so taxing as to work men beyond their endurance, nor should women and children be required to work as long or as hard as grown men, and all workers should be given enough time off to recuperate from their labors. Even if workers and employers should agree on conditions that would make no allowance for man’s duty to God and himself, doing so would be wrong.

Lincoln and Leo: Substantial agreement

I saw this image on a certain well-known social networking site, and found it remarkable that Abraham Lincoln’s view of human nature and natural justice seems so much in accord with the Church’s view as articulated in Rerum Novarum. What do you think?

Rerum Novarum §1-25: Commentary

Political cartoon of workers uniting to make one giant fist

Res Novae

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.

Starving children in North Korea

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.

Embattled truths

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.

Gorilla lounging near a soccer ball

An ape enjoying his human rights.

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?

Penci sharpened at both ends. Overworked: No matter how much work you do, the bastards will give you more.

You may be well-paid, but you work like a slave.

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.

Rerum Novarum §1-25: Analysis

Leo XIII Rerum Novarum quote

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.

Catholic Social Teaching gaining political traction in the UK?

Gap between rich and poor
growing fastest in Britain

This recent article on the BBC News web site suggests that British citizens sick of the corrupt state of politics and culture in their country and looking for ethical guidance are turning to Catholic social teaching for inspiration. Why? Matthew Taylor writes:

I set out to understand more about these ideas, to find out why they are engaging so many different groups of people right now, and whether their current influence is likely to make any substantive difference to policy or politics.

Although its roots can be traced back not just to the Bible, but to the ideas of Aristotle, rediscovered in the 13th Century by St Thomas Aquinas, the modern expression of Catholic Social Teaching came in an encyclical – the highest form of papal teaching – titled Rerum Novarum and issued in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII.

The Pope offered the “gift” of Catholic social thought to a troubled world. He called on the one hand for compassion for the poor and respect for the dignity of labour and, on the other hand, for respect for property and the family – all held together by the core idea of the common good.

The encyclical can be seen as the Church both realigning itself towards the concerns of the urban working-class, but also seeking to find a path of reform as an alternative to the growing threat of revolutionary unrest. These origins offer one explanation for the current revival of interest in these ideas. For today too we live in a time of rapid change and social unrest.

It is heartening to think that Pope Leo’s gift to a trouble world may keep on giving in our own day. Read more.

Rerum Novarum §1-25: Summary

CTS Rerum Novarum cover

For ease of reading, analysis and commentary will be posted separately from the summary. Numbers indicated in brackets correspond to the paragraphs of the translation found on the Vatican archive web site.

[1] Revolutionary change is no longer a mere theory but is now getting practical application in increased antagonism between workers and their employers. People at every level of society are consumed with these problems. [2] Since there are many different opinions about what should be done about the growing tension between workers and employers, it seems expedient for the Church to offer guidance by pointing out the principles that should guide public deliberations on the proper relationship between workers and employers. [3] No one would deny that, ever since the ancient trade guilds were abolished, working men have increasingly been taken advantage of by their employers, the powerless many being treated like slaves by a powerful and wealthy few. [4] The socialist “solution” is to do away with private property altogether so that no one can become rich and powerful, but this would actually result in much worse conditions for everyone – not too mention the fact that this “solution” is itself grossly unjust.

[5] Anyone who offers his labor for wages is seeking, besides the bare means of survival, to have a little savings, which for security’s sake he may invest in land. Private property, then, is simply a man’s saved wages given durable form. So when the socialists propose to do away with private property, they are depriving the working man of the right to invest his savings and making a better life for himself. [6] The socialist proposal also strips man of his humanity; unlike the beast who looks only to survive for the moment, man’s rational nature allows him to look to the future and to plan for its needs; therefore it is only human to wish to secure durable, stable possessions that will serve man’s needs not just for today but in the future. [7] In order to do this, a man must have not only the use but also the possession of  land that will supply his needs. Since man precedes the State, he has the right to provide for his own needs, without intervention of the State.

[8] Even when the earth is parceled out to particular private owners, it still serves the needs of all, since those who are not landowners nevertheless procure the fruits of the earth with the wages earned as remuneration for their labor. So private ownership of property does not interfere with anyone’s opportunity to enjoy the fruits of that property. [9] Land is most fruitful when man cultivates it by means of his own ingenuity and toil; when he does so, he truly makes the land his own, and it is only just that he should, in fact, own it. [10] Therefore, to deny private ownership of property is to steal from a man the fruits of his own labor. [11] Private ownership of property, then, is just, according to natural law, and according to all just civil law. Moreover, divine law severely forbids coveting what belongs to another.

[12] So far we have been talking about just the individual man, but the argument becomes even more compelling if we consider man in his domestic context, i.e., as a husband and father. No human law can abolish the rights and obligations of marriage and the family. The family, in fact, is the most basic society, and precedes the State. [13] Since nature makes a man the head of, and chief provider for, his family, and since it is natural for a father to want his children to be able to carry on when he himself is gone, it is right that he should be able to provide an inheritance of property. And since the family precedes the State, its rights also precede those of the State; anyone who would deny this is detestable. [14] Therefore, the socialist idea that the State can interfere in the internal relations of the family is both wrong and unjust, although if a family is in such distress that it finds itself helpless and friendless, the family should be given public aid, since it forms part of the common wealth. Similarly, public authority should intervene when a household suffers from grave internal disturbance, in order to make each party behave justly, but these extremes are the only cases in which the State may intervene. So the socialist idea that the state can usurp the father’s place in governing the family violates natural justice and destroys the home.

[15] It is plain, then, that the socialist plan is destructive and unnatural. If the conditions of the masses are to be improved, the right to private property must be respected. Let’s consider what sort of remedy would be more just and effective. [16] It is appropriate for the Church to weigh in on this matter, since it is her task instruct men in how to live well, and She Herself cares for the poor and works for the good of all. [17] First of all, we must take into account human nature, which the socialists seem to ignore or pretend they can change by making all men equal. The fact is that all men are not the equal, with respect to natural abilities and proclivities. A just society provides opportunities for each man to take part in the way in which he is best able, and which suits him best. [18] Similarly, the socialists are lying or deluded when they promise that they can build a perfect world, free from suffering and injustice, and it is cruel for them to promise what can never be.

[19] One of the biggest errors of the socialists is to insist that the classes are naturally and inevitably hostile to one another – when, in fact, just the opposite is true. The classes need each other, for capital can do nothing without labor, and labor likewise needs capital. And both need the Church to help them act justly toward each other. [20] Workers must be dutiful in carrying out the labor for which they have willingly contracted, and they should behave with respect toward their employer and his property. Likewise, employers should respect the human dignity of workers, paying them a just wage and allowing them time to fulfill their familial and religious obligations. By no means may they take advantage of a man’s neediness to satisfy their own greed, nor should they manufacture ways to deduct from a man’s just wages. In fact, because the worker has such scanty means, those means should all the more be respected. These basic principles alone, if followed scrupulously, would suffice to maintain good relations between labor and capital.

[21] But the Church, following her Master, can do better than this, because She reminds men that God has created them for better things than what this earthly life can offer. Since we are just passing through this life on our way to eternal rewards, we should not cling to riches and other worldly goods, but simply use well whatever we have, be it little or much. Christ, by his own suffering, did not eliminate human suffering and toil, but transformed them into opportunities for virtue. [22] So the wealthy should beware lest worldly riches become an obstacle to eternal happiness, and should give generously of their surplus to those who have little. Whoever has been given much, in wealth, talent, or skill, should use it for the benefit of others. [23] And those who have little should remember that there is no shame in poverty, since Christ Himself became poor for our sakes. [24] The true worth of a man is in his virtue, which can be attained by rich and poor alike and will win for them both eternal happiness. In fact, God seems to prefer the poor and lowly, always showing them tender love, so the rich should be generous in giving and the poor should not be grasping. [25] If the rich and the poor alike keep these Christian precepts in mind, they will be bound together in bonds of love and brotherhood, realizing that they are both sons of God and co-heirs of Christ. Strife between the classes would cease if everyone bore these things in mind.

Rerum Novarum: Background and Context

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

Women and children worked fourteen hours a day in dangerous conditions

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

Communist Revolution poster: Workers of the world, unite!

The last line of the Communist Manifesto
calls all workers everywhere
to unite in revolution.

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

Pope Pius IX

Blessed Pope Pius IX, author of the Syllabus of Errors

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.