Rerum Novarum: On the Condition of the Working Classes

This encyclical helped change the world for the better.

Rerum Novarum was the first papal encyclical to address not only the bishops of the Church but all people of goodwill. No one could deny that the world was in a terrible state — as modern life moved swiftly away from its agrarian roots and rushed into a new technological age, the value of individual human life and effort depreciated quickly — but the only “solution” to the world’s problems  seemed, to many, to be the one proposed in the Communist Manifesto.

I first encountered Rerum Novarum when I was teaching a class on the Western cultural tradition and I wanted my students to see that (to use Hegelian terms that Marx and Engels would appreciate) there is a Christian antithesis that responds to the Marxist thesis. (The world is still waiting for a synthesis that will move us forward.)

Socialism was the only “big idea” that seemed to address the economic problems of the modern world, and desperate people (as well as political opportunists) were grasping eagerly at the Marxist straw. The socialist claim that violence, robbery, and cultural annihilation were the nasty medicine necessary to cure the world’s problems. But Pope Leo, wielding the authority of the Vicar of Christ, gave that claim that lie in this world-changing encyclical. Relying on natural law and humane reasoning, Leo reminds us what life is all about and proposes, not a revolutionary program, but a sane set of principles that could help the modern world — or any age, really — address its present troubles and build a better future: solidarity, subsidiarity, and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, nurtured in the natural family, which is the basic unit of any society.

Many characterize Rerum Novarum as simply a document that addresses the condition of workers and gives a rationale for things such as trade unions and a minimum wage, but I believe it is much more than that. It is the first document to enunciate clear philosophical principles that can, and should, allow us to build a world in which all may prosper, irrespective of creed, class, or condition. I think everyone should read Rerum Novarum — not only Catholics or even other Christians, but anyone. Reading this document carefully, pondering its reasoning deeply, any reader will find much food for thought, matter for reflection, and cause for hope — if only enough of us internalize its message and act on that understanding.

The list below contains all posts that focus particularly on this encyclical. Other posts which refer to Catholic Social Teaching more generally may be found here.

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 ...
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Rerum Novarum §1-25: Summary

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 ...
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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 ...
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Rerum Novarum §1-25: Analysis

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 ...
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Rerum Novarum §1-25: Commentary

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 ...
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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 ...
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Rerum Novarum §26-42: Summary

[On the respective roles of Church and State in the lives of citizens] [26]The Church’s role is not merely to teach what is right, but to influence the hearts ...
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Vatican Radio interview on the significance of Rerum Novarum

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 ...
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Rerum Novarum in Australia: “Putting the common good back into the Commonwealth”

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 ...
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Rerum Novarum §26-42: Analysis

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 ...
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Have we failed to learn the lessons in Rerum Novarum?

Here’s an article that highlights the ways in which the tenets of socialism have invaded modern society, even where the government is not overtly or structurally socialistic (communist). We ...
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Want a better world? Read Rerum Novarum

Who would have guessed that a papal encyclical with an untranslatable Latin title would change not just the Church but the world? Remember the Year of Faith decreed by Pope ...
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Rerum Novarum in context

Res Novae Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical Rerum Novarum at the end of the nineteenth century. The previous hundred years had seen a huge upheaval in the way people ...
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Rerum Novarum, §1-11: A natural law defense of private ownership

As I start looking at Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII’s famous 1891 encyclical, I’ll first summarize/paraphrase what the encyclical says, paragraph by paragraph, then analyze the way Pope Leo ...
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