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.