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Want a better world? Read Rerum Novarum

Rerum Novarum, cover of Italian edition

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 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

Watercolor of Pope Leo XIII

Leo reminded us that violence and destruction are not the way to build a better world.

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.

Next post in this series


©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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 should not be fooled by the fact that most modern political systems these days maintain a republican form. As Gustavo Solimeo points out in this article, “A Specter is Haunting America — Socialism,” 

The very motherland of communism, the Soviet Union, called itself the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Socialism can be applied in varying degrees. Thus, in practice, there can be a difference between an incomplete application of socialism and full-blown communism, which is socialism taken to its ultimate consequences. [emphasis added]

I think too many of us in the West have become complacent, believing that socialist ideology has succeeded only in areas with a large, downtrodden peasant population. This is because we make the mistake of thinking of socialism as a political agenda, rather than a thorough-going ideology that embraces every part of culture.

Western nations may not have embraced socialism/marxism on a political level, but many have fallen prey to cultural Marxism, i.e., the attempt to undermine the political structure indirectly, through the culture. As Soleo points out,

Much more important than the political expansion of communism/socialism is the spreading of ideas and customs that are leading the world to abandon the natural order and Christian civilization.

The title of the article echoes the first line of the Communist Manifesto,  substituting America for Europe, as the land being haunted by the specter of Communism. Read the article to see the particular points on which Soleo believes America has been undermined by socialist ideology.

If Soleo is correct in his analysis (I leave it to the reader to decide), American Catholics have, by and large, failed to embrace or apply the principles set out in Rerum Novarum, the founding document of the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, which was also a direct response to the Communist Manifesto.

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 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 interview on the significance of Rerum Novarum

Pope Leo XIII, by Philip de LászlóVatican 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.

Read more. Listen to interview.

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.