Catholic Social Teaching Corner: Rerum Novarum – Where it All Began

July 29, 2012

Political discourse can harden into factions and give rise to predictable positions. As Catholics we have the living water of Church teaching and it is crucial to go to that well so that our political participation is based on Truth rather than slogans. Modern Catholic Social Teaching began with Pope Leo XIII’s great encyclical Rerum Novarum: The Condition of Labor, of 1891. The background of this teaching, the “new things” implied by the Latin title, included the enormous changes brought by industrialization and the contending systems of  Marxism and laissez-faire capitalism. In this context of change and strident claims, Pope Leo sought to draw a picture of the just society, remind the State of its duty to ensure it, and to steer a path between the extremes of socialist revolution and the unfettered market. Since the religious point of view can be lumped together with free market conservatism in our day, it is important to note that the Church had grave reservations about 19th century capitalism. Pope Leo laments that the “workingmen have been given over, isolated and defenseless, to the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition … a yoke little better than slavery itself.” (2) To counteract Marx he defends private property with true philosophical depth. Nevertheless he cautions against the misuse of material goods: “the only thing that is important is to use them aright.” (18) Cutting through shallow ideologies, he reminds his flock that human beings come before property: “the first concern of all is to save the poor workers from the cruelty of grasping speculators.” (33) Like Christ, it can be said of Pope Leo that “to the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation.” (Fourth Eucharistic Prayer)  As opposed to the condition of exploitation, the goal for all working families, especially the poor, is that their labor earn them the means – a “little estate” – to live a decent life. (4) The rights of capitalist owners are not absolute. Reminding us that the truly traditional can sound progressive, he quotes Aquinas: “Man should not consider his outward possessions his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without difficulty when others are in need.” (Summa Theologia IIaIIae, q.45, a. 2) Nor is the duty to take care of the weak merely private, as if economic life were to be left up to market forces: “If employers laid burdens upon the workmen which were unjust, or degraded them with conditions that were repugnant to their dignity as human beings … it would be right to call in the help and the authority of the law.” One might ask whether this is more an encyclical about the poor or about workers. The answer is yes to both. Promoting workers, when there were such vast numbers of them amidst the burgeoning industrial economy, was the practical way to enhance the common good and counteract social ills. “The more that is done for the working population by the general laws of the country, the less need will there be to seek for particular means to relieve them.” (26) Most famously he defends the existence of unions, declaring their formation to be a natural right, while admonishing them to give religion a proper place and to refrain from being coercive or violent. The wages of the worker are not simply a matter of private agreement between him and the managers, since this is an unequal relationship prone to abuse. The worker deserves a living wage and “If through necessity or fear of a worse evil, the worker accepts harder conditions because an employer or contractor will give him no better, he is the victim of force and injustice.” (34) One hundred twenty years later, economic structures have changed and the interventions of the magisterium tend more towards crucial matters of human life and family structure. Yet Pope Leo’s great encyclical remains as a monument to the Church’s concern for the lowliest members on the economic ladder and the duty of the society to protect people from the whim of greed and impersonal economic forces. As well, it sets the pattern for Catholic Social Teaching, which can be summed up by saying that it is not sufficient for individuals to help individuals by almsgiving. The overall goal is a more just society. Pope Leo trenchantly asks, “Were these precepts carefully obeyed and followed, would not strife die out and cease?”(17)

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