The Legacy of Rerum Novarum

Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) has long been a key statement in the Church’s modern understanding of itself. For instance, Cardinal Joseph Cardijn, the founder of YCW and YCS, once recalled childhood memories of learning about the encyclical from his father who studied the letter with some of his friends. According to Henriot et al (1992), Pope Leo XIII

spoke out against the inhuman conditions which were the normal plight of working people in industrial societies. He recognized that the three key factors underlying economic life are workers, productive property, and the state. He also indicated that their just and equitable interrelationship is the crucial issue of Catholic social teaching. Because of the principles which he set forth to guide in the formation of a just society, this document has become known as the Magna Carta for a humane economic and social order. (p. 7)

Leo XIII was influenced by the work of the Fribourg Union from Germany, which was a think tank made up of concerned and articulate Catholics who were concerned about the Church’s poor responses to issues of injustice in society. The Pope was also petitioned by the bishops of England, Ireland and the United States to respond to the unjust treatment of workers in industrialized nations.

The letter written by Pope Leo XIII addressed the following areas of concern:

  • care for the poor
  • the rights of workers
  • the role of private property
  • the duties of workers and employers
  • the return to Christian morals
  • the role of public authority

In the opening part of his letter, Pope Leo XIII described the poverty of the masses and the wealth of the few; the decline of public morality; the exploitation of workers by greedy employers; and the neglect of the poor by public authorities. For example, he stated in section 3: “some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place.”

In the second part of the letter, he reflected on the following principles governing just responses to the concerns highlighted in the introduction of his letter:

  • the dignity of the human person derived from the belief that every person is created in the image of God;
  • every person is equal in dignity;
  • the ability to reason is part of human nature;
  • the end, or purpose of society is the common good of all;
  • living a moral lifestyle guarantees true dignity;
  • people are obliged to obey laws only if they conform to right reason and divine law;
  • national wealth comes from the labour of workers;
  • everyone has the right to own property, however, private property must support the common good;
  • people have the right to the fruits of their labour, but are obligated to use these fruits for the common good;
  • labour is necessary;
  • wealth hinders the journey to eternal life;
  • just ownership differs from the just use of property.

Concerning the role of the Church in dealing with injustice in industrialized societies, the Pope stated that

  • since social matters impact on religion and morality, the Church has a right to speak out.
  • the Church can help to reconcile and unite people through the application of Gospel principles.
  • the Church can educate people to act justly.

In his encyclical, the Pope addressed matters relating to the rights and duties of workers. For instance, he stated that workers had a right to the fruits of their labour, which is based on the right to work. They have a right to a just wage and to join associations of workers which uphold religious values. They also have the duty to work well, to respect the property of employers, and to avoid the use of violence and rioting to achieve their ends.

He turned his attention to employers and said that they have the right to private property and to be treated with respect, and not burdened with unjust taxes. At the same time, they had the duty to respect their workers and to treat them with dignity. They do not have the right to neglect their workers’ religious duties, nor tamper with their savings.

Finally, he addressed the role of civil law and public authorities. He stated that the rights of families must be defended and that the rights of the poor must be protected. Support for the common good is mandatory.

Henriot, Peter J., De Berri, Edward P. and Schultheis, Michael J. (1992). Catholic Social Teaching: Our Best Kept Secret. Melbourne: Collins-Dove.

The work of Leo XIII and Pius XI


About patbranson

I am a secondary school teacher employed to teach at Kolbe Catholic College, in Rockingham, Western Australia.
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