Pope Leo XIII: “Rerum Novarum” – Introduction

Last Sunday I began the transition from a consideration of the Lord’s Day to a consideration of the social teaching of the Church. My intention will not be to focus so much on actual Church teaching as to reflect on the subject from the perspective of the Lord’s Day.

Nevertheless, before I set off in that direction, I want review the teaching of Pope Leo XIII’ s foundational social encyclical “Rerum Novarum” (1891). As I mentioned last week, during the course of the 20th century the expression of the Church’s social teaching became ever more complex and convoluted as it attempted to address the situation of a society that was becoming both more complex and more secularized. “Rerum Novarum” by way of contrast stands out for the clarity of its order and principles, which will always remain foundational.

Like almost all Papal documents the title comes from the first words of the official Latin version. Here these words mean literally “Of new things” but is translated into English as ‘revolutionary change’ and into Italian as the ‘craving for novelty’. Traditionally ‘novelty’ and ‘revolution’ have not been seen as positive realities in the Catholic tradition. Novelty suggests a departure from the sacred Tradition handed down from the Apostles, while ‘revolution’ suggests the overturning of right order and legitimate authority, which derive from God. Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. (Rm 13:1)

In this case, the Pope is writing because the ‘spirit of revolutionary change’ has passed from politics into the realm of practical economics. (cf. RN 1) This leads the Pope to address the Church on the condition of the working classes that have lost the protection of the ancient guilds, are threatened by the “hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition”, while the “socialists” try to exploit “the poor man’s envy of the rich” in an effort to do away with all private property. (RN 2-4)

The Pope’s first task will be to reaffirm the right of private property. He will indeed declare: “The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.” (RN 15)

He then proceeds to delineate the role of the Church, which is rather extensive, because “if human society is to be healed now, in no other way can it be healed save by a return to Christian life and Christian institutions.” (RN 27)

After the consideration of the role of the Church he considers the role of the State, which will be more limited.

In all these considerations he speaks of different aspects of the relation between employers and workers, but only at the very end does he speak directly about what employers and workers can themselves do. “In the last place, employers and workmen may of themselves effect much, in the matter We are treating, by means of associations and organizations.” (RN 49) It is in this context that he will finally talk about “workingmen’s unions”.

Now let’s take a look at some of the particulars of the Pope’s teaching.

He rejects the socialist attempt to eliminate private property, moving everything into the realm of the State. He points out that the working man himself would be among the first to suffer, and that the elimination of private property would be “emphatically unjust, for it would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community.” (4)

The Pope then proceeds to explain the purpose and righty of property starting first from the nature of man and then from the nature of the family.

A man engages in work for wages, which are at his disposal, through which he desires to acquire some sort of permanent property, and so better the material conditions of his life. (5) More important, by his power of reason, a man has the capacity to provide for his future needs, and property is one of the chief means of doing so. (6-7) Further, by the very labor that a man employs to work the land or fashion some object that is useful or beautiful, he transforms the raw materials, making them his own. (9-10) Consequently, even though God has given the earth for the good of the whole human race, this does not bar the owning of property because it has not been given to all without distinction “but rather no part of it has been assigned to any one in particular, and the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man’s own industry, and by the laws of individual races.” (8)

Even more important, in relation to private property, is the divine institution of marriage and family, the first and most fundamental human society, that is older than any State, and “and has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of any State.” (12)

What the Pope affirms about marriage and family here is of paramount importance for Catholic social teaching. All too often social justice is viewed purely in terms of the relations among individuals and between individuals and the State. Nevertheless, by nature the family stands between the individual and the State. An individual always belongs to a family, before he belongs to a State. (To be continued)



Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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