Pope Leo XIII: “Rerum Novarum” – The Role of the Church in Social Justice

After talking about the importance of the family and the necessity of property for family life, the Pope then speaks of the necessity of the Church in the matter of social justice, boldly declaring: no practical solution of this question will be found apart from the intervention of religion and the Church. (16)

The Church has (or had) numerous institutions that organize men in the service of human needs, organizations that operate not by means of the coercive power of the State but impelled by the love of Christ. (Cf. 2 Cor 5:14)

The Church also guides human life by means of her divine teaching that not only makes clear to all the natural law, but also reminds mankind of the need to bear the pains and hardships that are part and parcel of our earthly life. The Church also teaches the true meaning of the various social and economic inequalities that will always be present in life, but rather than setting men in the opposition of class conflict, reminds both rich and the working class of their mutual duties towards each other and the precept of true charity that should “bind class to class in friendliness and good feeling”. (21)

This also makes clear the distinction between the mere possession of private property and its proper use. The Pope quotes St. Thomas Aquinas: “Man should not consider his material possessions his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.” (22)

Yet, the Church’s teaching keeps the mutual relations of the rich and the working class, the employer and employed, from degenerating into a merely contractual exchange of goods, labor for work done, in which the employer is quit of his obligations at 5pm and when the paycheck is signed. He writes: “Justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he not be exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be led not away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Further, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age.” (20)

Absolutely key is the teaching that “the things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will know no death.” (21) In this light we come to understand that Christ did not take away the pains and sorrows that are woven together with our mortal life, but “transformed them into motives of virtue and occasions of merit.” (21) Indeed, “No man can hope for eternal reward unless he follow in the blood-stained footprints of the Savior.” (21) In the same light the rich learn that their riches are of no avail for eternal happiness, while those who lack “the goods of fortune” are “taught by the Church that in God’s sight poverty is no disgrace, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of in earning their bread by labor.” (23) So, finally, “if Christian precepts prevail, the respective classes will not only be united in the bonds of friendship, but also in those of brotherly love. For they will understand and feel that all men are children of the same common Father, who is God; that all have alike the same last end, which is God himself, who alone can make men or angels absolutely and perfectly happy; that each and all are redeemed and made sons of God, by Jesus Christ.” (25)

Even more, the Church, does not only teach and guide men, “she possesses a power peculiarly her own.” (26) Though he does not them, he refers here to the sacraments, by which God pours his grace into the hearts of men. So he continues: “The instruments which she employs are given to her by Jesus Christ himself for the very purpose of reaching the hearts of men, and derive their efficiency from God. They alone can reach the innermost heart and conscience, and bring men to act from a motive of duty, to control their passions and appetites, to love God and their fellow men with a love that is outstanding and of the highest degree and to break down courageously every barrier which blocks the way to virtue.” (26)

The Church in many ways cares for the temporal needs of men, seeking to help “the poor” to “rise above poverty and wretchedness and better their condition of life”. Nevertheless, it is precisely by following the law of Christ and practicing virtue, while treading the road to eternal life, that the material condition of man is most truly helped, both because this way of life wins the blessing of God, and because of the good order of the virtuous life itself. (28)

In sum, the Church is necessary for the right order of human society by means of her benevolent institutions, her divine teaching, and above all the sacraments of grace that make a life of goodness, justice, and holiness truly possible.



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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