- Rerum Novarum
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Rerum Novarum (Latin for Of New Things) is an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on May 15, 1891. It was an open letter, passed to all Catholic bishops, that addressed the condition of the working classes. The encyclical is entitled: “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour”. Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler and Cardinal Henry Edward Manning were influential in its composition.
It discussed the relationships and mutual duties between labour and obtaining capital, as well as government and its citizens. Of primary concern was the need for some amelioration for “The misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class.” It supported the rights of labor to form unions, rejected communism and unrestricted capitalism, whilst affirming the right to private property.
Many of the positions in Rerum Novarum were supplemented by later encyclicals, in particular Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931), John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra (1961), and John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus (1991).
Rerum Novarum is subtitled “On the Conditions of Labor”. In this document, Leo set out the Catholic Church’s response to the social conflict that had risen in the wake of industrialization and that had led to the rise of socialism. The Pope taught that the role of the State is to promote social justice through the protection of rights, while the Church must speak out on social issues in order to teach correct social principles and ensure class harmony. He restated the Church’s long-standing teaching regarding the crucial importance of private property rights, but recognized, in one of the best-known passages of the encyclical, that the free operation of market forces must be tempered by moral considerations:
- “Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.”
Rerum Novarum is remarkable for its vivid depiction of the plight of the nineteenth-century urban poor and for its condemnation of unrestricted capitalism. Among the remedies it prescribed were the formation of trade unions and the introduction of collective bargaining, particularly as an alternative to state intervention.
The encyclical declared private property a fundamental principle of natural law. Rerum Novarum has therefore been interprted as dramatically adapting Thomistic ideas about property, as the Pope attempted to shift the class alliances of the church, by an allegiance with the bourgeoisie, in the face of the perceived threat of socialism. 
Rerum Novarum also recognized that the poor have a special status in consideration of social issues: the modern Catholic principle of the “preferential option for the poor” and the notion that God is on the side of the poor were expressed in this document.
Impact and legacy
- Rerum Novarum has been interpreted as a primer of the Roman Catholic response to the exploitation of workers.
- The encyclical also contains a proposal for a living wage, though not called by that name in the text itself (“Wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.”)
- In Belgium, it is commemorated annually on the Catholic liturgical feast of the Ascension (also a public Holiday there) by the Christian Labour Movement (which has a traditional link with the Christian Democrat parties, all substantively Roman Catholic), as a kind of counterpart to the socialist Labour Day (also a public holiday in Belgium) on May 1.
- The positions expressed by the fictional Bishop Morehouse in the beginning of Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” (s:The Iron Heel/Chapter II) are clearly derived from the Rerum Novarum.
- The Catholic Encyclopedia, written in 1911, speaking in clearly laudatory terms, states that the document “has inspired a vast Catholic social literature, while many non-Catholics have acclaimed it as one of the most definite and reasonable productions ever written on the subject.”
Highlights of the encyclical
The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity. Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvellous and manifold. First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice. Paragraph 19.
Of these duties, the following bind the proletarian and the worker: fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon; never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder; and to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss. The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers - that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again 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 be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. His great and principal duty is to give every one what is just. Doubtless, before deciding whether wages are fair, many things have to be considered; but wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this - that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven. “Behold, the hire of the laborers... which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth; and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.”. Lastly, the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should in proportion to their scantiness be accounted sacred. Were these precepts carefully obeyed and followed out, would they not be sufficient of themselves to keep under all strife and all its causes? Paragraph 20.
Therefore, those whom fortune favors are warned that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles; that the rich should tremble at the threatenings of Jesus Christ - threatenings so unwonted in the mouth of our Lord(10) - and that a most strict account must be given to the Supreme Judge for all we possess. Paragraph 22.
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- Catholic social teaching
- ^ Paragraph 3, Rerum Novarum.
- ^ Rerum Novarum, § 45
- ^ Rerum Novarum and Historiography: Interpretations of 19th Century Catholic Social Teaching
- ^ The Busy Christian’s Guide to Social Teaching.
- ^ Catholic Encyclopedia (1911): Rerum Novarum.
- ^ Catholic Encyclopedia (1911): Rerum Novarum.
- Catholic Social Teaching by Anthony Cooney, John, C. Medaille, Patrick Harrington (Editor). ISBN 0-9535077-6-9
- Full text of Rerum Novarum English translation from the Vatican’s official Website
- Rerum Novarum article from The Catholic Encyclopedia (1911)
- The Condition of Labor. Open letter to Pope Leo XIII by Henry George. 1891.
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