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May 15 The Pope, Workers Rights and Rerum Novarum


Seen by many as the start of Catholic Social teaching - this encyclical of Leo XIII has the unique distinction of being followed by two others on it s 40th Anniversary (Quadragessimo Anno) and Hundred Years Later ( Centessimus Annus). Trying to tread a middle ground between Capitalism and Socialism it has left a great legacy.





The 'New Things' that the encyclical addressed, refers to the rapidly changing social landscape that had resulted in light of the industrial revolution and the revolutionary change that was spreading around the world as a result. The industrial revolution had begun in Britain about 130 years earlier and for more than a generation remained confined to Britain, as the export of machinery, skilled workers, and manufacturing techniques were discouraged. However, around 1807, two Englishmen, started developing machine shops at Liège and Belgium became the first country in continental Europe to be transformed economically. This would soon spread around the world.

These transformations were shaping societies in profoundly different ways, technologically, socio-economically, and culturally.


The use of new materials, especially iron and steel and new energy sources, such as coal, had ushered in a new age of construction, mining and heating. Inventions such as the steam engine, electricity, petroleum, and the internal-combustion engine would slowly even begin to reshape international relations as access to raw materials and energy security became a pressing concern, particularly the sourcing and securing of oil and coal deposits. The increasing application of science to industry, and the invention of new machines, such as the spinning jenny and the power loom, allowed increased production with a smaller expenditure of human energy. These more efficient machines lead to a reaction, as traditional workers such as weavers felt threatened. A secret group called the Luddites emerged in England as a radical faction of textile workers destroying machinery as a form of protest. The group were named after Ned Ludd, a weaver from Anstey, near Leicester. This social turmoil was exacerbated by a huge migration of labour from the countryside to growing towns as a new organization of work known as the factory system emerged, which entailed increased division of labour and specialization of function. The quality of life in the sprawling slum areas of these towns was grim, living and working conditions were harsh.


Christians responded to these new lifestyles with the growth of temperance movements, the Salvation Army (see pod of Apr 10) and also promoted health through organised sports inspired by a movement called Muscular Christianity (see pod of Apr 25) The politically minded, such as the Methodist Kier Hard developed political representation for the emerging labour force of factory workers, miners etc (see pod of Feb 27). All of this was happening alongside important developments in transportation and communication, including the steam locomotive, steamship, automobile, airplane, telegraph, and radio.

With the mass production of manufactured goods, the relationship between employers and employees was changing dramatically. Individuals had become wealthy, but the wealth was not shared and the vast majority remained poor even though they worked hard. A German philosopher, Karl Heinrich Marx developed critical theories about society, economics, and politics, holding that human societies developed through class conflict. Because of his political publications calling for radical change, Marx became stateless and lived in exile with his wife and children in London for decades, where he continued to develop his thought, researching in the reading room of the British Museum. His best-known publications where a pamphlet in 1848 called The Communist Manifesto and the later three-volume Das Kapital. In Capital he aimed to reveal the economic patterns underpinning the capitalist mode of production but did not live to publish the planned second and third parts, which were completed from his notes and published after his death by his colleague Friedrich Engels. His work laid the basis for theories about labour and its relation to capital and lead to series of violent revolutions around the world as some countries emerged from agrarian feudalism.


It was in this context, as political change swept across Europe, that Pope Leo XIII's encyclical spoke of the condition of the working classes, at a time when many advocated revolution. Now considered by some to be a masterful attempt to warn both of the illusions of capitalism, as well as the abuses of socialism, the encyclical tries to keep to a middle ground. It recognises that the lack of workers unions, contributed to an unjust situation with conditions little better than slavery but also asserts that everyone has by nature the right to possess property and so rules out the elimination of private property. Private ownership was not only lawful, but absolutely necessary in maintaining the structure of the family. A worker ought to be given the opportunity to live sparingly, save money, and invest his savings for the future. This defence of private property was also balanced by the exposition of the universal destination of goods, the principle that God made the goods of the earth for the use of all men, so that all would be fed, clothed and sheltered. Property rights and free trade were instruments for respecting the greater principle of the universal destination of goods. The encyclical also defends the right of workers to have time for their religious duties and encouraged workers and employers to negotiate a wage demanded by natural justice. To ensure these rights and duties are maintained worker's associations ought to exist to work towards the common good.


The genius of the encyclical may be a testament to a Pope’s unique ability to source educated opinions from different parts of the world and merge them into something cohesive, drawing on ancient philosophical and theological currents. Rerum Novarum balanced complex tensions in a climate were political ideology was dividing into extremes, 43 years after Marx had published his Communist Manifesto. One of the voices that the Pope was listening closely to was Cardinal Manning the Archbishop of Westminster, a great exponent of Catholic social doctrine. Very close to Leo’s predecessor, Pius IX , Manning had used this goodwill to develop a modern Catholic view of social justice. His thinking had been tested in real life. Playing a key and successful role in mediating the London Dock Strike, he had caused a stir in 1887 (four years before the encyclical) by saying “That a starving man was not stealing if he took the food he needed from his neighbour. The natural right to life and food, prevailed even over the laws of property.” See the pod of Mar 15 for more about him and his role in the development of Catholic Social Teaching.


The encyclical has inspired a large amount of Catholic social literature, but it also reached a wide non-Catholics audience who were impressed by it ‘reasonableness’. Without recommending one form of government over another, it put forth principles for the appropriate role of the state to provide for the common good. All people have equal dignity regardless of social class. Strongly arguing against the central supervision of the state, it criticizes socialism for seeking to replace the rights and duties of parents, families and communities. However it also maintains that authorities should only intervene when a family or community is unable or unwilling to fulfil its mutual rights and duties of subsidiarity. The principle of God’s preferential option for the poor was introduced in the encyclical God Himself seems to incline rather to those who suffer misfortune; for Jesus Christ calls the poor "blessed"; (Matt.5:3) He lovingly invites those in labuor and grief to come to Him for solace; (Matt. 11:28) and He displays the tenderest charity toward the lowly and the oppressed. This would be developed more fully, in radically different ways, by later theologians, particularly in the liberation theology that emerged in South America after the 2nd Vatican Council. However, what some of the liberationists, often middle-class Spaniards, ignored was that Rerum Novarum was also a clear criticism of the illusions of socialism. It is now often taught in theology courses as a primer of the Catholic response to the exploitation of workers. From a socialist perspective, it was "uncomfortably" situated between laborers and industrialists, and that whilst it opened up space for anti-capitalist critique, it also severely restricted its horizons.


Its legacy is significant and ongoing. In 1930 many of the key ideas from the encyclical were incorporated into Portuguese law. In 1931, Pius XI wrote Quadragesimo Anno (The 40th Year) to develop this body of Catholic Social Thought. It is almost unique to have an encyclical marking the anniversary of a previous encyclical, and this was a sign of how the encyclical had been received and the growing influence of Catholic Social teaching as a body of thought. Quadragesimo Anno looked at major dangers for human freedom and dignity arising from unrestrained capitalism, socialism, and totalitarian communism, and after World War One called for the reconstruction of the social order based on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. Marking the centenary of Rerum Novarum in 1991, John Paul II wrote Centesimus Annus. Written during the last days of the Cold War, it refutes Communist ideology and condemns the dictatorial regimes that practiced it. It also compares socialism to consumerism, identifying atheism as the source of their common denial, the dignity of the human person