Leo XIII: Rerum Novarum

Critical Comments Selected by Gerald Darring

Review of Reviews (July 1891) 625. If the encyclical would accomplish nothing other than to help attain for the world of English labor the legal right to one day's rest in seven, "we shall all be the Pope's men in that Crusade, even if we should have to fight him the moment after the victory is gained." But it would be a mistake to count too much on the likelihood of the encyclical's effectiveness in this matter.

Herbert Lucas. Month (July 1891) 312-13. The encyclical does not question the existence of those basic human tendencies on which the development of the industrial and commercial systems of the world are based. But two things the Holy Father does most emphatically deny. He denies that the cravings for wealth and enjoyment are beyond the control of self-restraint and of higher aspirations. He denies that the unchecked pursuit of self-interest naturally tends economic or social prosperity. And he asserts that "the growth of the modern industrial system has been accompanied by 'a general moral deterioration' which, if not promptly and efficiently checked, bodes ill for the peace of society."

Bishop John J. Keane. American Catholic Quarterly Review (July 1891) 601. "The non-intervention party have been used to say that the State is only a gendarme; and in our own country we have often heard it asserted by over-extreme Jeffersonians or by over-timid Christians that civil authority must be strictly kept within the limits of police duty. Not such the teaching of Leo XIII. He shows that the field of governmental responsibility is a very wide one."

Thomas B. Preston. Arena (September 1891) 460. Pope Leo admits that we live in a different age, one of greater instruction, of different customs, and of more numerous requirements in daily life, but "he cannot divest himself of the trammels of ecclesiasticism which seem to mold his thoughts and lead him to consider it 'essential in these times of covetous greed to keep the multitude within the line of duty.'" He sees 'the multitude' as "possessed of an insane desire to break out of the line of duty." He is like the man who accounted for urban overcrowding by saying that the poor and unfortunate had a strange and uncontrollable propensity for crowding into slum dwellings. He does not allow for the influence of circumstances upon human acts, and "apparently is chiefly anxious that 'strife should cease,' forgetting that until justice be done the worst thing that could happen would be the cessation of strife."

J. L. Spalding. Catholic World (September 1891) 765. "The deep import of the encyclical lies in the authoritative pronouncement that the mission of the church is not only to save souls, but also to save society; that the earthly and temporal interests of men no less than their spiritual welfare are of concern to this divine institution, which is Catholic not only in its teaching and its organization, but also in its sympathies."

Morgan M. Sheedy. Catholic World (September 1891) 859. "What the Holy Father aptly calls 'the cruelty of grasping speculators' in human labor supplies the true explanation of the miners' situation today. And it is useless to look for any improvement as long as the ordinary operator or capitalist sees no higher estimate on human beings than mere instruments for making money."

Joseph Rickaby, S.J. Month (1898) 488. At first it sounds as though he had said that the best way to promote good understanding between two nations is for one of them to possess a powerful park of artillery. The unions' artillery has been used to batter open the treasuries of the owners: it has won almost everything from them, but it has drawn employers and workingmen together only as belligerents meeting in conference. "But Leo XIII is not thinking of Trades Unions, as such institutions are organized now, but of institutions founded on the model of the ancient Guilds, the abolition of which he deplores at the opening of the Encyclical."

John A. Ryan. Social Reconstruction (1920) 205. Nearly all of the proposals for immediate reform which are contained in the Bishops' Program of 1919 are "immediately or remotely deducible from the one general idea or general principle of a decent livelihood which is contained in the living wage doctrine of Pope Leo XIII." If all the workers had living wages as proposed by Pope Leo, most of the other reforms would not be necessary at all. Social insurance would be unnecessary , since workers would be able to insure themselves. Public housing would be unnecessary , and the need for government-sponsored vocational training and a national employment service would be greatly reduced. Arbitration would be more likely, since many strikes are due to a lack of adequate wages.

Henry Somerville. Studies (1931) 12. Rerum Novarum is a great seller and it is much quoted, but there is reason to believe that some readers get out of it what they want. "There are different passages which anti-capitalists and anti-socialists respectively can extract and declaim with great effect for their partisan purposes." Readers should study the whole encyclical and pay attention to what is said about the Church, the State, trade unions, and other temporal agencies and measures. "The program of the Rerum Novarum can only be realized in a Catholic society."

Paul L. Blakely, S.J. America (18 April 1931) 40. "There was not much religion in business in the era preceding 1891 ... and there seems to be less today. Charity then and now is commonly rated as an amiable weakness not infrequently associated with mental defect. The Ten Commandments are a list of ancient tribal regulations which modern children memorize (occasionally) at Sunday school. Justice means going as far as -- on advice of counsel -- you conclude that you can go, and still avoid going to jail. Small wonder then that the business world in the '90s was bored or resentful -- but mostly bored -- at mention of the Encyclical; or that it still is."

Sister Mary Ignatius Ring, S.N.D. "Villenueve and Leo XIII" (1935) 210. "This encyclical has served as a guide to direct the economic and social thought of the teaching body of the Church, and is still accepted as a scientifically authoritative statement of social law by the educated outside the Catholic Church."

Georges Bernanos. The Diary of a Country Priest. New York: Macmillan, 1937, chapter 2. "For instance, that famous encyclical of Leo XIII, 'Rerum Novarum,' you can read that without turning a hair, like any instruction for keeping Lent. But when it was published, sonny, it was like an earthquake. The enthusiasm! At that time I was cure de Norenfontes, in the heart of the mining district. The simple notion that a man's work is not a commodity, subject to the law of supply and demand, that you have no right to speculate on wages, on the lives of men, as you do on grain, sugar or coffee--why it set people's consciences upside down! I was called a 'socialist' for having explained it in the pulpit to my mining fellows, and the pious peasants had me sent off to Montreuil in disgrace."

Joseph H. Fichter, S.J. Catholic World (1938) 679. At a time when Communist and Socialist theorists were portraying work merely as an economic and social necessity, Pope Leo XIII restated the Christian principle of work in his encyclical, Rerum Novarum. He sent people back to the metaphysical values upon which all straight thinking must be based, but his greatest contribution to the cause of the laboring class came when he spoke specifically of the problem of labor and the dignity of work. This was the most needed declaration he could make: "The worker has a dignity all his own; bodily toil is honorable; its acceptance as a mere unit in the economy of production is the grossest error."

John P. Boland. Sign (1941) 586. "Archbishop Quigley was only one of the many members of the American hierarchy whose tacit approval of American interconfessional trade unions stemmed directly out of Rerum Novarum. Perhaps thus we may explain that here no stable and concerted effort has ever been made to form Catholic unions."

John P. Delaney. America (1941) 118. Leo said those revolutionary but simple Catholic truths which in an age of liberalism sounded strange even to some Catholic ears: the State might intervene in industry to protect the good of the community and the rights of the poor; the labor of individuals is not a commodity to be bought or sold at market price; there are dictates of nature more imperious than any contract between man and man; the labor of every human being should be paid in a living wage; justice and charity should infuse free competition. "In a day when labor unions were outlawed in almost every country in the world -- in the belief that they were destructive of law and order -- it took courage on the part of the head of the Church that stands for law and order to claim that men had a natural right to form such unions, and that no state may justly deny that right."

Benjamin L. Masse. America (1944) 706. When Leo XIII condemned, on moral grounds, the Liberal concept of freedom of contract, he destroyed the basis of laissez-faire economics. The chief item in the costs of production, wages, are not subject solely to competition and the law of supply and demand, and therefore free competition in the marketplace cannot be the only regulator and principle of economic life. "The basic idea of Liberalism, that economic life is governed by 'laws' as immutable in their working as the laws of physics or biology, that one of these laws, the law of supply and demand, automatically regulates wages and prices, was thus dealt a mortal blow. The way was open for labor unions and public authority to intervene in the whole economic process."

H. Richard Niebuhr. Christ and Culture (1951) 138-39. Leo XIII called for a new synthesis on a Thomistic basis, but he and his followers are not synthesists. Their goal is doubtless the synthesis of Christ and culture, but they do not synthesize Christ with present culture as Thomas Aquinas did. When they enter into dialogue with the 'Gentiles' they do not take common ground with them, arguing on the basis of a common philosophy, but recommend to them the philosophy of Thomas' day. "Leo writes in the patriarchal spirit of a feudal society, not as one who participates in the modern political movement as Thomas shared in the medieval. What is sought here is not the synthesis of Christ with present culture, but the re-establishment of the philosophy and the institutions of another culture."

Etienne Gilson (1954) 20. "Faithful to his principle that inequality is a fact of nature and that natural inequality necessarily begets social inequality, Leo XIII inculcates in all possible ways to the rulers of the various nations of the world ... that the only wise governance does not consist in dealing with men and classes as though they were equal, but in devoting to all of them equal care in spite of their factual inequality."

Christopher Hollis. Christianity and Economics (1961) 48. Leo XIII had some influence, especially in France and Belgium. But there is little evidence to show that any of the British or American statesmen who introduced the various measures of social reform over the last fifty years had any acquaintance with the pope's encyclical. These measures were mostly the work of men nourished in a Protestant tradition. Leo was prophetic, then, but not in the sense of an Old Testament prophet, leading the people along the way that they should go. He was "a man who foresaw the way that they must inevitably go, if they were not to perish. They have done not so much what he said that they should do as what he said that they would do."

Jean-Yves Calvez and Jacques Perrin. The Church and Social Justice (1961) 80. "The new encyclical's reception was tremendous and both hostility and enthusiasm were immense. It had great influence on the organization of the Catholic workers' movements, or more generally on the awakening of Catholics to social and political action for social legislation. Moreover, with it there began an intense activity in doctrinal research, which constituted a point of departure for later developments of papal teaching."

Eugene G. Black, ed. Posture of Europe, 1815-1940 (1964) 397. "The economic crises and social upheaval of the late nineteenth century demanded a reasoned statement of a tenable position. Survival of the Catholic Church demanded that it come to terms with the industrial world. Rerum Novarum offered an alternative. No form of atheistic 'improvement' or revolutionary doctrine could solve the problems of man. He must understand the true meaning of Christian Commonwealth."

R. Paul Ramsey. "Modern Papal Social Teachings" (1965) 223. "It may be sufficient to say that the social teaching of Leo's encyclical advances only a little beyond the viewpoint of such conservative Roman Catholics as still edit the National Review and who endorse policies of public well-being and private prosperity. By contrast, the main current of Protestant social thought, at the end of the nineteenth century, was laying down far more advanced Magna Chartas for the reconstruction of the social order."

Lillian Parker Wallace. Leo XIII and the Rise of Socialism (1966) 411. The Marxists criticized the Church for being the 'opiate' of the people, for preaching love instead of class hatred, for conspiring with monarchy and aristocracy to keep the poor in ignorance and poverty, for clinging to magic and holding out rewards in a future world as substitute for justice in this world. After Leo XIII these claims could no longer be made against the Church. "Leo agreed with his opponents that the poor wage earner should not be put off with promises of future bliss. He called upon the faithful--and all men of good will--to reorder industrial conditions in the interest of justice. He restored to the workingman his dignity as a man and his dignity as a son of God."

Richard L. Camp. The Papal Ideology of Social Reform (1969) 56. Rerum Novarum was not relevant to modern property relationships. Its "neoscholastic thesis was more applicable to a primitive agricultural community than to the complexities of an industrial economy." The modern economy makes people too interdependent to have a property right based upon the need for each to receive the product of his own labor. One cannot justify holdings in a joint-stock corporation by saying that the labor of the owner transforms these holdings into a part of himself. "By being irrelevant to inherited riches, the incomes of the leisure class, and the holdings of the great capitalists, Rerum Novarum simply failed to defend the types of private ownership most vigorously attacked by the socialists."

Neil Betten. Catholic Activism and the Industrial Worker. Gainsville: University Presses of Florida, 1976, p. 23. "Many American Catholic social leaders adopted the stand previously taken by numerous European Catholics, for European Catholic social activists had sponsored reform and even radical movements for half a century. Unlike Americans, Europeans had interpreted Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII as a call for massive reform. In the 1930s American Catholic leaders reinterpreted Rerum Novarum, abandoning previous emphasis on the document as primarily pro-union and antisocialist. Now, Rerum was considered a mandate for reform."

Jacob Viner. Religious Thought and Economic Society. Jacques Melitz and Donald Winch, eds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1978, p. 70-71. The "sceptical attitudes at the end of the Middle Ages towards the doctrine of a natural-law foundation of the institution of private property indicate that St. Thomas' use of even a quasi natural-law justification of private property was by no means universally accepted. It seemed to some, therefore, that Pope Leo XIII broke sharply with traditional doctrine when he went beyond St. Thomas in his campaign against nineteenth-century socialist doctrine, by proclaiming as an integral part of natural law the right of private property."

Christine E. Gudorf. Catholic Social Teaching on Liberation Themes (1981) 119-20. "Leo XIII indicated in Rerum Novarum that the property for which workers were to save was land. This was not an extraordinary thought for an old man writing from an unindustrialized country in 1891. But this agrarian view (which continued to be verbalized through Pius XII) may account for the general failure of the twentieth century popes to distinguish between private ownership of consumer goods and private ownership of means of production."

Donal Dorr. Option for the Poor (1983) 11-12. More important than the content of Leo's encyclical was "the character of the document as a cry of protest against the exploitation of poor workers." It is not so much what Leo had to say as the fact that he chose to speak out at that time, intervening in a most solemn way and making it clear that the Church was not indifferent to the injustices of the time and would take a stand on behalf of the poor.

Peter Hebblethwaite. Religion and America (1983) 267. "The kind of Catholic social doctrine put forward by Leo had a condescending and paternalistic note that would prove difficult to get rid of. The poor are the object of the discourse; they are not seen as agents in their own transformation. Most dangerous of all, Catholic social doctrine comes actually to mean, 'what popes have to say on social questions.'"

John J. Mitchell, Jr. Journal of Church and State (1985) 467. "In Rerum Novarum, Leo is unable to envision a socialist program founded on a commitment to protect the rights of the individual and foster the common good. History does not provide him with appropriate models." He associates individual freedom with increased property and securing personal advantages, and "the historical realities of his time would not allow Leo to consider the possibility that at times freedom for the individual may best be secured through a system of socialized ownership, planning, management, and distribution of economic resources." He could not distinguish between those collectivist forms of ownership pledged to class conflict and violence and other socialist models known to society today because history denied him this opportunity.

R. Emmett Curran, S.J. U.S. Catholic Historian (1986) 192. John Ryan later recalled Rerum Novarum's impact upon him as a seminarian in the 1890s: "To American Catholics, who, like their fellow Americans had been indoctrinated with the theories of nonintervention which were not far removed from laissez-faire, the declaration of Pope Leo on the regulatory functions of the state over industry were new and, indeed, startling." The pope had legitimized the state as a promoter of social justice in behalf of the weaker classes, and he had recognized the right of laborers to organize and to receive a living wage. "It would be another generation before Ryan and William Kerby and other Catholic social leaders would begin to put flesh on the bones of Catholic thought regarding capital and labor that Leo had enunciated in 1891."

John T. Pawlikowski, O.S.M. In Grelle and Krueger, eds. Christianity and Capitalism (1986) 9. Rerum Novarum's organic model of society never exercised much influence on American Catholicism, but the encyclical did have a profound effect on labor organizing. Union organizing had been suspect in the eyes of many Catholics. "The encyclical dramatically changed that. It opened the doors to a period of deep involvement by the American Catholic Church in the betterment of working class living conditions."

Manuel Velasquez. J.A. Dwyer, ed., "Questions of Special Urgency" (1986) 177. "In several respects Rerum Novarum was a radical document. It aligned the church with the poor and exploited class of workers; it definitively established the view that religion must concern itself with socioeconomic matters; and it set the social-economic agenda that future church teaching would have to address."

Jean-Yves Calvez, S.J. "Economic Policy Issues in Roman Catholic Social Teaching" (1987) 17-18. "With regard to Catholic social teaching, the most decisive step taken by Rerum Novarum was to establish firmly the legitimacy of some amount of state intervention in the economy in order to remedy major social evils, and more generally, to require that the economy be judged in terms of how it fosters the common good. In some circles, these propositions were sufficient to label the pope a socialist."

Dennis P. McCann. O.F. Williams, F.K. Reilly and J.W. Houck, eds., Ethics and the Investment Industry, Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1989, p. 131. It is striking that as late as 1891 "wealth is conceived in essentially static terms as is the social order as a whole. One's station in life seems fixed for all eternity. It simply does not occur to the Pope that one might actually help the poor more by saving and investing one's surplus in some form of productive enterprise."

David R. Carlin, Jr. Commonweal (1991) 280. "By nineteenth-century Catholic standards the encyclical was a bombshell.... Rerum Novarum, if it did not place the Catholic Church at the forefront of social reform, at least signaled an end to the long era of dark reaction. It indicated the first stages of a willingness to come to terms with the modern world.... Without question the encyclical was a watershed event in the history of the church."

J. Bryan Hehir. Commonweal (1991) 282. "It is a long way, historically and ethically, from Leo XIII's treatment of work in 1891 to John XXIII's description of socialization in Mater et Magistra, from Leo's initial endorsement of workers' 'associations' to John Paul II's support for Poland's Solidarity. But the more developed doctrine remains indebted to the surprising spirit of vision of an aristocratic pope steeped in scholastic philosophy who became the religious advocate for the working class of nineteenth century Europe and America."

John C. Cort. Catholic Worker (1991) 7. Leo XIII "insisted on a fundamental principle that has marked Catholic social teaching ever since. In these words: 'If, therefore, any injury has been done to or threatens either the common good or the interests of individual groups, which injury cannot in any other way be repaired or prevented, it is necessary for public authority to intervene.' This was the Catholic Church's declaration of independence from the heresy of Adam Smith (and Michael Novak) that the state must show a preferential option for the capitalist, not for the poor, and keep hands off while the capitalists go about their work of trying to prove that private greed can, by an invisible sleight-of-hand, make for public good."

Mel Piehl. Commonweal (1991) 284. "What most early commentators missed was the central feature that has made Rerum Novarum the foundation of all subsequent papal social teaching: its derivation of crucial social values from the heart of Christian theology." The encyclical's strength lies in its treatment of earthly wealth not just from the standpoint of economics but also from the perspective of eternal life.

Mary E. Hobgood. Catholic Social Teaching and Economic Theory (1991) 110-11. Rerum Novarum contained a structural analysis that showed the deep conflict between capital, the state, and labor, and yet Leo argued for the possibility of resolving this conflict through the teaching of the Church, the witness of honest, industrious, and nonmilitant trade unions, and state intervention on behalf of the working poor. These remedies seemed viable to Leo because of his trust in the benevolence of hierarchy. "However, in light of the encyclical's structural analysis of the depth of the conflict between labor and capital, especially as this is played out within the arena of the state, none of his remedies offers a historically possible agenda for achieving Leo's vision of a just society."

Bruce F. Duncan. Lutheran Theological Journal (1991) 116. "While modern Catholic efforts at social reform trace their origins to Rerum Novarum, the contrasts between modern and earlier views are striking. Recent papal and episcopal statements strongly favor forms of democracy over other forms of government, whereas Leo, while tolerating democracy as necessary, personally favored monarchy; modern church documents have vigorously propounded a defense of religious liberty and toleration, whereas Leo was suspicious of them, and favored as an ideal the Catholic confessional state; modern Catholic movements have strongly endorsed and mobilized behind campaigns for human rights and political freedoms, whereas for Leo the rhetoric of human and political rights was seen as deriving from the French Revolution and its anti-religious or anti-clerical progeny."

Ronald Preston. One World (1991) 23. "It is not cynical to suggest that Leo XIII was able to see through the individualistic philosophy attached to capitalism more quickly than leaders of other churches (particularly Protestants, deeply affected by it) precisely because his outlook was so rooted in the hierarchically corporate thought of the past."

John J. Gilligan. "The Church and the Working Poor" (1991) 64-65. "Papal communications in that age did not receive the instant global recognition and study that they customarily are accorded today, but as the encyclical appeared in various quarters in the years that followed, there was a notable lack of enthusiasm for its clear and powerful message. Politicians, industrialists and businessmen generally, whether members of the Church or not, sourly declared that the Pope sounded more like Marx than a minister of the Christian gospel. Of course, most of them had not read Marx either."

David J. O Brien. John Coleman, ed., One Hundred Years of Catholic Social Thought (1991) 17. Leo did not take the counterrevolutionary stance of the corporatists, even though he offered some reflections on the sources of modern problems that could confirm their alienation. He chose instead the reformist option, evenhandedly condemning both socialism and laissez-faire liberalism, endorsing workers associations, affirming the positive responsibility of the state to intervene on behalf of the poor, and upholding the claim in justice to decent wages, hours, and working conditions. This would commit the church to a mission effort on behalf of workers, defending their rights and helping them organize. "Disentangled from medieval restorationism, the church would be free to adjust pragmatically to the social conditions of different nations, while continuing its critical stance toward capitalism."

Al Gini. Thought (1992) 226. "From my perspective as a business ethicist, the most compelling aspect of The Condition of Labor is its suggestion that the natural rights of the individual include the right to work and its beginning examination of the role of work in regard to the development and identity of the individual worker. If there is one theme that is continuous throughout all subsequent social encyclicals, it is the notion that work is not something detached from the rest of human life, but rather, that 'man is born to labor, as a bird to fly' (Pius XI)."

George E. McCarthy and Royal W. Rhodes. Eclipse of Justice (1992) 161-62. Leo supported Cardinal Edward Manning's intervention for the workers in the London dock strike of 1889, preventing a civil disaster, and he supported Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, who intervened in 1887-1888 before the Knights of Labor were condemned by the Vatican as an anarchistic secret society. These actions were widely interpreted as an overall papal sanction of the workers' right to organize, and they were perhaps more important in establishing Leo's claim as Pope of the Workers than the unsystematic ideas and social analysis of the encyclical. "While much later Rerum Novarum was hailed and subjected to extensive scholarly comment, largely because it was resuscitated by Pius XI as the basis for his own social encyclical, friends and foes of the papacy during Leo's lifetime ignored or minimized it. The document continued to be discussed in reading clubs and such small groups as the Catholic Social Guild.... Otherwise it remained a dead letter until forty years after."

Dennis P. McCann. "Capitalism in the Light of Catholic Moral Claims." The Christian Century (6 October 1993) 941-42. "Even among Roman Catholics who should know better, commemorating the anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the first major social encyclical, has tended to perpetuate the myth of Leo's farsighted progressivism as if his views on society were not inseparable from his repudiation of the principle of separation of church and state or his reactionary hostility to religious liberty and intercreedal collaboration."