Last week’s article described the wisdom of St. John Paul II regarding human labor, as expressed in his 1981 encyclical letter Laborem Exercens. That encyclical letter built upon the social teachings of the church, which were summarized in Pope Leo XII’s great 1891 work Rerum Novarum (Of the New Things), often called the “Magna Carta of the Church’s social teachings.” Given that we are entering another election season, it is helpful to reflect upon these teachings. This article will outline that first of the modern Church documents on society, with later articles describing how this teaching has been developed since then.
Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerurm Novarum in the context of the Industrial Revolution, which led to such new realities as large corporations and unions, the increasing importance of capital, the benefits of great wealth, innovations and economic mobility, and the curses of great poverty, oppressive working conditions and class conflict. There were also many new theories bandied about, from socialism to laise faire capitalism and overall an excessive concern about material wealth, consumption and merely technological growth. In this context, Pope Leo XIII brought the focus back to what the popular theories were ignoring, the dignity of each human person as one called by God to pursue virtue and truth, whose goal is everlasting life. Socialists would subordinate that dignity to government, unrestrained markets to economic forces, and materialism to consumption and technology. Pope Leo argued that government, economics, and all other forces should not dominate but support the human person and those institutions that are closest to the person, in particular the family, the churches, and other intermediate institutions.
In particular, the encyclical strongly defended the right to private property as necessary for justice and the freedom of the family, the church, and other private groups. But he also said that precisely because private property is important, all peoples, including those at the lower rungs of society, should have access to it. Thus, he strongly defended the right to a just wage sufficient for the dignity of individuals and families; and he taught that work should be in humane conditions and limited to decent hours, lest it infringe upon each person’s ability to develop a family, faith and a role society. In promoting broad based and rational reform, he opposed the idea class conflict. Rather, as he put it, that the different classes “should be united not only in the bond of friendship but also in the bond of brotherly love.”