Issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, this encyclical letter explores the conditions of the working classes in the wake of the industrial revolution. Critics say the Church arrived a little late and out of breath on this issue. Pope Leo XIII’s response was not quick, but this meant he was able to draw on experience. Catholic thinkers such as Archbishop von Kettler and various Catholic social movements had been responding to the poverty and exploitation of wage labourers for several decades. Their work and their thinking informed the Pope’s teaching.
Leo XIII criticised both the individualism of liberalism and the subordination of the person to society by socialism. Leo XIII set out the rights and duties of employers and employees.
Critique of Socialism
Taking issue with the socialists, Leo XIII affirmed the right to private property. He opposed State interference in the life of the family, except where a family was suffering from ‘extreme necessity’ or in case of a ‘grave disturbance of mutual rights’(n 4 – 12). He rejected class conflict and saw a strong role for the Church in bringing the classes together, reminding each of their duties to the other (n 15 – 17).
Critique of Liberalism
He was also critical of liberalism and free market economics. He said employers should respect the dignity of their workers instead of treating them as slaves or looking on them “merely as so much muscle or physical power” (n 16). They should ensure that workers have time for religious duties, and for rest, and not be taxed beyond their strength or employed in “work unsuited to their sex or age.” (n 16) One of the most important teachings in Rerum Novarum is that employers should pay workers a just wage. Leo XII defined a just wage as sufficient to support the worker and their family (n 34). Employees on the other hand should carry out their work honestly, not damage capital or “outrage the person of an employer”, or use violence in pursuing their cause (n 34).
Leo XIII saw the role of the State as providing laws and institutions that would foster the common good. The State should protect the rights of individuals, especially those who are “poor and helpless” (n 25 – 30). He affirmed the right of workers to create their own associations for mutual assistance and to defend their interests, even, as a last resort, by striking (n 36 – 41).
In Rerum Novarum Pope Leo XIII uses a natural law approach. He deduces positions and guidelines for action from natural law principles using reason.
Contribution to Catholic Social Teaching
Rerum Novarum is considered the first social encyclical of the modern period. It placed work issues at the centre of justice in society. Several major Catholic Social Teaching documents celebrate significant anniversaries of Rerum Novarum and update its teaching.