Leo XIII: Rerum Novarum

A Summary Article by Gerald Darring

One reason compelling Leo XIII to write Rerum Novarum was his conviction that the present age has handed over the working poor to inhumane employers and greedy competitors (a. 6). He saw the working poor as needy and helpless (a.66) and insufficiently protected against injustices and violence (a. 32). His sympathy went out to these poor, who have a "downcast heart" (a. 37).

There has been a strong tendency under capitalism to judge the poor harshly. Leo was not party to such judgment. He felt that most of the working poor live undeservedly in miserable and wretched conditions (a. 5). The poor work so that they can procure and retain property and in order to get the means necessary for livelihood (a. 9), and most of the working poor prefer to secure better conditions by honest toil, without doing wrong to anyone (a. 55). The pope did, however, acknowledge that the working poor are envious of the rich (a. 7), and he thought that the minds of the working poor are inflamed and always ready for disorder (a. 66).

Leo was careful to point out that the poor are equal in citizenship to the rich (a. 49) and that their work is the source of the nation's wealth (a. 51). In making these points, he challenged the position of those who belittle and look down on the poor, considering the poor, even the working poor, a burden on society. Even more significantly, he challenged the position of those who use religion to support their oppression of the poor. In a clear anticipation of what would later be known as the preferential option for the poor, Leo XIII let it be known that the favor of God seems to incline more toward the poor as a class (a. 37). Those, therefore, who favor the poor in attitude and action are God-like.

The working poor, Leo asserts, should be liberated from the savagery of greedy people (a. 59). Those who seek to assist the working poor can do so through three types of institutions: associations for giving material aid, privately-funded agencies to help workers, and foundations to care for dependents (a. 68).

In speaking to the working poor, Leo XIII had much to say out of his concern for order in society. He wanted the poor to understand that the lowest in society cannot be made equal with the highest (a. 26) and that poverty is no disgrace (a. 37). To suffer and endure is human (a. 27), even if the suffering presents itself in the form of poverty, and anyway, what counts from the perspective of eternity is not how much we have but how we use what we have (a. 33). The working poor are told not to injure the property or person of their employers (a. 30) and not to seize forcibly the property of others (a. 55) because private ownership must be preserved inviolate (a. 23).

The message to the working poor up to this point seems to be aimed at calming and consoling the poor, encouraging them to accept their position in society without rancor and without doing harm to others. Leo XIII was particularly concerned about harmony in society, and he sought to enlist the aid of the working poor in preserving good order. But there was something else that concerned him very much: the material well-being of the working poor. He told them in no uncertain terms that they should receive what will enable them to be housed, clothed, secure, and to live without hardship (a. 51). He made it clear that they were not to accept unjust treatment as though it were inevitable, and that they were to stand up for their rights at the same time that they helped to preserve good order in society. Protect your own interests, but refrain from violence and never riot (a. 30); your demands should be reasonable (a. 37); press your claims with reason (a. 82); form unions (a. 69) but do not strike (a. 56). The message about preserving good order is clear and unmistakable, but so is the message about standing up for rights. Leo XIII wanted the working poor to protect their interests, to make demands, to press their claims, and the principal means for doing this was the formation of unions. In their efforts to claim their rights, the working poor should find in the government an ally, and Leo made it clear that the working poor should be given special consideration by the government (a. 54).

The social activist component of Leo's program for dealing with the working poor was matched with a moral component. Christian morals must be re-established (a. 82), Leo felt, for true dignity resides in moral living (a. 37). For the worker, morality consists in doing one's work entirely and conscientiously (a. 30), in contributing to the sum total of common goods (a. 50), in working harmoniously with one's wealthy employer (a. 28), and in not associating with vicious people (a. 30). Leo unites these worker obligations with the universal Christian obligations of religious practice and a simple lifestyle, and he proclaims that "if human society is to be healed, only a return to Christian life and institutions will heal it" (a. 41).

Rerum Novarum also contained a message to those who deal with the working poor. Early on in his encyclical, Leo XIII declared that the working poor must be cared for (a. 5). This immediately put him at odds with those proponents of laissez faire who held that industry should not be burdened with moral concerns about the welfare of workers. For Leo, employers have clear moral obligations: workers are not to be treated as slaves (a. 31); the dignity of your workers' human personality must be respected (a. 31); do not use people as things for gain (a. 31); do not oppress the needy and wretched for your own profit (a. 32). The approach to employers is on a high moral plane, but it is also very practical: you need your poor worker, so work with him harmoniously (a. 28). It is immoral to treat workers unjustly, and it is also not in the best interest of ownership and management.

Employers are not to give impossible or inappropriate work (a. 31). They are to give every worker what is justly due him (a. 32), and they are not to harm the savings of workers or regard their property as anything but sacred (a. 32). Leo combines these employer obligations with the duty to consider the religious interests and spiritual well-being of workers (a. 31) and to refrain from exposing workers to corrupting influences (a. 31). The result of this combination is a message of concern for the worker as a full human being, a person with physical, spiritual, psychological, moral, and familial needs.

Since employers have wealth, Leo has something to say to them about their wealth and their position in society as wealthy people. He warns them against the pitfalls of being wealthy, pointing out that wealth does not end sorrow and that it is a hindrance to eternal happiness (a. 34). In view of eternity, what counts is not how much we have but how we use what we have (a. 33), and we will have to account to God for our use of wealth (a. 34). The wealthy are told that their goods are for their perfection and the benefit of others (a. 36), and they are encouraged to share their goods when they see others in need: when the need is extreme, the demand is of justice; otherwise, the demand is of charity (a. 36).

Leo tells the wealthy the same thing he told the working poor: Christian morals must be re-established (a. 82), for true dignity resides in moral living (a. 37). Morality for the wealthy employers consists in coming to terms with their "proud spirit" (a. 37) and being "moved toward kindness" (a. 37). They are to be mindful of their duties (a. 82), which means that they are not to oppress workers with unjust burdens or inhuman conditions (a. 53).

Leo XIII deals in Rerum Novarum with a number of specific issues relating to the condition of workers.

Workers have a natural right to form unions, and this right is beyond the authority of government (a. 72). The associations that Leo envisioned could be of workers alone or of workers and employers (a. 69), for he dreamt of a harmonious society in which the different levels of society cooperated rather than competed. The encyclical comes down strongly in favor of unions, stating that their increase is to be desired (a. 69).The immediate object of unions is the private advantage of those associated (a. 71), so that workers are to use their unions to secure increase in goods of body, soul and prosperity (a. 76). In keeping with the spiritual tone of Leo's worldview, the encyclical states that the principal goal of unions is moral and religious perfection (a. 77).Wise direction and organization are essential to the success of unions (a. 76). Members are free to adopt any organization and rules, but they should keep in mind that the organization should suit the purpose (a. 76). The proper operation of unions involves offices, funds, and arbitration (a. 78), and the union should seek to insure that every worker has sufficient work and that workers in need are helped (a. 79).

Leo XIII wanted very much for workers to claim their rights, but he also wanted harmony and peace in society. He took the position that strikes are evil and should not be permitted (a. 56), placing his hopes on the ability of employers and employees to sort things out amicably with the help of the government and the Church.

Wages must go beyond the free consent of the employer and employee; they must go beyond the personal desire of the employer; and they must satisfy the right to secure things to sustain life (a. 61-62). Wages should never be less than enough to support a worker who is thrifty and upright (a. 63): a worker should receive "a wage sufficiently large to enable him to provide comfortably for himself, his wife and his children" (a. 65). If a worker accepts less than this, he submits to force: he is the victim of injustice (a. 63).Work should not be so long that it dulls the spirit or that the body sinks from exhaustion (a. 59). The factors in the establishment of hours are listed as: the nature of the work; the circumstances of time and place; the physical condition of the workers (a. 59).

A worker should "cease from work at regular intervals and rest" (a. 59), and he should be given "as much leisure as will compensate for the energy consumed by toil" (a. 60). Writing at a time when it was commonplace to work people in factories seven days a week, Leo used religious obligations as a weapon in the struggle for a six-day work week, and he insisted that there should be rest combined with religion (a. 58).

Special care must be taken that women and children are not treated unjustly in the workplace (a. 60), and health safeguards are to be provided for all workers in the workplace, especially in factories (a. 64).

Leo XIII took a strong stand on the private ownership of property. Private ownership must be preserved inviolate (a. 23) and it must be regarded as sacred (a. 65). It is wrong, however, for ownership to be limited to a small number of people, and private property must be spread among the largest number of population (a. 65). In line with this, Leo declared that there should be "a more equitable division of goods" (a. 66), in other words, less of the wealth should be in hands of the few rich and there should be fewer poor people.

The purpose of government is to cause public and individual well-being (a. 48). The government must protect the community and its constituent parts (a. 52), and it should protect equitably each and every class of citizens (a. 49). Equitable protection of all citizens means that government should give special consideration to the weak and poor (a. 54), and this special care should include the working poor (a. 54).

The government should seek to improve the condition of workers (a. 48) because part of its task is to safeguard the well-being and interests of workers (a. 49) and because it is in the government's self-interest to improve workers' conditions (a. 51). The government's care for workers should include protection of the goods of the worker's soul (a. 57). The government's intervention in matters of wages, hours, and working conditions should be avoided (a. 64), since these matters should be worked out between employers and employees. The government does not have the authority to forbid unions (a. 72), but it can oppose, prevent, and dissolve unions when their objective is at variance with good morals, justice, or the welfare of the state (a. 72).As custodian of good order in society, the government should see to it that there are no strikes (a. 56), but more than that, it should seek to remove the causes of strikes (a. 56). It should also protect private property: "the masses ought to be kept within the bounds of their moral obligations" (a. 55).

The government must permit freedom of action to individuals and families (a. 52). It cannot abolish private property but it can control its exercise, although crushing taxes should be avoided (a. 67). Civil power should not enter arbitrarily into the privacy of homes, but the government can and should give public aid to families in extreme difficulty (a. 21). It can restore rights within the family, but it is not the government's job to care for children (a. 21). Public authority should intervene whenever "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" (a. 52). Specifically, the power and authority of law should be employed if strikes or work-stoppages threaten disorder, if family life begins to disintegrate, if opportunities for religious practice are not provided workers, if working conditions threaten the integrity of morals, or "if the employer class should oppress the working class with unjust burdens or should degrade them with conditions inimical to human personality or to human dignity" (a. 53).

If the Church is disregarded, human striving will be in vain (a. 25). The contributions of the Church to the solution of social problems include the following:
a. The Church draws from the Gospel teachings that will solve or ameliorate the problem (a. 25).
b. The Church regulates the life and morals of individuals (a. 25).
c. The Church ameliorates workers' conditions through her institutions (a. 25), for she excels in works of mercy (a. 43) and religious societies care for all forms of human misery (a. 44).
d. The Church seeks to unite classes in protecting the interests of workers (a. 25). She can bring together the rich and the poor (a. 29), and she seeks to join the two social classes in closest neighborliness and friendship (a. 33).
e. The Church points to the cure and administers the remedy (a. 40).