By Corrine Winter
Most of us are familiar from our historical studies with the term Industrial Revolution – referring to a massive change in the 19th century from a primarily agrarian economy toward an economy based on manufacturing. Among the consequences were the growth of an urban population of laborers who could not grow their own food and often were not paid enough to provide their families with basic necessities.
The situation raised, among other questions, the issues of just wages and just treatment of laborers by the owners of the factories (often called capitalists because they had money). Toward the end of the 19th century, Pope Leo XIII, noting with concern both the needs and sufferings of workers and the growing popularity of Marxism as a call to social and economic equality, called Catholics to stand for just labor practices in connection with their own faith tradition. His encyclical, Rerum Novarum (of new things) is generally cited as the starting point of Catholic Social Teaching, a tradition that would be carried on by all succeeding popes and that would find expression in the documents of the Second Vatican Council as well.
In the encyclical, Pope Leo cited Scripture but drew more heavily on the concept of natural law as it is found in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas. The pope asserted that both Marxist socialism and exploitive labor practices found among many industrialists violated the laws of nature, which are laws from God, the creator. Human reason, he insisted, should readily grasp that every person has inherent dignity and certain rights that cannot be abrogated by civil law or by economic customs. Therefore, the worker should understand her/his duties to provide a fair day’s work and to do no intentional harm to either employer or property. The employer, in turn, should recognize his/her duty to provide a wage that allows the worker to meet basic needs as well as to ensure humane workloads and working conditions. Further, the worker should have sufficient time and resources to meet religious and family responsibilities. Pope Leo gave a strong voice in his letter to the rights of workers. He defended their right to form unions and to insist without violence on recognition of their rights. He urged especially the formation of Catholic Labor Unions in which workers would find support as well for the whole of their faith tradition.
Along with the God-given dignity of every person and the call for just social and economic practices, Pope Leo sounded a number of other themes that mark Catholic Social Teaching in general. These include the duty of the Church to care not only about spiritual needs but about all human needs, and the priority of the common good in the adjudication of individual or collective rights and responsibilities.
The Church’s responsibility he sets in the context of God as the source and measure of all good, of all social duties and of all authority. He says of religious leaders: “they should never cease to urge upon men of every class, upon the high-placed as well as the lowly, the Gospel doctrines of Christian life; by every means in their power they must strive to secure the good of the people (n. 61).” The common good, to which every document of Catholic Social Teaching calls, is complex and difficult to define in simple terms, but I find helpful, the following definition from moral theologian Brian Hehir: “the complex of spiritual, temporal, and material conditions needed in society if each person is to have the opportunity to develop his or her human potential.”*
Pope Leo is often credited with opening a conversation between the Church and the changing world. Rerum Novarum is his best know encyclical, but he wrote as well on the abolition of slavery, on Church/state relations, and on the relationship of the Church with the emerging culture of the United States. Missionary efforts increased during his time with efforts to respond to differences in culture. He also called for a return in general to the theological approach of Thomas Aquinas, an approach that pays a great deal of attention to the realities of human experience.
Certainly Pope Leo wrote in a different time and did not have all the answers even then. Nonetheless, when I read his descriptions of the questions facing society in 1891, I can’t help reflecting that the questions still face us today. What is a truly just economic system? What are the relative rights of all those involved? What is the role of Catholics in responding to the situation in which we find ourselves? Those and similar questions would garner the attention, as well, of the bishops meeting at the Second Vatican Council.
* Quotation from Hehir’s article, “Catholic Social Teaching” in The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.
(Corinne Winter is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)