Rerum Novarum: how Leo XIII started a revolution


When Pope Leo XIIl released the encyclical Rerum Novarum (On the conditions of the working classes or labour) on May 15, 1891 (125 years ago this year) he may not have realised it was the start of a revolution. The revolution developed with future popes and came to be known as Catholic social teaching. Leo XIII’s encyclical, while only 64 paragraphs, demanded that all peoples note their role in society, especially in relation to the role of the state, the balance between labour and capital and the common good. Leo XIII acknowledged these were not easy issues to tackle, but when openly discussed would be handled with truth and justice. This makes the encyclical as relevant today as it was revolutionary in 1891.

The key concerns raised in Rerum Novarum cover areas we can identify with today, firstly, the enormous fortunes of some few individuals against the utter poverty of the masses, “whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings . . . may employ them, as stewards of God’s providence, for the benefits of others” (#24). Secondly, the growth of urban centres that can lead to a decline in public morality due to an excess of drinking, drugs or involvement with and in prostitution. Thirdly, Leo XIII discusses the exploitation of workers, especially by greedy employers who could well own the factory where you worked, the house you lived in and the shop in which you bought your groceries. The encyclical expressly describes the importance of using reason, a gift from God, to guide us to fulfil our needs and understand the needs of others.

The main guiding principles in the encyclical help us to live in harmony with God, self, others and creation. The first being the principle of human dignity that as people made in the image and likeness of God we are called to life to the full (John 10:10). Wages should be an amount to be sufficient to support the wage earner and their family comfortably, with “prudence” to have some savings (#43-46). Leo XIII discussed the concept of property ownership and states that the “law should favour ownership, and its policy should be to introduce as many as possible of the people to become owners . . . property will certainly become more equitably divided” (#46-47).

The principle of the common good is at the heart of the encyclical. Leo XIII states how society must act for the well-being of all people and the whole person. Every aspect of life must lead to the common good, so people can achieve their human potential. The power of the state to rule comes from God and this power must be exercised to protect all as God would (#35). This is justice for Leo XIII. Justice is sacred and the rights of the most vulnerable are to be protected, as they are the group least able to protect themselves (#36-38).

Following the principle of the common good, Leo XIII examines the roles of both the employer and the employee; both have clearly defined roles and appropriate behaviour to follow if harmony and the laws of God and nature are to be adhered to. The employer must not look upon his employee as a “bondsman” or of value only because of their physical prowess. The employee work must be of value, suited to their age and sex. The employer must not expose the employee to corrupting influences, dangerous occasions. The employee must not be restricted from being able to practise their religious beliefs, as their souls are at stake (#42). Leo XIII emphasises that these ideals would bring about peace, harmony, stability, and bring the classes closer together (#47).

Leo XIII also praised the work of those groups who cared for and promoted the common good through workingmen unions and associations with a special mention of those formed by Catholics. These groups, along with the work of confraternities and religious orders, should not be interfered with by the state as they are guided and inspired by the Holy Spirit and so above the state‘s control (#54-57).

Leo XIII saw the role of the Church as speaking out to protect those in need within this newly industrialised world, as their work is a response to the Gospel and to offer hope to all people. The Church’s role is to educate people about the common good and give all grounds to have hope leading to the establishing of Christian morals. The Church will cooperate with the state, but will not be shackled by it.

In 2016, when we listen, read or watch the news, not a great deal seems to have changed.

So maybe we need to follow the example of Leo XIII and ask important questions in Aotearoa New Zealand. What issues from 1891 are still relevant today regarding labour and industrial relations? How does unbridled capitalism and globalisation affect each person? What happens to workers and their families if they are unable to eat healthy food, have access to medical care, education and affordable housing?

Perhaps to help answer them we can turn again to Rerum Novarum and seek the wisdom contained in its pages, why not give it a go?
— Lyn Smith lectures at The Catholic Institute of Aotearoa New Zealand (TCI) in Auckland.

Quotes from Rerum Novarum
“Rights must be religiously respected wherever they exist, and it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury, and to protect every one in the possession of his own. Still, when there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the state; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the state. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.” (RN37)

“Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.” (RN45)

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Reader Interactions


  1. Stephen Arabadjis says

    To whom it may concern,
    My name is Fr. Stephen Arabadjis.  I am a member of the Society of St. Pius X.  But I am in my 7th year of Sabbatical.Therefore I was hoping your group could do a 54 day rosary novena for my intentions.  But any prayers and sacrifices would be greatly appreciated.  I know Our Lady will reward you generously for this.
    In Our Lady,
    Fr. Arabadjis
    P.S. Thanking you in advance, since I don’t always get all my communications.

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