Here’s Why You Should Add Reading ‘Rerum Novarum’ to Your Labor Day Weekend Plans

Fr. Mike Liledahl

Here’s Why You Should Add Reading ‘Rerum Novarum’ to Your Labor Day Weekend Plans

Catholic Social Teaching. If you were to ask five different people what these three words mean you would probably get five different answers, and that includes if you were to ask five theologians. Catholic social teaching has grown today to include so many issues that to narrow it down simply to economics, politics, or the hot button social issues in our society today would be a great disservice to the body of magisterial work on the matter.

But, as expansive as the topic may be today, it is generally agreed that our modern understanding of Catholic social teaching begins with a single document, an encyclical written by Pope Leo XIII in 1891 entitled Rerum Novarum.  As with all encyclicals the title comes from the first words of the encyclical itself, here the Latin words for “New Things,” and so we can gather more from the subtitle of the encyclical what the topic is, “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor.”

This document marks a developmental shift in Church thinking on the topic of workers, employers, and the state. It is the first document to address these issues thoroughly since the developed world had made the transition from a primarily agrarian society to one marked by the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the development of capital.

It is also important to note that this document was written before the Communist Revolution in Russia. While it doesn’t specifically address communism, it does evaluate the broader issue of socialism, which was in heavy discussion in the late 1800s.

Rerum Novarum lays the groundwork for the rights and duties of both workers and owners of capital that echo through to our day. A few of the biggest claims they make involve the rights of the worker to collective bargaining and a just wage and the duties of the capital owners to provide these things.  The right to collective bargaining, or in other words, to form unions for the protection of the workers is a basic right of the worker, the encyclical states. Without this right workers would be left to their own largely ineffective and dangerous wage negotiation efforts. The employer, desiring as large a profit as possible, would hire those workers who can do the work for the lowest wage possible leaving the skilled worker in an almost impossible situation. How much work can they do for as little wage as the employer will pay becomes a balancing act that often leaves empty stomachs at the table of the worker’s family. By being able to bargain collectively as a group of workers, the right of the worker to receive a just wage is best able to be upheld.

But, as Archbishop Fulton Sheen once pointed out, the right to collective bargaining is not an absolute right, but depends on the collective body serving the common good.  He argues that once a collective bargaining group fails to continue to serve the common good, they lose the right to collective bargaining. This line of argumentation brings up the point of not only rights but duties that workers and owners have. Each of these groups have obligations to the other and to society at large.  These duties are outlined in Rerum Novarum for the first time in Catholic teaching in an organized, magisterial way.

Now, you may be thinking as I did initially, that the world moves and changes very quickly, especially in matters of economics and the power structure between workers and owners. Rerum Novarum was written in 1891, almost 130 years ago. Hasn’t enough changed in the world that a newer document would be required? Thankfully, popes after Leo XIII have issued encyclicals in the tradition of Rerum Novarum that accomplish two things -- they honor the primacy of this particular encyclical but also add applications to the current situations.  Some of the more famous ones in this line include Quadragesimo Anno (literally, 40 years) on the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum written by Pope Pius XI and Centesimus Annus (literally, 100 years written by St. Pope John Paul II.

Both of these two encyclicals commemorate the achievement of Rerum Novarum as well as update principles to current affairs. When Pope Pius XI wrote in 1931 World War I had just ended and Europe in particular was going through massive change and upheaval dealing with the ramifications of this war. In 1991, when Pope St. John Paul II wrote, the USSR was on the verge of collapse (the USSR would dissolve in late December of 1991). The direction of the world at the end of the Cold War and the ongoing conflict between what we simplistically call capitalism vs. communism or socialism needed to be reframed, especially in the Eastern European region of the world where JPII grew up. It necessitated an updated look at how Catholic social teaching would apply to the world. Needless to say, St. Pope John Paul II succeeded and his encyclical, it can easily be argued, would have a greater impact than the original Rerum Novarum.

Catholic social teaching is often where the rubber meets the road. It’s where the moral principles of Catholic belief encounter and attempt to shape the lives of people and communities. As those people and communities grow and change a new application of the social teaching of the Church becomes needed. But although how the principles are applied may change, the principles themselves cannot change. The principles of the rights and duties of the worker and the employer are first laid out in a systematic way in this ground-breaking encyclical.

“Re-reading [Rerum Novarum] in the light of contemporary realities,” Pope John Paul II wrote, “enables us to appreciate the Church's constant concern for and dedication to categories of people who are especially beloved to the Lord Jesus.”

So, on this Labor Day, if you have the time, a read through of the encyclical Rerum Novarum would be a good thing to do in between sleeping in on a day off and enjoying a late summer BBQ. For what better day to remember the rights and duties of those we celebrate with Labor Day itself?