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November 13, 2010

Rerum Novarum

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Rerum Novarum (“Of New Things”), the encyclical published by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, is a hallmark treatise on Catholic social justice. It explicitly supports the rights of laborers and the protection of private property. It describes the duties of workers, employers, the state, organizations such as unions, and Christian institutions, especially the Church. It has been noted that the princples are not new, but that this encyclical applies the traditional views of the Church to a new world, targeting specifically the social products of industrialization and the tenets of Socialism.



  • Both the Catholic Encyclopedia and the Wikipedia entries for Rerum Novarum quote ¶45.
  • Wikipedia also highlights ¶19, ¶20 & ¶22.
  • The Wikipedia entry notes that this document is a clear basis for the positions taken by Bp. Morehouse in The Iron Heel by Jack London, who wrote from the Socialist perspective.


Capital & Labor

  1. Revolutionary change has moved from politics to economics, and the the result is a degeneracy of morals.
  2. This document discusses and defines the rights and duties of the rick and the poor, of capital and labor respectively.
  3. A remedy must be found for the misery that has been imposed on the working class through the elimination of protective organizations (guilds), ungodly laws and the greed of a comparatively small number of rich people.
  4. The socialist answer is based on envy, unjust to both classes, and it distorts the functions of the state.
  5. The public assumption of possessions attacks the interests and motives of wage earners.

The Right to Personal Property

  1. Reason separates man from the animals; therefore, it is fitting and just that permanent possession to satisfy future needs be his right and not only temporary possession to satisfy immediate needs.
  2. Man should be able to own the soil so to thereby plan to meet needs continually. Man precedes the state.
  3. God gave the Earth for use by men and all subsistence comes from its produce, directly or indirectly.
  4. Cultivating the land impresses man’s personality on the fruits of labor.
  5. Denying the rights to the fruits of labor is unjust.
  6. It is commonly understood through reason that the division and private ownership of property is a natural law. This is supported by divine law in the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet.”
  7. These rights are made clearer with respect to the society of the family, which precedes and is therefore independent of the state.
  8. A father must provide for his family and should expect that his personality impressed in his labor be continued. The family precedes community.
  9. It is in grave error that a civil government take control over the family. Socialists replace home with state, against natural law.
  10. The community of goods must be rejected and private ownership of property upheld as a matter of justice.

The Solution

  1. Religion is an integral part of the solution. For the Church to remain silent on the issue would be negligent.
  2. People have different skills and stengths, a diversity that is advantageous to the community when each plays his part.
  3. From sin comes suffering which man must endure. He who denies this or seeks comfort in the world is not realistic and can bring forth worse evils.

Class Conflicts

  1. Classes (capital & labor, rich & working class) are not naturally opposed, but instead rely on each other. Mutual agreement promotes order in society.
  2. Duties binding the proletarian and the worker are enumerated in this paragraph:
    • Workers should do a good job, protect and respect property, maintain peace and order, and not follow men of evil principles.
    • Employers should respect the dignity of the employee, not misuse employee for gain, keep in mind the good of the soul of the employee and not overwork the employee.
    • Profiting at the need of others is condemned. (James 5:4)
    • Since the employed have meager means compared to the rich, they should be protected by the rich owner.
  3. With the afterlife in mind, the Church sets yet higher standards, to bind the classes in friendly cooperation. The suffering of labor too can be redemptive when united with the suffering of Christ. (2 Tim 2:12)
  4. Riches do not guarentee happiness, but more often hinders it (eternally). (Mt 19:23-24, Lk 6:24-25) We will be judged on our use of God’s gifts. Our excesses should be shared out of charity, a Christian duty. (Lk 11:41, Acts 20:35, Mt 25:40)
  5. Poverty and the need to earn a living are not shameful. (2 Cor 8:9) Jesus lived the life of a carpenter. (Mark 6:3)
  6. Virtue is the true worth of a man. (Mt 5:3) Indeed, God welcomes the lowly. (Mt 11:28) This supresses the pride of the rich and gives hope to the poor.
  7. The goal is brotherly love, not just friendship between the classes. We are brothers with a common Father. (Rom 8:17). If this were the goal of all, strife would end.
  8. The Church promotes these things through her teaching.

Christian Institutions

  1. Proven in the past, a return to Christian life, institutions, and principles is the way to heal society.
  2. The Church doesn’t neglect temporal insterests, as morality leads to blessings, restrains greed (1 Tim 6:10), and promotes frugal living.
  3. The Church creates and maintains associations to help relieve poverty. (Acts 4:34) Such giving is voluntary, and thus, piety.
  4. State charity cannot replace Christian charity, as it is void of virtue.
  5. Cooperation of all is needed and the state can play a part.

The State

  1. A ‘state’ conforms to reason, natural law and divine wisdom. A ruler has the power to serve the common good of all classes.
  2. The interests of all classes are equal to the state and neglict of one for another is irrational. Justice is ‘distributive’.
  3. All citizens should contribute, but not necessarily in the same way or degree. The success of society depends on the working class.
  4. The state must safeguard the community and its members, ruling after the example of God.
  5. Public authority under the law should be available to protect the peace, and its limits explicit and kept.
  6. The public authority has a duty to prevent and punish injury, especially that done to the poor.
  7. Protection of private property is a duty of the state.
  8. Strikes injure trade and public interests and may result in violence. The law should remove causes for worker-employer conflicts over time.
  9. The state should protect the interests of mens’ souls. All men are equal in the regard. Trading soul for servitude violates God’s divine rights. (Gn 1:28; Rom 10:12)
  10. Obligation to work should cease on Sundays and Holy Days so that man may worship. (Ex 20:8; Gn 2:2)
  11. Excessive labor is unjust. Man should not be pushed past his limits and should be allowed to rest, body and soul.


  1. Wages are freely agreed-upon. The public authority can help ensure payment for and performance of work.
  2. Self-preservation is natural law. Work is necessary to this end, especially for the poor. Inseparable aspects of work are that it is both personal and necessary. (Gn 3:19)
  3. Hard working conditions are the product of force and injustice. Societies and boards, protected by the state, should help safeguard workers.
  4. A sensible man’s wages should be sufficient to support the family with some left for the future. Private ownership must be protected.
  5. Private ownership promotes class equity. Men having a share in the outcome work harder. Unfair taxation by the state is cruel and unjust.

Associations, Organizations & Societies

  1. Establishment of organizations that aid workers in distress and their widows and orphans, and that provide for the welfare of the young and the old benefits all.
  2. Unions do all of these, and also advance the arts. They should increase in number and efficiency.
  3. Weak men know when to seek aid. Civil society is natural. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10; Proverbs 18:19)
  4. Private societies have a different purpose than public ones and provide advantages to members. A state that forbids the formation of private associations contradicts its own principles.
  5. Associations may be forbidden or dissolved if unlawful, dangerous, or violates individuals’ rights.
  6. Instead of protecting their interests, some (contemporary) state authorities have unjustly hampered Catholic societies and supported others that harm religion and society alike (trend).
  7. Some associations are under the power of ill-principled leaders. Christians must often choose between joining bad organizations or starting their own.
  8. Intrusion by the state into the affairs of an association can kill its spirit and motivation.
  9. An effective association must be guided by firm and wise leaders and to adopt appropriate rules and structure.
  10. Associations must attend chiefly to the religious and moral well-being of its members. (Mt 16:26; Mt 6:32-33)
  11. Responsibilities of offices should be apportioned for the good of the whole, funds administered honestly, disputes settled justly, a continuous supply of work arranged, and sufficient funds set aside to benefit members in need.
  12. Historically, the lives of Christians have been improved through hard work, obedience to rules that promote peace and justice, and brotherly love.
  13. The condition of the working class can be protected and improved by good organizations.
  14. Good unions are of great service and benefit to the spiritually lost.


  1. Last appeal for workers, leaders, and rulers to be mindful of their respective duties and a call for re-establishment of good organizations to combat evil at its roots.
  2. The Church will always be willing to cooperate. Charity is key. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)
  3. Benediction.


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