Rerum Novarum in context

political cartoon of workers uniting to form a giant fist
Res novae
Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical Rerum Novarum at the end of the nineteenth century. The previous hundred years had seen a huge upheaval in the way people in the Western world lived and thought. Some changes happened so fast that, even after a hundred years, the world hadn’t yet figured out how to deal adequately with situations that were already a fact of life. One proposed “solution” to the problems of the Western world was set forth in The Communist Manifesto, written by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, but as Pope Leo saw clearly, not only didn’t the Marxist solution fix anything, it only made things worse. That’s the main reason the Holy Father wrote Rerum Novarum, which is perhaps the first papal encyclical that found widespread resonance outside the Catholic Church.

Linguistic context: The title

Before we look more closely at the social, political, and religious context in which this encyclical letter was written, I’d like to say something about its title. The tradition in naming papal encyclicals is to use the first phrase in the text of the Latin original as the title, and then that title gets translated into various modern languages, along with the rest of the text. That works well enough in most cases — Evangelium vitae becomes The Gospel of Life, Veritatis splendor becomes The Splendor of Truth. But this practice doesn’t work very well in the case of this particular encyclical, because the opening phrase is an idiomatic expression that is pure nonsense (and, in this case, very misleading nonsense) when translated literally.

The encyclical's subtitle is
more descriptive than the title.
I first encountered this encyclical in an anthology that I used in my humanities classes at a state university. Although I had never read Rerum Novarum, I was generally familiar with its contents, and was delighted to have an excuse to familiarize myself with it and teach it to my students. But I was shocked to see that the English title given to it in this anthology was “Concerning New Things.” Now, I can imagine someone entirely ignorant of Latin plugging those two words, “rerum novarum,” into something like Babblefish or Google Translate and getting “of new things” as the resulting translation, but I was shocked that such an otherwise well-edited anthology would propose such a woefully bad title for this important document.

Let me explain the idiom, and you’ll see why I was so dismayed. The Romans (those ancient people who invented the Latin tongue) were a very traditional, conservative people. Quite unlike the Greeks, they resisted change and innovation as long as they could, and had little affection for novelty of any kind. New things, in their estimation, were almost never as good as the old things that they had been doing since time immemorial. In fact, new things could cause a lot of trouble, particularly in the political sphere. For this reason, the Roman term for something that would completely upset and overturn the existing order was res novae, literally “new things” (always plural -- apparently the Romans could tolerate a single “new thing,” but became alarmed if it multiplied).

As it happens, Latin itself (Deo gratias!) has also resisted changing much since the days of Cicero and Cato the Younger, so that in “modern” Church Latin res novae means exactly what it has always meant, namely revolution — a most dangerous and destructive force. So in English (and, for that matter, French, Italian, Spanish, German, or Portuguese), you and I may talk about “revolution,” but in Latin it is still res novae. Rerum novarum is simply res novae in the genitive case — a direct translation of that phrase into English would be “of revolution,” not “of new things.”

So you may search in vain for “new things” in Rerum Novarum. Instead, it argues against “a passion for revolutionary change” which, having wrought no end of havoc a century earlier in the political sphere (in France and America), had since spilled over into the economic sphere, where it threatened to do even more harm. Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical in an attempt to stem the destructive tide of revolution, which he saw threatening to destroy society altogether. (If you think he was overreacting, you haven’t read The Communist Manifesto lately.)


Silver coin struck by Vatican to commemorate 75th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.
As long as we’re on the subject of Latin and its translation, let me make one more point — something is always lost in translation. Having practiced the art of translation myself, I can tell you that it is very difficult to strike a balance between getting the exact meaning of the original and making it sound right — usually some compromise is necessary. The English version of this encyclical available on the Vatican website obviously strives to hew very closely to the Latin original, but in doing so it often tortures the English, and certainly makes for turgid reading. The version on the New Advent website, on the other hand, is much more readable, because the translator (whose name is unknown — even to the New Advent site owner) gave himself a much freer hand in making the meaning come through clearly. What I recommend, in this case and any other time you are reading a translation from a language unfamiliar to you, is to read more than one translation, or at least, read one translation with another one in hand for comparison. If you know some Latin, you can try also comparing to the Latin original.

Okay, before we start reading the document, let’s put it in context. Keep in mind that what follows is intended as a thumbnail sketch rather than a penetrating analysis. I’m just trying to paint a cultural background — we’ll have more detail when we get to the foreground, where our interest will be focused.

Social context: Industrial Revolution

Women and children working
in an early textile mill.
Rerum Novarum was promulgated in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII, a little more than a century after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. During that period new technological developments, such as factories where cloth could be woven on huge mechanized looms, began to radically alter the way most people in Europe and North America lived. Not only did they make goods much cheaper to produce, but they put out of business many craftsmen and cottage industries. A lot of people got richer, and a lot more got poorer. While the middle class, i.e., those who were neither peasants nor aristocrats, invested in these new technologies and, as a result, grew in wealth and political prominence, while the old aristocracy began to lose its preeminence and power.

No longer rural

Within a few decades rural people, the descendants of medieval serfs, could no longer support themselves with cottage industries (family owned and operated), so they left the countryside to seek work wherever it could be found. More often than not, this meant either working in mines (e.g., digging coal which was used to power the new industries) or in factories, making textiles and, eventually, a wide array of products that formerly had been fabricated in small workshops by skilled craftsmen. Virtually overnight, entire societies went from being largely agrarian to highly industrialized. The new factories demanded long hours of labor, provided brutal working conditions, and paid extremely poor wages. People accepted these low wages because they were desperate.

In many places, entire new cities sprang up where these new factories were built, ugly and functional with little accommodation for a humane way of life. Housing for industrial workers was hastily constructed, cramped, often unsafe and unsanitary (no indoor plumbing or running water), and very expensive. Disease became a huge problem, while “modern medicine” was still a thing of the future.

Destruction of family life

For the poor, family life had been effectively destroyed. Children who once had helped their parents herd sheep, raise vegetables, or spin wool were now toiling beside them in factories 14 hours a day for pennies (public schools were as yet unheard of at the beginning of this period). Factory and mine owners grew immensely rich at the expense of the workers, who could barely afford to live and often died as a result of their living and working conditions. Banking for the first time became big business, now having a much larger clientele than ever before.

This was a far cry from the agrarian culture of a generation or two earlier, where aristocratic landowners still honored the feudal bond, a moral code that acknowledged the reciprocal duties and obligations that lords and their underlings owed each other. Virtually overnight, the world had become a much more brutal and impersonal place; for many it was a kind of nightmare from which there was no waking. (For a fuller picture, read Charles Dickens's Hard Times.

Political context: The Communist Manifesto

The last line of the Communist Manifesto
calls all workers everywhere
to unite in revolution.
I’m going to skip over a lot here to get to Marx & Engels, but we should to bear in mind that these two were the product of the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement which produced a lot of armchair theorists who thought they knew how to make the world a better place. The problem was that these theories were based on mere abstractions, not lived realities. Whenever whenever someone tried to put those theories into effect, all manner of grief ensued.

Probably the most famous and influential of those theories was that propounded in The Communist Manifesto, by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx (both of whom, by the way, were members of the same bourgeoisie that their tract vilifies). Adapting philosopher G. F. Hegel's theory of historical dialectic, the writers radically transformed it into a view of human history in which, in every age, there is a small, wealthy, and powerful over-class that owns all the land and lords it over a vast, wretched, and powerless underclass who own nothing and have no power over the conditions of their own lives. Eventually some segment of the downtrodden underclass slowly gains power and eventually overthrows their former masters, to become the new overlord class. This process, Marx and Engels said, inevitably repeats itself, time and again, throughout history. They identified the power class of their own day as the bourgeoisie, the middle class that rose out of the peasantry in the Middle Ages and now owned the factories and other  “means of production.”

The Final Solution: Total destruction

The Manifesto asserts that the only way to make the world better is to break this inexorable cycle once and for all. How? By destroying all social classes and building a new, classless society. The document incites workers to recognize their collective power, to rise up and overthrow the middle class by violent means, not only destroying the “bourgeoisie” or “capitalists” (yes, murdering them in their beds, if necessary) but also obliterating every aspect of the entire culture in which they have flourished. This destruction, they insisted, must not only be total but also universal — the revolution must be taken to every corner of the world, reducing to dust and ashes all existing culture, in order to create a “blank slate” on which a new, classless culture could be created. The projected end result would be a global classless society in which all means of production would be owned in common (administered through the State), thus avoiding divisive class structure.

Total control

Marx and Engels, even in the fairyland of their theoretical universe, must have realized that this utopia would be difficult to achieve, because even if you managed to destroy everything, what was to stop people from rebuilding it all again? People love to dream about the good old days, after all. Therefore, the architects of the new society would need to make sure that everyone was on the same page: that is, they would need to control all ideas and dissemination of ideas. And where do ideas come from? Religion, education, art and literature — these would have to be in the iron control of the all-knowing State. The State would also control all means of publication and communication, which are used to spread ideas. And, perhaps most importantly, the family itself would have to be destroyed as the basic unit of society — the State would take over parental duties, and become the object of filial affection.

So you see what I meant about the revolution being global and total — allowing any competing ideologies would could be disastrous. Only one ideology, one truth, one culture could be allowed to exist, the one proposed by the Communist State. The Communist Manifesto insists that reform of  existing conditions, which was propounded by competing socialist theories of the time, would not suffice; only total, violent revolution would secure the conditions for building the new society.

The call to arms presented in the Manifesto instigated a variety of violent revolts around Europe, appealing as it did to the unrest and frustration of workers in many places. And, of course, several years after Pope Leo promulgated Rerum Novarum, it would give rise to successful, organized, and highly destructive revolutions in Russia and, later still, in China.

Religious context: The Church's denunciation of Modernism

Blessed Pope Pius IX,
author of the Syllabus of Errors

It may be useful to compare the encyclical Rerum Novarum to an earlier papal document, the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX (1864). Both documents respond to ideas gaining force in the modern world, but the way they address them, it seems to me, is quite different. The Syllabus is a response to certain intellectual ideas gaining prominence and respectability, which the Church determined not only to be erroneous but also damaging to the role of the Church in society. Many have characterized it as a reactionary document, as if the Church were fighting a last-ditch effort against the inevitable tide of the modern world. That’s not really the case, but it is the idea that lives in the popular mind.

The Catholic Encyclopedia sums up the significance of the Syllabus in this way (emphasis added):
The importance of the Syllabus lies in its opposition to the high tide of that intellectual movement of the nineteenth century which strove to sweep away the foundations of all human and Divine order. The Syllabus is not only the defence of the inalienable rights of God, of the Church, and of truth against the abuse of the words freedom and culture on the part of unbridled Liberalism, but it is also a protest, earnest and energetic, against the attempt to eliminate the influence of the Catholic Church on the life of nations and of individuals, on the family and the school. In its nature, it is true, the Syllabus is negative and condemnatory; but it received its complement in the decisions of the [first] Vatican Council and in the Encyclicals of Leo XIII. It is precisely its fearless character that perhaps accounts for its influence on the life of the Church towards the end of the nineteenth century; for it threw a sharp, clear light upon reef and rock in the intellectual currents of the time.
(If you want to know more about the Syllabus of Errors, a good discussion of it may be found on the website of Catholic Answers magazine.)

One of the encyclicals that served as “complement” to this document is Pope Leo's Rerum Novarum, which is pro-active rather than reactive, practical rather than theoretical. (This may be one reason my hackles go up when I see it referred to as “Concerning New Things,” which suggests the kind of defensive posture that is sometimes attributed to the Syllabus.)

A response, not a reaction

This encyclical is more interested in arguing for a fresh and constructive way of dealing with problems, than it is condemning errors. It wants to argue for the continuing value of religion to modern society and to propose constructive, rather than destructive, ways to deal with the very real problems created by the conditions of modern industrial society. In this document Leo is being persuasive, rather than relying on his papal authority; he wishes to convince his readers of the social benefits of the Church rather than to assert any political force the Church may have. Much as The Communist Manifesto urged a practical application of Marx's political theory, Pope Leo's encyclical offered a practical application of Christian charity to the problems of the modern world. Perhaps because of this, it was well received and exerted a widespread and lasting beneficial influence on society in the Western world.

The fact is, by the end of the nineteenth century, the intellectuals of the world had already decided that religion, and particularly the Catholic Church, was useless baggage left over from a less enlightened age. One of the things Pope Leo wanted to show the world was the error of that idea: the Christian Church was the only institution that truly cares for the well-being of all mankind, and the principles of Christian charity were the only ones that had a hope of creating a just world.

It’s not surprising that the Pope would hold such a view — but it is surprising that he was able to win so much sympathy from those outside the Catholic Church. When you read Rerum Novarum, I hope you will see, as I have, how much indisputable wisdom is in this document, including much that does not even rely on Christian faith as its warrant.  This is a document that aims to appeal to all people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike.

Coming up: Natural law as the groundwork for Leo’s argument

In my next post I’ll begin summarizing and commenting on Rerum Novarum. I’ll start with the first fifteen paragraphs in the New Advent translation (if you are using the Vatican website’s translation, that’s through paragraph 9). Please read along with me, and leave your own comments as we go along.
©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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