Want a better world? Read Rerum Novarum

Who would have guessed that
a papal encyclical with an
untranslatable Latin title would change
not just the Church but the world?
Remember the Year of Faith decreed by Pope Benedict XVI? It began in October 2012, coinciding with the height of the political season here in the United States, as we prepared for national elections. I’ll admit I was, then as now, rather jaded about our national politics — we seem usually to have a choice between “bad” and “even worse.” At the time, I entertained a little pipe dream about a political party that would be founded on the principles of Catholic social teaching, emphasizing subsidiarity, solidarity, and the inherent dignity of the human person.

I still think it would be a capital idea. In fact, I think a lot of people, in addition to Catholics, could get behind a party that promoted these key principles:
Now, I don’t want to get into political polemics on this blog — that sort of thing generally produces more heat than light — but I would like to discuss a document that first brought those three principles, the core of Catholic Social Teaching, to the attention of the world at large. So I’m going to re-publish here on this blog a series of posts that first appeared on a different blog that I created back in the Year of Faith, in which I read, analyze, and comment on Rerum Novarum, an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII which has come to be known as the foundational document of Catholic Social Teaching.

Making the modern world a better place

Leo reminded us that violence and destruction
are not the way to build a better world.
Rerum Novarum (1891) was the first of a long string of papal encyclicals that set out the principles of a Christian response to the problems of the modern world. It addressed problems that were experienced by many people throughout the world, irrespective of creed or country, and thus had a much broader audience than papal writings generally do. Pope Leo XIII, in writing Rerum Novarum, offered a direct response to the Marxist call for revolution, which was firing the imaginations of many who sought to “free workers from their chains” of industrial servitude. In the Communist Manifesto, published almost fifty years earlier, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had insisted that the only solution to the world’s problems was the violent destruction of existing culture, beginning with the warfare of workers against the owners of industry. Their Manifesto struck a deep chord, and many thought it presented the answer to the wretched working conditions under which many people labored in the newly-industrialized world.

Pope Leo wanted to remind the people — Catholics and others — that the destruction called for by the socialists was not the way to build a better world. He proposes a better way for workers and employers to enjoy mutual prosperity, based on mutual respect and a sense of decency. Many ideas P. Leo enunciates in this encyclical have, in fact, had enormous influence in the century or so since it was written — the world is a better place than it would have been without Rerum Novarum.

You don't have to be Catholic to appreciate Catholic social teaching

From the promulgation of Rerum Novarum up to the present day, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) has never been just for Catholics, any more than the concepts of charity and the common good are restricted to Catholics. Shortly before our last round of national elections, in an article on the website of the Acton Institute, two Protestants, one Baptist and one Reformed, praise Catholic Social Teaching and its articulation by American bishops in this political season. Hunter Baker and Jordan Ballor wrote:
For people of faith, and even for people of no particular faith whatsoever, CST represents a praiseworthy model for responsible civil engagement in a diverse and plural culture. The tradition of social encyclicals was inaugurated just over 120 years ago with the promulgation of Rerum Novarum (Of the New Things)* by Pope Leo XIII, which focused on the problem of poverty and social upheaval in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. This encyclical ushered in an era of sustained and substantive reflection on the social implications of the Catholic faith in the modern world, continued by a long line of noteworthy publications, papers, books, conferences, and debates. The most recent social encyclical appeared from the current bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2009 under the title Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), which deals with (among other things) the challenges and opportunities of globalization and economic and political instability.
*I'll have something to say about the title of this encyclical — and the wretchedly inappropriate way it is usually translated — in a later post.

They go on to cite several tenets of Catholic Social Teaching as being of especial importance in the current political campaigns: subsidiarity, solidarity, and religious liberty. In conclusion they say:
To the extent that the social teachings of the Roman Catholic Church reflect truth about the human person and society, they represent a boon to our broader social life as well as a challenge for other traditions to think as deeply and responsibly about the social implications of our respective faiths. The American political scene is better off for having Catholic Social Teaching, and faithful Catholics, involved in the public square.  

Rerum Novarum and the current political season

As we approach another round of national elections, we all should be thinking about what is best for our country. I think reading and reflecting on Rerum Novarum is one good way to get us all thinking about the principles that should be guiding our political choices, and, more generally, our lives in modern society.

If you would like to read Rerum Novarum along with me, there are two different English translations freely available on the Internet. One (which I think is the more readable of the two) may be found on the New Advent web site; the second is more widely available (although slightly less readable, in my opinion) and can be found in many places on the internet, including the Vatican web site. If you would like a free version that can be read on a mobile device or ereader, you can download in Epub  or Mobi (Kindle) format from Papal Encyclicals Online.

In my next post on this subject, I’ll provide some background to set this work in context, so that we’ll have a better idea of what prompted Pope Leo to write Rerum Novarum. In later posts, I will summarize and comment on the document section by section. I must point out that I am by no means an expert on Catholic social teaching or papal encyclicals — I am simply an educated Catholic who wishes to gain a deeper knowledge and understanding of the Church’s treasury of wisdom, so that I can live a more effective witness in the world. I welcome comments, corrections, and other insight from anyone who cares to comment on Rerum Novarum, particularly those who have a more thorough knowledge and understanding than I.

If you'd like to know more about subsidiarity, a key principle in Catholic social teaching, check out this great video from CatholicVote.org.

Next post in this series


©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

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