Rerum Novarum (Latin for “Of New Things”) was an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on May 15, 1891. (Pope Leo XIII, born Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci to an Italian noble family, was the 256th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, reigning from 1878 to 1903. He was the oldest pope — reigning until the age of 93 — and had the third longest pontificate, behind his immediate predecessor Pius IX and John Paul II.)
This was an open letter, passed to all Catholic bishops, that addressed the condition of the working classes. The encyclical is entitled: “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor”. German theologian Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler and English Cardinal Henry Edward Manning were influential in its composition.
The writing supported the rights of labor to form unions, rejected communism and unrestricted capitalism, while affirming the right to private property. In this document, Leo set out the Catholic Church’s response to the social conflict that had risen in the wake of industrialization and that had led to the rise of socialism. The Pope taught that the role of the State is to promote social justice through the protection of rights, while the Church must speak out on social issues in order to teach correct social principles and ensure class harmony. He restated the Church’s long-standing teaching regarding the crucial importance of private property rights, but recognized, in one of the best-known passages of the encyclical, that the free operation of market forces must be tempered by moral considerations:
“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.”
Among the remedies it prescribed were the formation of trade unions and the introduction of collective bargaining, particularly as an alternative to state intervention. The idea of a “living wage” is suggested. The encyclical declared private property a fundamental principle of natural law. Rerum Novarum thus dramatically adapted Thomistic ideas about property, as the Pope attempted to shift the class alliances of the church, aligning with its opponent, the bourgeoisie, in the face of the perceived threat of socialism.
James Buchanan speaks of the Church’s view in another way, saying, “The empirical proposition is that individuals desire ownership of property in order to secure and to maintain the liberty over the disposal of resources, without which liberty there could be no hope of bettering the conditions of life.” [Buchanan: 51] This clearly echoes Aristotle’s sentiment that ownership can breed virtue, and that a full life requires property. Further, “Implicitly, Rerum Novarum‘s defence of private property embodies a recognition of the value persons place on the independence that only a private ownership regime can offer.” [Buchanan: 51]
The idea, of course, was to promote the idea of balance. Property rights were held up as important, but important for every man regardless of social standing. Without resorting to outright socialism, the Church recognized that by providing people with an adequate amount of property, they can live comfortably and without disdain for the upper class. By the upper class giving up a bit of their property for the lower class, they were maintaining their status and preventing a violent action from those below.
The poor would welcome the Church’s teaching because it would improve their lifestyle, and the rich would support this view because it maintains their hold of power without fear of a pro-communist shift or an increase in criminal acts. Just as Harrington had argued centuries earlier on how the balance of property affects the balance of power, here too one could argue that by leaving no one group shorted or over-compensated, a balance of power could be maintained that was workable for everyone. While not equality, it exhibited a level of fairness.
How the words of the Pope translated into action by employers is unknown, though it seems evident that any effect was not long-lasting and class differences remain.
A less positive view of the letter comes from American writer, politician and political economist Henry George. George thought the Pope’s words “would justify slavery, wherever savings had been in human flesh.” The reason for this thought is unclear. He also argued, a bit off-topic, that man cannot claim labor on that given by God, so while he can own a fish, he cannot own the ocean. (George does not explain how the labor of fishing makes the God-created fish the property of man.) [Ritchie 1952]
Buchanan, James M. “Property as a Guarantor of Liberty” in Rowley, Charles K., ed. Property Rights and the Limits of Democracy. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Ritchie, David G. Natural Rights; A Criticism of Some Political and Ethical Conceptions. George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1952.