The Roots of Rerum Novarum


from Neil

In his June 11 “Sacred Mysteries” column in the Daily Telegraph, Christopher Howse takes us back to 1887 London: “A great stir followed a declaration by Cardinal Manning that a starving man was not stealing if he took the food he needed from his neighbour. The natural right to life and food, he said, prevailed even over the laws of property.” Cardinal Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster, was a great exponent of Catholic social doctrine, and Howse mentions him in way of introducing the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s new Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which clearly states, “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”

Where does “Catholic Social Doctrine” come from?

There is no better guide to answering that question than the eminent Louvain historian, Canon Roger Aubert. In 1966, he wrote a helpful article “Aux origines de la doctrine sociale catholique” (in English here), which I will summarize. The easy answer to the question is “the encyclical Rerum Novarum” (which Manning influenced), but we should note that Rerum Novarum was released in 1891, not less than 43 years after Marx published the Communist Manifesto. This late start, Canon Aubert tells us, “is less due to selfishness or to ignorance of the actual situation than it is to a lack of understanding of the new problems posed by the Industrial Revolution.”

Before Rerum Novarum, in France, different groups had struggled against these “new problems,” some denouncing the French Revolution, other seeking a synthesis of Catholicism with pre-Marxist Socialism. Many bishops, however, failed to see any link between the de-Christianization of the working classes and their increasing poverty, and could not imagine any solution to poverty that went beyond moral improvement and charity. They also recoiled from the anticlericalism of some socialists. And, describing Cardinal d’Astros, Archbishop of Toulouse, Canon Aubert writes, “there is still something else which can explain his reticence, and that of many of his colleagues, when faced with any attempt at modifying the established order: an almost unreal hyper-spiritualism, which makes him ignore everything at the level of the profane.”

The Vatican Council of 1870 was interrupted, but it might have taken up the social question. One of the preparatory commissions had composed a draft on “easing the misery of the poor and the workers.” But again we see only moral remedies without any sense of institutional solutions. At the time, any sort of social reform was regularly confused with strict communism – with Proudhon’s dangerous shout that “Property is theft” and Marx’s claim that religion was merely the opiate of the people. Perhaps it was for the best that the First Vatican Council didn’t take up the social question.

Catholic social doctrine really got its start in Germany. The main figure was the Bishop of Mainz, Wilhelm Emmanuel Baron von Ketteler. After thinking about things for fifteen years, he wrote The Workers Question and Christianity, which presented an anti-individualistic view of society as an organism, with everyone working together for the smooth operation of the whole. Although he at first distrusted the State, eventually, to counterbalance the capitalists, he called on the government to augment salaries, reduce working hours, preserve the Sunday repose, and abolish child labor in the factories. He inspired the Center Party, which supported pioneering social legislation subsequently passed by the government. His ideas also met with notable success in Austria.

Now, Bishop Ketteler’s initial mistrust of the state characterized Italian Catholics. After all, the pope had found himself at odds with a Liberal government that was openly anticlerical and tended to interfere with the Church’s operation (e.g., the nomination of pastors). Thus, while opposing socialism, some Catholic intellectuals also attacked the Liberal economy, rooted (so it was seen) in the Protestant Reformation and French Revolution, and only concerned with materialistic and naturalistic goals. There was also a study group meeting in Rome, including a Jesuit named Matteo Liberatore, who, in 1889, published his Principii di economia politica, which described a middle road between Liberalism and Socialism that would abandon modernity altogether. Pope Leo XIII became interested in these Roman deliberations, and slowly became able to distinguish between different sorts of socialism, anarchism and total collectivism. In 1888, the efforts of Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Cardinal Manning prevented a papal condemnation of the Knights of Labor, the first American union, despite its image as a secret society connected with anarchism. Manning had also famously intervened during the famous Dock Strike of 1889, when 100,000 dockers went on strike for five weeks.

Obviously, the social question could not be dismissed. In 1886, 1887, and 1890, international congresses, organized by the Bishop of Liège, took place in Belgium, involving a good number of Germans and Austrians, all defending the idea of the necessity of State intervention in economic and social activities and the legitimacy of unions defending workers against their employers. The Liège school, “itself the inheritor of the social thought of Ketteler,” soon became controversial – at one congress, an intervention by another bishop forced the cancellation of a paper by the professor of morals at the local seminary which argued for State intervention to establish a minimum wage. Rome had to issue a directive. The directive was Rerum Novarum, which, on all principal points, came down in favor of the Liège school.

Fr Liberatore wrote the original draft of the encyclical. But his draft was too brief, wooden, and too partisan in favor of his unrealistic corporatist alternative to capitalism and socialism. The Dominican Cardinal Zigliara edited a new draft, which was subsequently revised. Interestingly, the social question was so new and unexpected that the encyclical-writers had to come up with numerous paraphrases, circumlocutions, and neologisms to get their points across (Leo was demanding on this score). You really should read the entire encyclical, but three modifications emerged during the drafting process that tell us something about the document.

The original version supported the stance taken by the Liège school and many others – that the worker had the right to a family-sustaining salary by justice. Some worried that this attacked private property much too directly. The edited version merely said that the worker had to be able to live on his salary, and if the employer could not pay him a decent salary, the courts should intervene. The third version asserted the importance of a livable wage, but got the courts out of it. Significantly, the final version retains the possibility of intervention by the state, but worries that “the public powers might intervene inopportunely.”

The original version presented intermediary corporative bodies, in which the employer and worker would be united, as a “Christian social order” free from class conflict. The second draft speaks instead of voluntary and private professional organizations, religious brotherhoods that could still unite employers and workers. At the last minute, the Pope introduced a modification to the text, praising associations, “whether composed entirely of workers, or mixed, assembling both workers and employers,” effectively allowing modern unions composed solely of workers.

The original version desired the State to have a rather extensive responsibility, including controlling monopolies and limiting stock market speculation. The State, it was said, should “vigilantly insure an honest and proportional repartition of resources from which the family will benefit” and “coordinate everyone’s efforts towards the formation of the common good and maintain the hierarchy of functions and powers.” Nuances and hints were introduced into the text. Canon Aubert suggests that the interventionist schema of the Liège school still received the official sanction of the Church, but with prudence, so as to avoid partisanship and the appearance of a more doctrinaire socialism.

Fr Liberatore’s first draft of the encyclical reflected a “pre-capitalist” world view that condemned capitalism as an evil. Canon Aubert writes, “One of the merits of the encyclical Rerum Novarum is to have been able to go beyond this pre-capitalist perspective, at least partially, and, while still keeping a good bit of what was positive in the corporatists’ protests against the new bourgeois order, to aim at raising up the working class within the framework of existing economic institutions; in other words, to renounce romantic utopias and to take a realistic stand analogous to that of reformist Socialism, not hesitating to accept finally, albeit halfheartedly, the political leverage which the latter would use so efficiently, labor unions.” The greatest merit, of course, is that “for the first time, worker’s rights and the injustice of the entire Liberal system were solemnly proclaimed by the highest spiritual authority.” And it was done so in a way that was interventionist while remaining prudent, drawing on different schools of Catholic thought that had been allowed to develop without papal interference.

What would a Rerum Novarum for our age of globalization look like?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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