New Things Revived: Rerum Novarum and Social Catholicism

A few months ago, BBC Radio 4 on one of their topical issues devoted an edition to the revival of interest in Social Catholicism in certain sections of the Labour Party. Social Catholicism is the Roman Catholic theological and political movement that seeks to grapple with the problems of contemporary industrial society, particularly the rights of employees, women and the family, and welfare issues. It began with the 1891 papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum, of Pope Leo XIII. It was an attempted to provide a Roman Catholic alternative to secular Socialism and Communism, and also to provide institutional protection for Roman Catholics in aggressively secular states, such as France, or Protestant Germany during the Wilhelmine Kulturkampf. It condemned Socialism and Communism and supported private property. On the other hand, it demanded that worker’s should be paid a living wage, and allowed worker’s to join and form trade unions.


The encyclical stated:

‘Man’s labour has tow inherent natural characteristics; it is personal, since the active force is attached to a person, and is completely the personal possession of the man by whom it is exercised, and is by nature designed for his advantage: and secondly, it is necessary, for this reason, that man requires the fruit of his labour for the preservation of his life, and the duty of self-preservation is grounded in the natural order. It follows that if we consider merely the personal aspect there is no doubt that it is open to the worker to reduce the agreed wage to narrow dimensions. He gives his services of his free will, and he can, of free will, content himself with a slender reward, or even with none at all. But a very different conclusion is reached when we combine the necessary with the personal element, and indeed they are only separable in thought, not in reality. To remain alive is a duty incumbent on all alike, in fact, and to fail in this duty is a crime. Hence arises of necessity the right of acquiring the materials for the support of life; and it is only by the wage earned with their labour that the lower orders are supplied with these means. Therefore the worker and the employer should freely come to agreement, especially in regard to the level of wages … But there is an underlying condition which arises from natural laws, namely that the wage should be sufficient to support the worker, provided he is thrifty and well behaved. If the worker is compelled to accept harsher terms, or is induced to do so by fear of worse hardships, and these have to be accepted because they are imposed by a master or employer, this is submission to force and therefore repugnant to justice … If the worker receives sufficient payment to maintain himself, his wife, and his children, in comfort, he will be ready to practise thrift, if he is sensible, and will follow the promptings of nature by reducing his expenditure to ensure some surplus by means of which he may attain a modest property … The right of private property ought to be inviolate … for the attainment of these advantages it is an essential condition that private property should not be exhausted by inordinate taxation. The right of personal possessions is not based on human law; it is given by nature. Therefore public authority cannot abolish it; it can only control its use and adjust it to the common good.

Trades Unions

That men should commonly unite in associations of this kind (trades unions and the like), whether made up wholly of workers or of both classes together, is to be welcomed … Natural law grants man the right to join particular associations, and the state is appointed to support natural law, not to destroy it … and the statae arises from the same principle which produces particular societies, the fact that men are by nature gregarious. But circumstances sometimes arise when it is right for the laws to check associations of this kind; this happens if ever these associations deliberately adopt aims which are in open conflict with honesty, with justice, and with the well-being of the community.’

Quadrogesimo Anno and Social Questions

The encyclical Quadrogesimo Anno, issued by Pope Pius XI in 1931, contained further statements on the just wage, the responsibility of the state and the pernicious effects of unlimited competition in producing a predatory class of super-rich. It included the following passages:

The Just Wage

The Personal and Social Character of Labour … Unless the social and juridicial order safeguards the exercise of labour … unless intelligence, money and labour are allied and united, the activity of man is unable to produce its proper results. If the social and personal nature of labour be disregarded it cannot be justly valued nor equitable recompensed.

Three Principles

(a) The worker should receive a wage adequate for the support of himself and his family … It is the worst of abuses … that mothers should be compelled, because of the inadequacy of the father’s wage, to earn mony outside the home, to the neglect of their particular duties and responsibilities, especially the care of their children …

(b) In deciding the level of wages the condition of the productive organization must be taken into account. it is unjust to demand excessive payment which the business cannot stand without disaster to itself and subsequent ruin to its workers. But technical and economic inefficiency … is not to be considered an excuse for reducing wages…

(c) The level of wages must be adjusted to the public economic good …. Wages should be so regulated as far as possible by consent, that as many as possible may be able to hire their labour and receive suitable reward for their livelihood…

The Right Order of Society

The State’s Responsibility …. Public authority should delegate to subordinate bodies the task of dealing with problems of minor importance so that it may carry out .. the duties peculiarly incumbent upon it … (of promoting the common good, regulating the ‘hierarchical order’ of these free associations of bodies autonomous in their economic and professional spheres, and encouraging a ‘harmony of orders’ in place of a ‘rivalry of classes’.)

The Governing Economic Principle … The unity of human society cannot be based on the opposition of ‘classes’; the establishment of a right economic order cannot be left to a free trial of strength … economic power must be controlled by social justice and social charity …

(Changes since Rerum Novarum) … There has been not merely an accumulation of wealth but a huge concentration of power and of economic dictatorship in the hands of a few who are for the most part not the owners but merely the trustees and administrators of invested property, handling such funds at their arbitrary pleasure … This irresponsible power is the natural fruit of unlimited free competition, which leaves surviving only the most powerful, which often means the most violent and unscrupulous fighters.’

The Mater et Magistra of John XXIII

These encyclical and their provisions were reviewed, expanded and updated for the changed conditions of the very early 1960s by John XXIII in his encyclical, Mater et Magistra. This encouraging increasing participation by workers in the running of their firms.

In many economies today, organizations of moderate and large size often effect swift and extensive increases in productive capacity by methods of financing themselves. We hold that in such cases the workers should acquire shares in the firms which employ them, especially when they earn only the minimum salary … The workers should be able to share in the ownership of the business … (Noting the increasing danger of the loss of the sense of responsibility in those engaged in the large impersonal enterprises, the encyclical develops the directive of Quadrogesimo Anno; ‘business of small or moderate size … should be helped and encouraged by means of cooperative enterprises: in the larger firms it should be made possible to modify the contract of work into something like a contract of partnership’.) The workers should have a voice and a share in the running and development of their business … Unity of direction must be procured, and the authority essential for efficiency .. but the workers must not be reduced to mere ‘hands’ without a voice, and without the opportunity of applying their experience; they must not be kept entirely passive in respect of the decisions which guide their employment …

There has ben a wide development in recent times of associations of workers, and a general recognition of them in the legal codes of various countries, and also on the international level, for the specific purpose of cooperation, particularly in the form of collective bargaining. But … workers should exert effective influence beyond the boundaries of their particular businesses, and at all levels, for the particular businesses, however, extensive and efficient, belong to the social-economic complex of their political communities and are controlled by it. Thus the greatest importance rests, not in the decisions within the individual businesses, but in those made by public authorities, or by agencies acting on a world-wide, regional or national scale … We are glad to express whole-hearted approval of the work of the International Labour Organization which for decades has been making an effective and valuable contribution to the establishment in the world of an economic and social order characterized by justice and humanity, where the legitimate claims of the workers find expression.

These encyclical are part of and the basis for a large body of Social Catholic thought, which now includes problems of the arms race, and international poverty, development and justice. It’s particularly relevant as the Blairs and Ian Duncan Smith in the present Conservative cabinet are Roman Catholics. In many cases in contemporary Britain, it is indeed true that thrifty people are not being paid enough to support themselves and their families, in contravention of the stipulations of these encyclicals.

Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd edition (Oxford: OUP 1963).

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