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Rerum Novarum


Encyclical letter of leo xiii issued May 15, 1891; the first of the great social encyclicals. Its appearance marked the bestowal of significant papal approval on the then emergent Catholic social movement. Its formulation of Catholic social principles owed much to the work of the Fribourg Union, established in 1885 by Cardinal G. mermillod. But there is considerable evidence that Leo's approach was also affected by the practical attitudes toward labor and agrarian problems of Cardinals James gibbons in the U.S. and Henry Edward Manning in England, and Abp. William Joseph walsh of Dublin. First drafted by Cardinal Francesco Zigliara, the encyclical was revised according to the pope's instructions by his secretaries, further corrected by Zigliara, and finally by Leo himself. The English translation was prepared by Manning and circulated in America, Ireland, and all other English-speaking countries. Despite the descriptive title "On the Condition of Workers," Rerum novarum is in fact a social charter of the broadest scope.

The encyclical may be divided into five parts. The first is an examination of the solution to the social question advanced by socialism, which was currently attracting much support in the working class. In rejecting it Leo developed a classical set of arguments establishing the natural right to private property. Four in number, they were derived in turn from man's power of self-direction in virtue of his intelligence and foresight, his personal independence, his mastery of his energies, and finally his right to found a family and his duty to care for it. The second part outlines the role of the Church in social affairs, without which, the pope said, no practical solution could be found. It is the task of the Church to keep ever before men's minds the truths that certain inequalities are inevitable, that to suffer and endure is the lot of man, and that man's final end is not here but hereafter. The third part is devoted to a positive exposition of the social action of the Church, which is concerned not alone with the soul of man but indirectly also with the body. Poverty is not a good in itself and every effort should be made to alleviate it through the practice of charity and the promotion of justice. The role of the state in the matter is outlined in the fourth part, in which the Pope rejected laissez faire. The state has functions in relation to the protection of private property; the forestalling of strikes, insofar as possible; the regulation of conditions of work; the seeing to it that employees receive a just wage; and the encouragement by the law of a wide distribution of property. A final part emphasized the beneficial activity of voluntary organizations, such as trade unions and Church bodies of various kinds devoted to social action.

Bibliography: Official Latin text in Acta Leonis XIII, 4 (1894) 177209. English translation in d. j. o'brien and t. a. shannon, eds., Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (Maryknoll, NY 1992) 14-39. l. watt, A Handbook to Rerum Novarum (Oxford 1941). j. mÍguez bonino, "Rerum novarum : One Hundred Years," Ecumenical Review 43 (1991) 392442. d. j. o'brien, "A Century of Catholic Social Teaching: Contexts and Comments," in j. a. coleman, ed., One Hundred Years of Catholic Social Thought (Maryknoll, NY 1991) 1324. j. a. coleman and g. baum, eds., Rerum novarum: A Hundred Years of Catholic Social Teaching (Philadelphia 1991). e. l. fortin, "'Sacred and Inviolable': Rerum novarum and Natural Rights," Theological Studies 53 (1992) 20333. f. p. mchugh, et al., eds., Things Old and New: Catholic Social Teaching Revisited (Lanham, MD 1993). p. furlong and d. curtis, The Church Faces the Modern World : Rerum novarum and Its Impact (Hull, Eng. 1994). t. o. nitsch, et al., eds., On the Condition of Labor and the Social Question One Hundred Years Later (Lewiston, NY 1994).

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