Rerum Novarum Revisited
With the publication of Caritas in Veritate, I think it is timely to take a look back on the encyclical that gave birth to Catholic social teaching nearly 120 years ago, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. Part of the reason I believe it is timely is that Benedict himself noted a tendency among certain commentators on the Church’s social doctrine to divide it up into “pre” and “post” Vatican II ways of thinking, and rejected this analysis. He stressed instead the consistency of the Church’s social teaching over time.
Another reason is that the publication of Rerum Novarum forces us to make one of two conclusions about the history of “capitalism” (an ever dubious phrase that I am reluctant to use at all) and that of the Church: either capitalism was deformed to the point where only a serious moral correction would render it acceptable to Catholics and non-Catholics alike, or the Papacy was either the victim or the perpetrator of a great hoax. This has direct implications for the debates we continue to have today amongst ourselves. Is this thing called “capitalism” self-correcting? Or does it require an external moral critique to advance the correction?
The answer of the Church since 1891 (at least) has been the latter, not the former. And it is clear that the Church’s narrative of the rise and eventually corruption of industrial capitalism is completely at odds with that of its latter-day apologists – writers such as Thomas Woods and Michael Novak, who often seek to absolve capitalism of any and all historical wrongdoing, and who view its development as the greatest thing that ever happened to humanity (presumably, of course, besides Christianity). In this view it is either explicitly or implicitly claimed that pre-capitalist societies were necessarily undesirable, places of ignorance, filth, and oppression.
The early social encyclicals of the Church, on the other hand, while recognizing the irreversible transformations wrought by industrialization, expressed a conviction that some of the values of the medieval society over which the Church presided for more than a thousand years could be resurrected within the new modes of production and exchange. The deplorable situation of the worker at the turn of the 20th century, Pope Leo explains, is a result of the following:
“[T]he ancient workingmen’s guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition.” (3)
After denouncing usury, Leo also condemns the divide between the ‘capitalist’ and the worker:
“[T]he hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.” (3)
This does not sound like the “politically incorrect” version of history that some authors wish to present, in which the very situation Leo describes is dismissed as a left-wing propaganda fantasy. In those days, these dangers were real enough to command the serious attention of the Papacy; and to think, there wasn’t even a Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice!
The following paragraphs in RN are a defense of private property against the arguments of the socialists. It is beyond clear, however, that a defense of private property does not equal a defense of wealth acquisition without limits. In CV, Pope Benedict re-emphasizes a balance between rights and duties, specifically condemning any “right to excess” and insisting upon a duty to serve the common good. In doing so he is in keeping with the very tradition set down by Leo XIII. In RN, Leo writes,
“It is lawful,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence.”" But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? – the Church replies without hesitation in the words of the same holy Doctor: “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need… (22)
Leo does not insist that the state directly force the wealthy to use their private property to this end. But he is quite unambiguous on the question of whether or not the state has a right to intervene in economic affairs: it absolutely does have that right. Paragraph 36 lists some of the situations in which the state may intervene (some of which, undoubtedly, would strike us as strange today). In the next paragraph, the Church’s preferential option for the poor with regard to state intervention is expressed:
“The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.” (37)
Is it lawful for the state to tax private wealth and use it in various ways to support the poor and the working class? Within reasonable limits , it is. Pope Leo makes a distinction that shouldn’t be, but often is, completely overlooked in heated polemics:
“The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether.” (47)
Pope Benedict’s concern with global poverty also has an important precedent in Rerum Novarum, for the conditions of which Pope Leo spoke continue to persist in many third world countries that have, for various reasons, not been able to enjoy the benefits labor laws that respect the dignity of the worker. Anyone reading the following passage would have to conclude that what many Western-based multinationals do in the third world is worthy of severe condemnation:
“[T]here 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.” (45)
It may well be that a Western multinational offers an Indian or a Chinese peasant a higher income than he might have gotten working in the fields. But that does not automatically translate into a ‘just wage’ that meets the conditions of either Leo’s position or that of the modern Church. There can be no doubt that some companies – not all, but some – seek to relocate to third world countries where labor rights are weak or non-existent, where workers who organize are threatened with repression and violence, in order to take advantage of these conditions. There are also those who would continue to erode the rights of labor in developed countries to bring them to parity with the less developed.
Finally, while Benedict did not say as much about distributist ideas as I would have liked, I can’t write about RN without presenting Leo’s own argument for distributism, which remains valid to this day, even if we wouldn’t think of it in such agrarian terms:
We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.
Many excellent results will follow from this; and, first of all, property will certainly become more equitably divided. For, the result of civil change and revolution has been to divide cities into two classes separated by a wide chasm. On the one side there is the party which holds power because it holds wealth; which has in its grasp the whole of labor and trade; which manipulates for its own benefit and its own purposes all the sources of supply, and which is not without influence even in the administration of the commonwealth. On the other side there is the needy and powerless multitude, sick and sore in spirit and ever ready for disturbance. If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the consequence will be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over, and the respective classes will be brought nearer to one another. A further consequence will result in the great abundance of the fruits of the earth. Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them. (46-47)