Rerum Novarum, the first papal social encyclical



Veronica Scarisbrick recently interviewed Dominican Father Alejandro Crosthwaite for Vatican Radio in a fascinating exchange about Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum.

Crosthwaite is Professor of Catholic Social Thought and the dean of the social science faculty at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. Though in Rome for years, he is Mexican-American by birth, earning his doctorate at Marquette University in Wisconsin. His interests include the social and political thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, Latin American and Latino/a social ethics, and film and media studies. He’s also a masterful storyteller, with a quick wit and profound insight into the church’s relationship with the modern world.

He argues that Rerum Novarum, widely recognized as the first papal social encyclical, is actually the culmination of a much longer and older tradition of Catholic investigation into the everyday affairs of the world and the human person’s ultimate vocation and place in the cosmos.

Aquinas eventually came to systematize and harmonize thinking about the virtues of justice and the call for the Christian to find his or her proper role in society. But as much of this reflection took place in pre-industrial Europe, the utterly new social realities which resulted from the discoveries that unfolded in the 15th to 19th centuries — from the Age of Exploration to the printing press to the migration into cities caused by the industrial revolution — called for new modes of thought about the intersection of religion and social concerns.

Pope Leo XIII set the church on a new course, 124 years ago this week, by publishing Rerum Novarum. Its importance was re-asserted by “memorial” anniversary writings: Quadragesimo Anno (40 years, Pius XI, 1931), Octogesima Adveniens (80 years, Paul VI, 1971) and Centesimus Annus (100 years, John Paul II, 1991). This is mere speculation on my part, but I would venture to guess that Pope Francis will likely, God-willing that all continues along its projected immediate course, write something marking the 125th anniversary next year, even if not a full encyclical.

After this initiative from the Holy See in the closing years of the 1800s, the bishops around the world began to look with seriousness at the practicalities of how the church could contribute to transform the working world and middle class. As Crosthwaite puts it, the pope and his theologians responded to the critical issues of their day, for the first time offering a guidepost for explicit reflection on social and employment issues.

“It’s a new [style of] encyclical. It’s something that had not been seen in a systematic way. It not only addresses the issues of industrialization, but the relationship between labor and capital and so forth. This was something completely new. And actually it was very well received, especially in secular circles,” he said.

Of course, some forces in both the church and the world sought to return to an older understanding of the pre-existing social order, the ancient regime as it were. But overall, there was no squeezing the genie back into the bottle, once Leo had liberated the church’s ability to think through these realities in theory, doctrine and practice.

Rerum Novarum is often referred to as the founding document of Christian democracy and undoubtedly has had a lasting political impact. Yet, as a product of its time, it still is limited by what Crosthwaite calls some “paternalistic” elements. “It tends to call upon the State and it tends to call upon industrialists to take care of the poor, to take care of the workers. As opposed to asking the workers to see themselves, as John Paul II did in Laborens Exercens, as ‘subjects’ — people who can actually transform their workplace and serve as active participants in the transformation of society.”

In essence, it instead still sees them too often as the uneducated multitude. The church’s understanding of social responsibility and mission, and the dynamic and active role each person can play in these realities, has continued to develop in the modern (and post-modern) period, especially in the wake of the two World Wars and the Second Vatican Council. But it owes its foundation and much of its continued driving energy to Leo’s vision those many Mays ago.

Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.