4.2.1 Revisiting the historical context of Rerum Novarum

Back to 4.1.5

Unit 4 Contents


Catholic Social Teaching pays a great deal of attention to working life.  Two main factors account for this:

  • As you are now well aware, the topic of labour was central in Rerum Novarum in 1891.
  • Pope John Paul II devoted a whole encyclical to ‘human work’, namely Laborem Exercens, published to mark the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum in 1981.

These two documents mean that the way you will encounter CST in this unit is very different from in Unit 3.  On working life, there are these two main documents, both encyclicals – so the rest of Unit 4 will pay a lot of attention to them.  In contrast, on ecology, the topic of Unit 3, there is not yet an encyclical focused mainly on this.  Rather there are several different statements, so the CST readings for Unit 3 were drawn from a larger number of shorter documents.

Much of the rest of the unit will be focused on those two encyclicals.  The module could not claim to enable serious study of CST on working life, one of its central topics, if it did not require you to engage with Rerum Novarum and Laborem Exercens.

However what follows deals with them differently.  For both documents, there will be several screens that will guide you through them by introducing what is each section.  But the text of Rerum Novarum (RN) itself is set as series of optional readings, whereas the text of Laborem Exercens (LE) is set as required reading.

There are two basic reasons for this difference.  First, the amount of study the unit would require would be simply too much if you were expected to read both encyclicals.  Second, not least because LE is much more recent than RN, it addresses a range of topics several of which are still of very great importance in current discussion.  This is so even though it has a passage – a quite brilliant passage (in my view!) – which focuses on the Cold War ideological conflict between capitalism and Communism, and indeed is now not directly relevant 25 years after the revolutions of 1989-91 which brought down the Communist regimes in central and eastern Europe.

So what will follow is, first, a series of screens on RN, each of which includes an optional reading from this encyclical.

After this, there will be a similar series of screens on the content of LE, each of which includes a required reading from this encyclical.

In this way you will encounter a full exposition of RN without needing actually to read it, and then a similar exposition of LE that’s designed to be an introduction to reading it directly.  Of course, if you have time you might well want to read RN as well as LE.  (Note that the fact that RN is expounded on screen, with a few longish quotations, means that the text on screen for Unit 4 is longer than for other units in the module.  But this does not mean that the total reading you are expected to do for this unit is higher than the average.)

We shall begin to look at Rerum Novarum in just a moment.  But first it will be helpful to bring to mind the historical circumstances of its publication.  Unit 2 gave an outline of this historical background (2.1.2 – 2.1.4).  Remind yourself of that outline by skim-reading it again.


Rapid re-reading (7pp)

Unit 2 screens 2.1.2-2.1.4:

Open 2.1.2


To add to that, I would like to say a little more about the context of RN and the influences on it.

As with any papal encyclical, RN did not come fully formed directly from the pen of Leo XIII.  Among the people who especially influenced it were Wilhelm von Ketteler, Bishop of Mainz in Germany until his death in 1877; Frederic Ozanam, the French founder of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, an organization that still flourishes today; and Cardinal Manning, the leading British Catholic of his day, who became a very high-profile figure in public life after his intervention in the East End of London in a national dock strike in 1889 – just two years before Rerum Novarum was issued.

In an article in The Tablet on Manning, Austen Ivereigh wrote:

Manning… is best remembered as a friend of the workers, for his defence of the rights of labour in the age before legal trade unions.  To put profit before human dignity, Manning believed, was to invert the moral order.

His famous lecture on the Dignity and Rights of Labour, given… in 1877, began boldly: ‘I claim for labour all the rights of property’.  Among them was the right to organize – through unions to improve conditions…

[I]n the Great Dock Strike of 1889… [t]he (mostly Irish) strikers were among the most exploited and defenceless of the workers; and it was Manning’s powerful address to the employers that secured them their hike in pay and conditions.1

If you hold in mind this summary of Manning’s convictions about the conditions and the rights of labour as we study RN, it will be obvious how similar these were to what Pope Leo XIII articulated.  Historians don’t doubt that Manning was a significant influence on Leo XIII.  This means that the foundational document of modern CST was in part forged in Catholic engagement with workers in East London – more than a century before London Citizens started taking up similar issues.

There are Wikipedia entries on all three of those figures who influenced RN.  If you have time, take a look at these (keeping in mind that Wikipedia’s accuracy is always open to question).  I suggest you focus especially on the entry on Manning.


Optional reading (c.7pp)

Wikipedia entries on:

Wilhelm von Ketteler, Bishop of Mainz

Frederic Ozanam, founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society

Cardinal Henry Manning



End of 4.2.1

Go to 4.2.2 Rerum Novarum – introduction

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  1. A. Ivereigh, ‘Manning of the Barricades’, The Tablet, 17 Feb. 2007.  The quotations come from part of this article reproduced in Ivereigh, Faithful Citizens: A Practical Guide to Catholic Social Teaching and Community Organising (DLT, 2010), 94.