4.2.5 RN, part 2: The role of the Church, continued (##16-31)

Back to 4.2.4

Unit 4 Contents


To summarize so far, the first plank in RN’s solution to the crisis of the working class was to insist on a right to property ownership.  The second plank is to reject class conflict and, instead, to call for both workers and, especially, employers to meet their obligations.

While RN began by critiquing socialism, this last point must be seen as sharply critical of liberal capitalism.  Employers are to relate to workers as human persons, and not to regard them as instruments in the production process.  The contrast here is very simple but it could not be more profound.  Much CST since 1891 has developed this fundamental point, not least John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens.

In the rest of the second part of RN, Leo presents several other points, some of which have tended to be left behind in CST.  He stresses the need for the workers who suffer hardships to endure them patiently.  The Christian hope for the world to come is solace for this world’s troubles (#18; cf. #21).  Without doubt, it is vitally important for Christians to recognize that God’s reign will come in its fullness only at the end of history and that the effects of human sin continue to be pervasive in social life – you will recall we looked at this issue of the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ in Unit 1.   Nevertheless, many people in our day would find Leo’s emphasis on the need to be content with one’s lot rather patronizing.  It can also seem resigned and could lead to resignation.

However, others would argue that such advice remains very practical – most people who are suffering exploitation at work still have to earn a living and are not realistically in a position just to walk out.   Moreover, Pope Leo was very deeply concerned about how destructive social disorder and revolutionary change can be.  Some commentators have criticized him for excessive concern about this.1As it turned out, the half-century after RN’s publication was the most violent and destructive period in Europe’s history.

The Pope’s advocacy of the need to bear “the pains and hardships of life” (#18) certainly ran the risk of presenting the Church as holding the position for which Karl Marx had criticized religion – that it is “the opium of the people”.  In a very famous passage, Marx had written:

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world…  It is the opium of the people….  The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of the people, is required for their real happiness….  The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of woe…2

We can be pretty certain that Pope Leo was well aware of this line of critique of Christianity.  Granted which, it is striking that he emphasized that God has, “by the hope held forth of everlasting recompense… made pain and grief more easy to endure” (#21).  He seems to confirm Marx’s critique. The employers have their duty to do justice to their workers, but if they don’t the workers have to put up with it.  RN certainly includes this line of thought.

But there is much more in the encyclical that pushes in the other direction – i.e., for change now.  This is why RN came to be seen as agenda-setting for CST for the following century.  Overall we can identify five planks in his remedy for the crisis of workers’ conditions, two of which we have looked at already.  The five are:

* All people, including workers, have a natural right to property ownership.

* Both employers and workers must fulfil their obligations to justice.

* When people are in poverty, others must respond in charity to meet their needs.

* Government must act to ensure justice for workers.

* Workers need to form associations to defend their claims for justice.

Looking further at the second of these, despite Leo’s warnings about the need to endure hardship, he also sounds an optimistic note about the possibilities for improvement if employers as well as workers do meet their obligations.  He believes that authoritative Church teaching can generate change:

[I]f Christian precepts prevail, the respective classes will not only be united in the bonds of friendship, but also in those of brotherly love. For they will understand and feel that all men are children of the same common Father, who is God; that… each and all are redeemed and made sons of God, by Jesus Christ, “the first-born among many brethren”; [and] that the blessings of nature and the gifts of grace belong to the whole human race in common…  Such is the scheme of duties and of rights which is shown forth to the world by the Gospel.  Would it not seem that, were society penetrated with ideas like these, strife must quickly cease? (#25, italics added)

Beyond this, the second part of RN also speaks strongly about the positive role of charity – of direct assistance of people suffering.  Referring to the New Testament and in particular the ordination of deacons for this purpose in Acts 4, Leo writes about the large range and number of Christian charitable bodies.

The Church… intervenes directly in behalf of the poor, by… maintaining many associations which she knows to be efficient for the relief of poverty…  [T]he common Mother of rich and poor has aroused everywhere the heroism of charity, and has established congregations of religious and many other useful institutions for help and mercy, so that hardly any kind of suffering could exist which was not afforded relief.  (##29-30)

As suggested above, charitable work can be seen as the third plank in his remedy.  It is not surprising that he emphasizes this.  Such work has always been a significant activity of Christians.  It was inevitable that he would speak about it.  Recently Pope Benedict XVI has given careful attention to the same subject in Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), his first encyclical.  The practice of charity is always with us.

Yet in the century or so since Rerum Novarum, there has been extensive debate about whether charity is an adequate response to suffering.  The basic argument for the view that it is not adequate is that it addresses only effects and not causes.  Charitable service can greatly relieve terrible suffering, but it can be provided without asking the question ‘why?’  Why is someone poor?  Why is a man working for a mere subsistence wage?  Why are women in a particular place subject to a high incidence of illness of a kind that affects their babies?

Unless we ask ‘why?’ and act on the answer, charity is not much more than a bandage on a chronic wound that never stops bleeding.

It’s inevitable and proper that RN spoke of the Church’s charitable work.  Yet what is more remarkable, and what made the document most controversial at the time, is that in fact it went further than arguing for a response of charity.  It also called for two major changes of a kind that today would be called ‘structural’ and would have the effect of preventing poverty, not just relieving it.  (Unit 5, on business and economics, looks at what it means to speak of just and unjust ‘structures’.)  These two are the last of the ‘planks’ in RN’s remedy.

Before we turn to them, you have the option of reading part 2 of RN.


Optional reading (10pp)

Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum,

##16-31 (second part)

This link takes you to the start of RN, so scroll down to #16.



End of 4.2.5

Go to 4.2.6 RN part 3: The role of government in ensuring just working conditions

Copyright © Newman University.  If you wish to quote from this page, see Citation Information. N.B. If you are a student and make use of material on this page in an assignment, you are obliged to reference the source in line with the citation information.

  1. See the discussion in chapter 2 of Dorr, Option for the Poor, cited in 4.2.2 n.1

  2. From Karl Marx, On Religion, excerpt in Political Christianity: A Reader, ed. D. McLellan (SPCK, 1997), 187