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Pope Leo XIII Issues the Encyclical “Rerum Novarum”: May 15, 1891

Updated: 6 days ago

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part 2.


During his 25 years as pope, Leo XIII addressed many encyclicals to the Church. The topics of his encyclicals were issues that threatened not only the Church, but the health of the state and society. Because, for instance, European states were allowing divorce, Leo explained the Church’s teaching on marriage in the 1880 encyclical, Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae. To combat Liberal notions of the state, Leo in 1885 published Immortale Dei, in which he condemned separation of the state from the Church and the Liberal doctrine that men have the right to say and publish anything they want, even if it is harmful to morality and the good of society. In 1893, Leo published the encyclical Providentissimus Deus, in which he encouraged the scientific study of the Bible.


Pope Leo XIII in 1896
Pope Leo XIII in 1896

Like many in his time, Leo was troubled by the rapid growth of socialism in Europe. Despite the attempts by some governments to better the living conditions of the working class, most workers and their families continued to be exploited by employers and lived in dire poverty. Socialists offered hope to the oppressed workers; but, as Leo saw, it was a false hope. Socialists promised workers that, if they only overthrew existing governments and the bourgeois capitalist class, they could create a workers’ paradise on earth. By abolishing private property, by holding all property in common, every man, woman, and child could have a decent roof over their heads, adequate clothing, and enough to eat, said the socialists.


Unlike many of those who opposed socialism, Leo saw that to fight it successfully one had to recognize the evils of laissez-faire capitalism. Thus, on May 15, 1891, in the encyclical Rerum Novarum, Leo applied to the world of his day the Church’s traditional teachings on property, wealth making, justice, and charity. The encyclical drew many of its ideas from Bishop Ketteler and other Catholics who, since the 1840s, had been looking for a truly Catholic response to the evils of modern capitalism. Rerum Novarum marked the first time the Universal Church addressed the “social question,” and, because of this, it has been called the Magna Carta of the Church’s social teaching. Translated into the major languages of the world and distributed among workers in several countries, Rerum Novarum was influential even among non-Catholics. It gave rise among clergy and laity alike to new Catholic movements dedicated to renewing the social order according to the spirit of the Gospel.


“A Business Alliance” illustration by J. Keppler that appeared in the American satirical journal, Puck. Leo XIII is depicted blessing two strikers and saying, “Bless you, my children! I think we can work nobly in America.” The cartoon implies that the pope’s defense of unions was just an attempt to gain political power in the U.S.A.
“A Business Alliance” illustration by J. Keppler that appeared in the American satirical journal, Puck. Leo XIII is depicted blessing two strikers and saying, “Bless you, my children! I think we can work nobly in America.” The cartoon implies that the pope’s defense of unions was just an attempt to gain political power in the U.S.A.

In Rerum Novarum, Leo defended private property, especially wealth-producing property such as farms or machines. All human beings, he said, have a right to private property; and society and the state should see to it that as many people as possible are able to own productive property. Leo also spoke about wages, saying workers have a right to be paid a wage large enough to support themselves and their families, if they live frugally—and so that they may save, in order at some point to buy productive property of their own.


By defending the right to private property, the pope condemned socialism; but by calling for a just wage for workers, he condemned the treatment of workers defended by laissez-faire Liberals. Workers, said the pope, should not be treated like cattle or machines; they must not be overworked, nor should children be forced to labor like adults, or work be placed upon females as if they were male adults. Seeing that workers could not rely on the goodness of employers to secure a just wage, Leo said workers had the right to organize themselves into unions and engage in peaceful strikes. Employers, too, he said, had to respect their workers’ right to organize and give in to their just demands. But Leo condemned the use of violence by workers to secure their rights. Finally, Leo XIII hoped workers and owners could join together in Christian friendship; for, he said, they need one another to achieve their common goals.


Unlike both the socialists and the Liberal capitalists, Leo insisted that the production of wealth has a higher purpose than simply making men and nations rich. People should use material goods, said Leo, to help them live a virtuous life—so that they might become better men and women.


For this reason, Leo said, the Church has to be involved in solving social problems; for it is the Church alone that infallibly teaches men and nations how human beings ought to live. Through the Church and the Gospel, said Leo, workers and employers can overcome their differences and learn to live together in justice and Christian charity. But if employers, workers, and governments ignore the Church, said the pope, all “human striving will be in vain.”

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