Most historians agree that modern Catholic social
thought began in earnest with the encyclicals of Pope
Leo XIII (1810-1903). Leo was born Vincenzo Pecci near
Rome. He attended a Jesuit school in Rome and was
ordained a priest (although not a Jesuit) in 1837. He
was elected pope in 1878.
In the mid-19th century the Catholic church struggled
to come to grips with a rapidly changing world. Not only
were the Papal States lost to the church in the process
of Italian unification, but broad trends including
industrialization, urbanization, the spread of
democratic political systems, the creation of political
parties, the rise of labor unions, and the spread of
socialist ideas were all part of a changing social
order. At times, the church seemed to reject the newer
ideas and institutions, but Leo took a different
approach. He sought instead to develop a distinctly
Catholic social doctrine as an alternative to both
market driven capitalism and socialism.
In 1891 Leo promulgated his most famous encyclical, Rerum
Novarum, which contains the essence of his social
doctrine.Here are some of his key ideas:
- God has created the earth for the
"use and enjoyment of the whole human race."
Although the rights of property are
sanctioned by natural law, the wealthy have
strong moral obligations to the poor and
- Great inequality now exists between
owners and workers. The condition of the
working classes is "little better than that
of slavery itself." This is in part due to
the lack of guilds to protect workers and in
part to the unchecked greed and competition
- Socialists attack property rights,
preach class war, and seek to overthrow
existing political authorities. Socialism is
thus a "deadly plague" threatening society.
It offers the wrong solution to the problems
of working people.
- Although those who possess great
property have rights of ownership, they may
not "use" their property in just any way
they like. They must share their wealth with
those in need. They must use their wealth
"as the steward of god's providence, for the
benefit of others."
- Wages must be such that they are
sufficient to support a "frugal and
well-behaved wage earner." The law should
encourage as many people as possible to
become owners. Guilds of working men or
workers and employers should also be
- Civil society exists for the "common
good" and thus is concerned with "the
interests of all." The state must
serve the common good and regard the
interests of all as equal.
In some ways, Leo's views sound antiquated. But I think
the thrust of his views is in the right direction. Both
church and state must defend ordinary people and not
simply leave them to the mercy of the labor market.
Another way of saying that is to say that labor is not a
commodity. I believe that, and my church believes it