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What Americans Believe

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 Catholic Group: Ayesha Speaking

Current speaker 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:

Leo XIII

Pope Leo XIII
  • 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 needy.

  • 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 among employers.

  • 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 encouraged.

  • 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 too.

Links (opening in a new window)

Online sources: Papal Encyclical Rerum Novarum

Wikipedia: Leo XIII

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