Revisiting Rerum Novarum

Revisiting Rerum Novarum May 11, 2011

Catholic News Service recently had a brief report on a conference at Catholic University of America on Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII’s encyclical on labor and capitalism.   I was struck by two quotes from John Sweeney, former head of the AFL-CIO, who was one of the keynote speakers:

“Let us remind our entire church that ‘Rerum Novarum’ is not a cafeteria of suggestions and ideas from which we are free to pick and choose, but the modern expression of an unbroken line that stretches from the Book of Genesis, throughout the Old Testament, to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ himself.”

He also called for an alliance between the Church and the labor movement, saying that this is necessary if “the labor movement is to survive and perpetuate our mission of being what amounts to an action arm of Catholic social teaching.”

So what lessons should we take from Rerum Novarum?  In preparing this post I went back and skimmed over the encyclical again.  I was struck by a couple things.  First, Leo XIII faith in the “natural law”  seems almost naive at times, and his reading of it seems ahistorical.   This is no particular fault of his:  it gripped much of 19th century intellectual life.  For example, his defense of “private property”  based on natural law seems unable to distinguish between owning a house and a plot of land, and owning an industrial behemoth which dominates and controls the economic health and well being of entire regions.

Second, I found the document remarkably timid.  There is no doubt it was groundbreaking in a lot of ways, but Leo XIII seemed unable or unwilling to engage in a sustained critique of the existing social/economic order.  Indeed, the bulk of his opening critique is an attack on “socialism,”  though given the ferment on the left in this period, and the wide range of ideas that were being debated, it does have the flavor of a strawman argument.    He condemns particular abuses of the capitalist system, but I did not get the sense that he was scrutinizing it to the same degree.   This leads to my final question:  to what extent are the positive principles he enunciates weakened by this failure to engage and question the existing order of things?

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