Reading Rerum Novarum

Reading Rerum Novarum June 7, 2020

In an effort to break out of the isolation brought on by the pandemic, I followed up on an idea to organize a small reading group on Catholic social teaching (CST), with the aim of reading, in order, all of the Papal encyclicals (plus the occasional exhortation or apostolic letter) on CST.  We are going to meet weekly via Zoom, and have begun with the ur-text of CST, Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum.   I posted about this great encyclical when I first started blogging at Vox Nova, and many of my fellow bloggers have touched on it over the years.

In this post, which is going to be updated periodically, I am going to share my random reflections and thoughts as I read the text.   Some of these will be my own–in fact, I was somewhat surprised, when I went back and read my 9 year-old post, how much my reaction today was the same as it was back then.  Others will be based on observations, questions and comments from the members of my reading group.  However, I take full responsibility for everything written here as being my take on what they were saying.  I am, however, going to invite them to add their own comments below, and I hope the other readers of Vox Nova will join in.

June 7, 2020

Our first meeting was last week, and was marred by some slight confusion.  I was not able to download the Vatican text, and got what I thought was a copy of the text from another site.  Alas, the translation was significantly different, and the division into paragraphs was substantially different.  Oops!  I would have thought that texts like these would be uniform.

We read and discussed paragraphs 1-15.  In these paragraphs Leo XIII briefly sketches the problem and then turns to a denunciation of the solution proposed by “socialists.”  I use scare quotes here because it seemed to me that he never really defines what he means by this word, especially given the wide variety of ideas in the 19th century that were discussed under the general heading of socialism.  It was pointed out to me that in paragraph 4, he does seem to narrow it down:

To remedy these wrongs the socialists, working on the poor man’s envy of the rich, are striving to do away with private property, and contend that individual possessions should become the common property of all, to be administered by the State or by municipal bodies.

And later, he identifies as “the main tenet of socialism” to be the “community of goods.” (par. 15)  Just before this, he also says that socialists want to abrogate the authority of parents, “setting up a State supervision” of children. (par. 14)  I know less than I would like about socialism in the 19th century, but from what I do know this seems to be targeted at one particular part of the movement.

Our discussion then turned to Leo XIII’s defense of private property based on the natural law.   I must confess I am not convinced by them, though he does go so far as to write that

So strong and convincing are these arguments that it seems amazing that some should now be setting up anew certain obsolete opinions in opposition to what is here laid down. (par.10)

The biggest weakness to me is that he never defines what he means by “private property”, though one can infer, from his repeated mentions of “land” and “property” that he equates it very closely with ownership of  a house and (farm) land.   The problem, however, is that the category of private property, by this time, had grown to include not just small businesses but large industrial concerns (think Carnegie Steel in the US, soon to be sold to become part of the industrial behemoth United States Steel) which exercised substantial economic and political power.  The extreme example I pointed to was the Belgian Congo, which at the time was a “private colony” of King Leopold II:  in other words, it was his private property.   We agreed that this was unjust property:  my point was that the document failed to interrogate this notion and so gives no firm grounds for pondering what is just or unjust property.

Reference was made to John Locke’s definition of property, of which I know very little  (I have not read much analytic philosophy) as one way of defining property.  It was also suggested that a better definition could by found in Thomas Aquinas, again, something of which I know little.  Searching the internet revealed a ton of sources and the following quote which seems subtly different from what Leo XIII is trying to say:

The possession of all things in common is ascribed to the natural law; not in the sense that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common, and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own; but in the sense that no division of possessions is made by the natural law. This division arose from human agreement which belongs to the positive law.. .Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law,but a super-addition (ad inventio) thereto devised by human reason.

Clearly a lot for me to chew on here.  One thought that came to me after we met was that Leo XIII clearly ties private property to a small scale (farms, craft shops, etc.) and links it to human labor.  Indeed, he goes so far as to say that

That which has thus altered and improved the land becomes so truly part of itself as to be in great measure indistinguishable and inseparable from it. Is it just that the fruit of a man’s own sweat and labor should be possessed and enjoyed by any one else? As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor. (par. 10)

But at the same time, he believes that the working man can trade his labor (and thus his property that he has created) for money.  There is a tension here, and I think this point could benefit from being brought into dialogue with Marx’s notion of the alienation of labor.

A final point that was raised that I thought really fruitful was about Leo XIII’s anthropology of the human person.  What is a person, what motivates him (or her)?  He is clearly concerned about “the prevailing moral degeneracy” (par. 1) which he believes is part of the problem.  But it was pointed out that, in terms of discussing labor, Leo XIII has a very reductive sense of it:  a man labors for money in order to buy property:

It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs (par. 5).

This seems to be a very narrow understanding of labor.  My example was crafters, such as my wife, who weaves and knits.  She invests a great deal of work into this, but remuneration is a secondary priority:  like a drug addict who is a small time dealer, she sells enough to buy the materials to make more.  For her, and for other workers, the power of work (and so its dignity) is the act of creation and of sharing the results of their labor with others.  Ursula Le Guin, in her extended examination of anarchism in The Dispossessed, spends a great deal of time talking about work, and what motivates someone to work in the absence of financial motives.  Again, I think these ideas in the encyclical could benefit by being brought into play with the alienation of labor which Marx saw as a critical flaw in capitalism.  It will be interesting to see whether these ideas come up in the remainder of the document.


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