Reading Rerum Novarum, Part II

Reading Rerum Novarum, Part II June 14, 2020

In this blog post I continue my random thoughts and reflections on Rerum Novarum, the first Papal encyclical on what came to be called Catholic Social Teaching.   The first part, with some background details, can be found here.    I initially thought to keep editing and adding to that post (which is what I said there) but I decided that it made more sense to create a new blog post for each set of reflections.

Last week my reading group focused on Paragraphs 16-30, in which Leo XIII outlines what he believes is the central role of the Church in settling the divisions between workers and owners.  At some point someone noted that this section of the document is very much influenced by 19th century Catholic thinking (which perhaps reached its apotheosis in the Syllabus of Errors) which denied what in the United States is now loosely referred to as the “separation of Church and State” and which sees the Church as having a central, authoritative role to play in civil society.   This does not in any way invalidate the analysis of these sections, though I think it would come to be applied (and needs to be applied) in ways very different from what Leo XIII intended.

In particular, I am reminded of the personalism of the Catholic Worker Movement, and their aphorism that “we must build a new world in the shell of the old,”  with this new world based solidly on Catholic moral truths.  The need for personal charity is spelled out in great detail, as is the need for subsidiary organizations (here all Church based) that lie between the State and the family.   (See paragraph 28.)  And the ultimate revolution must be one in the human heart.

In our discussion first point I raised was about Paragraph 20, in which the encyclical lays out the duties of workers and owners.   He begins with the workers, using for the only time the word “proletarian” which is now so evocative of Marxist thought:

the following bind the proletarian and the worker: fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon; never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder; and to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss.

A couple things struck me:  first, these are categorical duties.  They are short, direct, and there is no nuance or exceptions.  So, one must presume that no matter how harshly or unjustly treated, workers may not strike, engage in sit-ins, or use violence in self-defense.  In light of US labor history (the Homestead strike and the Ludlow massacre come to mind) this does seem to be a rather high bar.

Second, the duties of employers are much more nuanced and while strong, are less forcefully presented.  To make this clear, I am going to quote the whole passage, and put in boldface the specific duties which the encyclical enjoins on them:

The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers – that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. His great and principal duty is to give every one what is just. Doubtless, before deciding whether wages a[r]e fair, many things have to be considered; but wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this– that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven. “Behold, the hire of the laborers… which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth; and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.”(6) Lastly, the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should in proportion to their scantiness be accounted sacred.

I would not argue that these duties are bad, though the middle collection start “he be not exposed to corrupting influences” is remarkably paternalistic.  But they are framed in a very different way than the duties imposed on workers.   The text assumes that the duties imposed on the worker are self-evident and they are laid out as a series of commands.  On the other hand, the duties of employers require explanation and cannot simply be demanded.  Note the language “his great and principal duty” and “must religiously refrain“–these are exhortations to good behavior rather than commands.

That the workers are directly commanded to avoid violence is not surprising:  Pope Leo XIII like much of the Church leadership, feared the social unrest which had periodically convulsed Europe since the French Revolution a century before.   But a quote from Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail  seems relevant here:

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.

To (try to) be fair, Leo XIII is in fact acknowledging, at least implicitly, the conditions which were leading many workers to press strongly for reforms, and for some to promote revolution with the goal of over-turning a legal and social order that tolerated and supported their abuse by the wealthy.  (Indeed, in paragraph 3, which we read two weeks ago, he is much more explicit.)  And he is calling for change.  But the asymmetrical way in which he constructs these duties suggests that he is more concerned with order than justice.

Another interesting point that came up in our discussions was the use of “cabor” and “capital” to refer to the two social classes.  The document itself refers repeatedly to “the working classes” and also to the “working class”;  but it names the classes “labor” and capital” only three times:  in the title “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor“, in paragraph 2, which identifies the goal of the encyclical as a discussion of “the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor“, and in paragraph 19, which talks about their interdependence:  “capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital.”  At the time I had missed the first two instances, and was struck by the use of this terminology as well as the more ubiquitous use of “working class(es)”.   These social divisions are presented as given, and no indication is given that these are relatively new social constructs.  One can get marvelously sidetracked into when they came into being during the Industrial Revolution, but the key point, made by social historians such as E.P. Thompson, is that the working class came to be as a self-aware social grouping in the 19th century.  There have always been rich and poor–the Old and New Testaments are replete with references to them, and medieval thought included a rich treasury of thought about them.  (Here I want to call out a book I found very influential, Mollat’s “The Poor in the Middle Ages: an Essay in Social History“.)  But the organization of people into two classes–labor and capital–that saw themselves in opposition was a relatively new phenomenon in history.

Herein lies both a great strength and a great weakness of the encyclical.  Leo XIII recognizes their existence, but calls into question whether they are, by necessity, mutually antagonistic.   Certainly, much (all?) progressive thought in the 19th century explicitly saw them so.  I am much less certain of how they were viewed in conservative thought, I would hazard a guess, based on the similar conservative views held about blacks in America, that they felt that labor and capital could live in perfect amity, so long as workers knew their (subordinate) place.  Leo XII states explicitly in paragraph 19:

The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict.

This is an important argument which needs to be made:  the goal of Christian social organization should be to get people to recognize their own mutual interdependence–or, as one participant in our discussions put it, their relationality.

But notice the elision that occurs here:  he passes back from the new social classes of labor and capital, and refers instead to the  “wealthy” and “working men.”  These are terms that refer to individuals as opposed to socially constructed classes.  So it could indeed be the case the rich and poor–as individuals–should not be in mutual conflict, but that the social classes of labor and capital–as they have developed in the 19th century–are, and this points to a flaw not in the behavior of individuals, but in the way in which society had come to be organized.  (I will pass over for now why it came to be so organized.)    This points to the great weakness in the text:  there is no structural analysis of this new social organization: as I mentioned in a comment on last week’s blog, Leo XIII tends to approach these social questions in an abstract, ahistorical way, one which does not allow him to question the contingency underlying society:  that it came to be does not mean that it had to come to be.  This outlook shapes the duties of the workers and employers given above:  workers must not engage in actions which undermine or challenge the existing social order (at least violently), and employers are to act justly and charitably within the bounds of the social order.   This development will be left to later Catholic social teaching.

There was one other point in the text that we did not discuss, which is the balance between charity and justice.  Leo XIII appeals to justice several times, but in a key passage in paragraph 22, discussing the right use of money, he steps back and says that giving alms “is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases) but of Christian charity, a duty not enforced by human law.”  This tension between charity and justice is one which some of the Church fathers saw differently: here I think of St. Basil, and his injunction that “the coat in your closet you do not wear was stolen from a poor man” (emphasis added).  I think that the use of these two terms in this section of the encyclical needs to be explored–hopefully, we can do this in the comments.  In addition, I would love to better understand the “extreme cases” that Leo XIII was thinking of in which giving alms would be required by justice.    Mollat, in his book, makes reference to a medieval debate about whether magistrates could force the rich to give alms if the need was great and they failed to do so.  (If I remember correctly, the consensus was that they could.)

Our discussion ended with some questions about the relationship of Church and State, and whether one could live out and act upon Christian virtues in the context of a secular state.  This was prompted by a discussion of my mother, who for many years worked for the county welfare agency.  I brought her up because in the early days of her work, part of her job was making home visits to her clients, which often involved sitting and getting to know them and their circumstances.  I was comparing this to a point raised by one participant about his work with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and his suggestion that one of the strengths of private charity was its relational character, as opposed to its economic assistance.  (I did note that budget cuts ended these home visits, and my mother became more concerned with paperwork and rules than with the lives of her clients.)  This laid a great groundwork for our next discussion, which will focus on the role of the state.

"Bill, I think your comment fleshes out a point I tried to make, which is ..."

Why was Abby Johnson’s Video Racist?
"She is a white Southerner who is surrounded by a lot of people who share ..."

Why was Abby Johnson’s Video Racist?
"Please read more carefully: I am quoting a letter by a priest, Fr. Daly. Those ..."

Another Thought on the Knights of ..."
"Glad you have a good financial secretary and have NOT resigned your position, as you ..."

Another Thought on the Knights of ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!