Reading Rerum Novarum, Part III

Reading Rerum Novarum, Part III June 21, 2020

This is a continuation of my reflections and ramblings on Rerum Novarum.  You can read the previous two posts in Part I and Part II.

Our discussion got off to an interesting start.  One of the women who belongs to the reading group called attention to a number of references to women and gender roles that sound, frankly, sexist to modern ears.  For instance, we have the categorical declaration that

Women, again, are not suited for certain occupations; a woman is by nature fitted for home-work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well- being of the family. (par 42)

Earlier in the text, Leo XII, in his discussion of “peace and good order” warned of the “danger to morals through the mixing of the sexes” (par. 36).  The language about “modesty” was a read flag for me:  in previous years I have blogged extensively about (see here and here) and I am openly critical of the way this virtue is interpreted in some conservative Catholic circles.   Thankfully, our discussion did not get bogged on this, but turned to the more important question of what positive ideas we can take from the encyclical.    One point which was immediately brought out was that passages like these must be grounded in Leo XIII’s very deep concern for the family, a point he returns to multiple times in the text.    It should also be noted that in the same paragraph quoted above, the encyclical has very strong language about child labor.  Though not a categorical condemnation (which would come later), it is still very powerful, especially given the prevalence of child labor in mills and mines:

And, in regard to children, great care should be taken not to place them in workshops and factories until their bodies and minds are sufficiently developed. For, just as very rough weather destroys the buds of spring, so does too early an experience of life’s hard toil blight the young promise of a child’s faculties, and render any true education impossible. (par. 42)

Finally, though looking ahead to our next discussion on wages, Leo’s discussion of women was linked to the question of what we now call a living wage, and the ways in which the legitimate desire of women to be part of the workforce has become since the 1970s the “two-income trap” where married couples find they need two incomes in order to maintain a reasonable standard of living.  Rather than framing it as a requirement of women to stay home, the sense of our discussion is that the economic system must recognize the importance of child care and domestic labor as “work” (whether done by men or women), and be structured in a way that supports it.

Moving on, we turned to the more philosophical question of Leo XIII’s definition of the state.   His definition in paragraph 32 was rather generic:  “any government conformable in its institutions to right reason and natural law, and to those dictates of the divine wisdom.”  He goes on to refer to an earlier encyclical, Immortale Dei, on the Christian Constitution of States.  There was some discussion of the connection between this encyclical and Augustine’s ideas on the state from the City of God, and the way this Platonic formulation of the state differs from both Aristotle and Aquinas.   I don’t know enough about this (I wish I did), but it would be interesting to chase down, especially if Leo is breaking in any way from Aquinas, for whom he had the utmost respect.

But, looking at this definition and the ways in which the encyclical lays out the duties of the state, it is clear that Leo XIII categorically rejects any libertarian notion of the state.  The state has an active role:  “Rulers should, nevertheless, anxiously safeguard the community and all its members” (par 35); the state has “the duty of safeguarding private property by legal enactment and protection” (par 38); “The working man, too, has interests in which he should be protected by the State” (par 40). While the state “must not absorb the individual or the family” (par 35), it has a very broad role to play.   We saw here the beginnings of the ideals of solidarity and subsidiarity:  that social action is best taken at the lowest practical level, but that the higher levels (up to the state), have a duty to support and work to protect the interests of the lower levels.

Though we did not talk about it, and it is not mentioned directly in the text, it would be interesting to try to discern what Leo XIII would think of supra-national bodies, such as the United Nations or even the recently founded (at the time) International Committee of the Red Cross.  This is probably outside of the scope of his thinking, though one could argue that he envisions the Church itself as such an organization.  The legitimacy and role of secular organizations would have to wait.

One feature of the encyclical’s discussion of the role of the state is that it makes very explicit what later Catholic thought would call the preferential option for the poor.  While, on the one hand, the state must treat all of its citizens equal before the law, it must do so in a way that is solicitous of the particular situation of the poor and marginalized.  As noted above, the state has a duty to protect the interests of the working class.   Earlier, he writes

Hereby, then, it lies in the power of a ruler to benefit every class in the State, and amongst the rest to promote to the utmost the interests of the poor; and this in virtue of his office, and without being open to suspicion of undue interference – since it is the province of the commonwealth to serve the common good. And the more that is done for the benefit of the working classes by the general laws of the country, the less need will there be to seek for special means to relieve them. (par 32, emphasis added)

And someone in the group called to our attention this passage, where he elaborates on this rejection of the charge of “under interference” by the state:

The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State.

I really want to contrast this positive obligation on the state with the more neutral, hands-off approach which governed much “liberal” thought in the 19th century, and with the “law and order” approach common in conservative thought then and now.  I am also, for some reason, reminded of a quote by Antole France, a French writer who was a younger contemporary of Leo XIII:

In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.

A question I brought up at this point concerns the failure of the state to live up to the duties that Leo XIII lays out for it.  What recourse do citizens of the state have when the state fails to deliver on the duties laid out by “reason and natural law“?  In particular, what should the working class do when the state fails to intervene against the rapaciousness and greed of the capitalists?  This was a pressing concern, having already led to riots and the violent overthrow of the states.  Indeed, the Papal States had been abolished only 20 years before this encyclical was written, and the great revolts of 1848 were still very much alive in political memory.

This is not directly addressed in the encyclical itself, though Leo XIII’s repeated references to peace and order, and his categorical injunctions (discussed last time) to the workers to not resort to violence, suggest what the answer is.  One of our members found his position outlined in an earlier encyclical, Quod Apositolici Muneris, On Socialism, written 13 years before in 1878.  In it, he appears to categorically rule out revolution ever being a legitimate option:

And if at any time it happen that the power of the State is rashly and tyrannically wielded by princes, the teaching of the Catholic church does not allow an insurrection on private authority against them, lest public order be only the more disturbed, and lest society take greater hurt therefrom. And when affairs come to such a pass that there is no other hope of safety, she teaches that relief may be hastened by the merits of Christian patience and by earnest prayers to God. (par. 7)

The only exception he allows (and it is not clear how broadly he intended it to be interpreted) is in the following sentence:

But, if the will of legislators and princes shall have sanctioned or commanded anything repugnant to the divine or natural law, the dignity and duty of the Christian name, as well as the judgment of the Apostle, urge that “God is to be obeyed rather than man.” (par. 7)

Not surprisingly, considering how often he comes up, we all asked the same question:  what was Aquinas’ position on revolt and rebellion?  A very brief search suggests that this position taken by Leo XIII is a distillation of Aquinas, though perhaps some nuance has been lost.  One article I found summarizes Aquinas this way:

The only exception Aquinas made was for the case of tyrannical rule, where he argued that subjects are not bound to obey tyrannical orders from the ruler.  Still, Aquinas argued that subjects should simply withhold obedience to wrongful orders, not rise in armed rebellion. While in extreme cases it is not a sin to overthrow a tyrant, it is subordinate rulers who should take the lead in this task (here Aquinas anticipated Calvin on the overthrow of an unjust ruler by “lesser magistrates”), not the people at large. The underlying reason is the responsibility the subordinate rulers have to use their ordering power in the service of justice and peace; other people may have the individual right of self-defense, but they do not have this larger responsibility for the common good, given that the overthrow of a tyrannical government by popular uprising may lead to social and political chaos and even worse injustice than that under the tyrant.

While I don’t have the time or knowledge here, I think the position and concerns of Leo XIII (and Aquinas) should be brought into dialog with theories of democratic governance and the extent to which rulers rule because of the consent of the governed.  Or, in other words, to what extent do “the people” share in the duties of “subordinate rulers” to maintain justice and peace and to act when they are not upheld?  (The article I cite does indeed point to such an evolution, one which began in post-Reformation Europe as political philosophy had to deal with a disjuncture between the religion of rulers and that of the ruled.)

Returning to the encyclical, one member of the group suggested that Leo XIII saw the Church as an institution whose duty was to reign in the excesses of the state.  This seems consonant with the discussion of the role of the Church in the earlier part of the encyclical, but it does raise two further questions:  by what means can the Church influence the state, beyond moral suasion?   The Church at the time found itself between two classes, and was struggling to find a way to be an “honest broker” between the two.  And, second, what if the Church fails in its duty to reign in the state?  It was pointed out that many times in the 20th century the Church, in its legitimate desire to combat communism, had often allied itself with tyrannical states who committed multiple grievous evils in the name of “anti-communism.”   Though I did not mention it at the time, the Spanish Civil war came to mind, as well as the Church in El Salvador (and other parts of Latin America), though with some powerful exceptions (such as St. Oscar Romero).

It seems to me that the Church, to fulfill its role, needs to take on a prophetic stance that takes sides.   This is a position which will evolve over the next century in Catholic thought.  The seeds were implicit in Rerum Novarum, but concerns for peace and order prevented them from being fully realized then.  And, if we are going to be honest, from being fully realized today, as well.

The discussion concluded at this point, and we will move on this week to the final section of the encyclical, which treats just wages and unions, among other things.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!