Reading Rerum Novarum, Part IV

Reading Rerum Novarum, Part IV June 26, 2020

I want to apologize:  I started this earlier in the week, but was unhappy with where it was going.  I went to save it, but I apparently published an incomplete draft.  The following is a substantially revised version of what appeared on June 26.  DCU


This is my fourth and final post on Rerum Novarum; you can find the previous posts at Part I, Part II, and Part III.  This final discussion was quite lively, as I kicked it off by confessing that I had found the last part of the document very confusing.  We read paragraphs 43 to 64.  The first five paragraphs (43-47) deal with the subject of just wages, and I will return to them below.  But beginning in paragraph 48, the encyclical is devoted to workingmen’s associations, including unions:

In the last place, employers and workmen may of themselves effect much, in the matter We are treating, by means of such associations and organizations as afford opportune aid to those who are in distress, and which draw the two classes more closely together. Among these may be enumerated societies for mutual help; various benevolent foundations established by private persons to provide for the workman, and for his widow or his orphans, in case of sudden calamity, in sickness, and in the event of death; and institutions for the welfare of boys and girls, young people, and those more advanced in years.

The most important of all are workingmen’s unions, for these virtually include all the rest. (par 48-49a)

As you can see, Leo XIII enumerates all kinds of what we would now call non-profit or charitable organizations, and then suddenly links them to unions, which he claims subsume most other kinds.  This is certainly not the case now, though it may well have been in the 19th century–I do not know much about that particular aspect of labor history.  In paragraphs 50-56 the text develops a general theory of such organizations, describing them as “lesser societies” or “private societies” (par 50), which exist within the larger society, are subordinate to it, but have an independent existence from the State.  He stresses their right to exist, which while not absolute, is very broad and the state should support them by law, suppressing them only when they are “evidently bad, unlawful, or dangerous to the State.” (par. 52)  This leads into a paragraph that seems a digression, talking about Catholic religious orders and confraternities–examples of private societies, no doubt, but somewhat removed from the topic at hand.  He then spends several paragraphs talking about how private societies in general, and workingmen’s associations in particular, are to be organized, with a heavy stress on their need to be grounded in the faith.

But, after all of this, the encyclical never goes back and addresses a central point:  the role of unions, or these associations in general, in determining wages and working conditions.   Leo XIII writes:

In these and similar questions, however – such as, for example, the hours of labor in different trades, the sanitary precautions to be observed in factories and workshops, etc. – in order to supersede undue interference on the part of the State, especially as circumstances, times, and localities differ so widely, it is advisable that recourse be had to societies or boards such as We shall mention presently, or to some other mode of safeguarding the interests of the wage-earners; the State being appealed to, should circumstances require, for its sanction and protection. (par. 45)

And this was the heart of my confusion.  This is the central role of unions:  to provide a collective voice for the workers.  So, to his credit, Leo XIII is declaring unions to be both necessary and proper, and the appropriate place for these discussions to be made.  But he says nothing about the relationship between unions and employers, and nowhere does he encourage employers to meet and negotiate in good faith with them.  This was at the time, and for many years to come, a key sticking point:  employers refused to recognize unions, and would fire or threaten workers who joined them.  In the US, it was only after the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that corporations were forced to recognize and negotiate with unions.

Returning to our discussion, a very good point was made that Pope Leo XIII was responding, at least in part, to the crisis of the Knights of Labor in the United States.  The Knights of Labor were a workingmen’s organization which acted as a labor union, but had other features as well, acting for social and cultural uplift of the working class.  The KofL had a meteoric rise and fall:  expanding to 800,000 members and then collapsing to fewer than 100,000.  For our purposes, it is worth noting that it attracted many Catholic members, and the scrutiny of the hierarchy.  The archbishop of Quebec condemned them as a secret society.  Several prominent American bishops, however, rose to their defense, with Cardinal James Gibbons going to Rome in 1887 to defend them and prevent a general condemnation.

Another organization we discussed was the Knights of Columbus, which started in New Haven, CT,  in 1882 as a mutual benevolent association–another of the workingmen’s associations.   However, while its original membership was working class, it never seemed to function as labor organization, and I can find only limited evidence that it ever took a stand for organized labor.  (See the comment here.)  I will note that I find it ironic that one of the grounds for condemning the Knights of Labor was that it was a secret society with “Masonic” rituals:  the Knights of Columbus for most of its history has functioned similarly, with arcane, secret admissions rites and secret meetings.  It is only in the past year that the admissions rituals have been revised to get rid of secrecy.  And my local council, to this day, covers the windows and doors of our meeting room so no-one case see us.

We spent some time discussing Paragraphs 57-58, where the encyclical lays out the goals and organizing principles for workingmen’s associations.  The closest it gets to answering the question I raised about interactions with employers is to say:

The rights and duties of the employers, as compared with the rights and duties of the employed, ought to be the subject of careful consideration. Should it happen that either a master or a workman believes himself injured, nothing would be more desirable than that a committee should be appointed, composed of reliable and capable members of the association, whose duty would be, conformably with the rules of the association, to settle the dispute.(par 58)

While in the end I still find this section confusing, I think there are a couple key points to take away from it.  First, the Pope clearly legitimizes the existence of labor unions: the state cannot ban them outright, and he urges employers to acknowledge and work with them.   This gets lost in the broader discussion of private associations, but should be foregrounded.  This is a message which is often lost on Catholic institutions, whether it was Cardinal Spellman using his own seminarians as strikebreakers during the 1949 Calvary Cemetery strike, to Catholic universities today refusing to recognize contingent faculty unions.

An interesting question which I wish I knew more about is why, in the end, Catholic workers in Europe and the US remained Catholic in faith (I mentioned the example of the fabulous monuments the Italian stonemasons in New England carved for their deceased leaders) but they failed to embrace Catholic unionism and instead chose to support secular/progressive/leftist unions.  In Germany, for instance, Catholic social teaching had a profound effect on the structure of the government both before and after WW II, but to the best of my knowledge had little or no impact on the labor unions.  And in the United States, while there were Catholics active in the labor movement (such as Msgr. John Ryan), there were never any Catholic unions.

Our discussion then turned back to the question of a just wage.  In my mind this is one of the most powerful sections of the entire encyclical, and strikingly relevant in our own age.  He rejects any notion that wages are simply the result of negotiation between worker and employer and insists that employers must pay what is now referred to as a just wage.

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice. (par 45)

This paragraph continues with the quote above, in which Leo XIII advocates both for unions and for state intervention (albeit as a last resort) to insure that just wages are paid.   His definition of just wages is interesting as well:  just wages should allow a worker to not only support himself and a family, but also to save money and purchase property.  In other words, wages should allow workers to become owners as well.  (par 46)

The notion that wages must allow a worker to support his family, while grounded in what are now seen as archaic notions of gender roles, does lead naturally to the following corollary, which is very relevant today:  while in a family both spouses may choose for professional or other reasons to work, they should not be forced to by economic necessity.  Moreover, the organization of wages and benefits needs to support family life:  in modern terms, think of paid parental leave, flexible work schedules, generous childcare subsidies and the like.   Pope Leo XIII, by placing the family is a fundamental organizational unit of society, makes clear that the economy should be shaped for the benefit of the family; the family should not be distorted and harmed for the benefit of the economy.  In our modern age, the Fight for Fifteen campaign, which advocates for a $15 minimum wage, seems to flow directly from the encyclical’s concern for just wages.

Finally, I felt there was one gap in the encyclical’s discussion of wages and ownership.  Though Leo talks about this several times, his vision of ownership is tied to an agrarian, rural vision:  he seems to see workers saving their money to buy farms.   This is out of step both with the rapid urbanization of the working class, but also with the rise of capitalism and industry, which are owned by the employers (the “capitalists”).  Even though earlier in the encyclical there is a discussion about how labor brings about ownership, in some sense, of that which is worked on, Leo XIII never draws the conclusion that workers can or should have an ownership stake in the industries in which they labor.   This would have given some point of discussion with the various strands of socialist thought, such as the Marxist notion that workers should own “the means of production” or the anarchist idea of workers syndicates that would manage the economy.  On the Catholic front, after the Spanish Civil war, this would lead to a Catholic priest founding Mondragon, the largest worker own cooperative in the world.  But overall, this is an idea that had to wait for later Church teaching, and which is still more of an idea than a reality.

This brought us to the end of Rerum Novarum.  On Monday we will start reading Quadragesimo Anno, Pope Pius XI’s reflection of Rerum Novarum, published 40 years later in 1931.   To finish, what can I say about Rerum Novarum?  Looking back, I find it to be a more nuanced document than I originally thought, though to find the nuances one must work through a lot of historical baggage, and try to recognize the power of the ideas even if they are partly obscured by the context in which they were given.  I still think that Pope Leo XIII was too defensive, and missed an opportunity to try to engage the emerging socialist theories in a dialogue that, one could have hoped, would have enriched both Catholic teaching and the secular labor and socialist movements.  But he began the very important process of moving away from the age of empire and the Ancien regime,  and called the Church to be more than just a defender of the emerging capitalist status quo.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!