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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Rerum Novarum: Then and Now


In May 1891, Pope Leo XIII opened a new chapter in the mission of the Catholic Church when he issued an open letter entitled Rerum Novarum—Of New Things.  The letter dealt with the Church’s position on an issue of increasing global concern:  the dangers of unregulated Capitalism.   Much of the Western world was still in the throes of the Industrial Revolution.  Capitalism was in full flower, and other beliefs—the labor movement, Socialism, Communism—were developing in response to it.  The letter addressed the responsibilities of Capitalists to the larger community.
            Under the banner, “The Rights and Responsibilities of Capital and Labor,” the Pope noted:
. . . some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen's guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself. 

            The Pope argued that the remedy proposed by the new Socialist movement—to renounce private property—was not ethical, as it “would rob the lawful possessor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community” and that “Socialists, therefore, by endeavoring to transfer the possessions of individuals to the community at large, strike at the interests of every wage-earner, since they would deprive him of the liberty of disposing of his wages, and thereby of all hope and possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.”
            Instead, the Pope called for a regulated approach to Capitalism that protected the worker and the Capitalist.  He wrote, “ . . . the first thing of all to secure is to save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making. It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies.”  He added, “ . . . 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.”  He argued that unions were a proper mechanism for ensuring that workers receive proper compensation and conditions for their work, comparing them to medieval guilds.
            One hundred and twenty-four years later, the Pope’s words continue to ring true.  The Information Revolution and the resulting globalization of capitalism have pretty much destroyed the ideal of community in many industries.  No longer do bosses and workers live in the same physical community, dependent one another for services outside the workplace.  At the same time, globalization—in the form of a global business supply chain—has diminished the impact of community on workers themselves.   In the process, greed becomes less tangible when the boss never even sees his workers and the workers have no relationship with their bosses outside work, not even a shared culture.
            For centuries, greed has been a “deadly sin” in the Christian community.  It was Christ, after all, who said that it is easier to put a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. The issue goes well beyond money.  It speaks to our respect for each other across social classes, for sure, but also across significant cultural divides in this new global economy.  What Pope Leo XIII did 124 years ago set a new direction for the Catholic Church at the height of the Industrial Revolution.  The question for today is whether we can re-invigorate the Rerum Novarum as both an individual morality and a societal ethic that will guide us through the dangerous waters in what has yet to take shape as a new social order.