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Rerum Novarum and Seven Principles of Catholic Social Doctrine | Barbara Lanari | Ignatius Insight

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Editor's note: This essay originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review. It is published here in recognition of the 120th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which was promulgated on May 15, 1891.

All Catholic social doctrine is based on the dignity of the human person. Man derives both his dignity and his social nature from the fact that he is made in the image and likeness of God. God is a community of loving relationships between the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Man similarly seeks out loving relationships in his life on earth. As man by his very nature desires to live in loving community with others and with God, Catholic social doctrine seeks to support all that facilitates this endeavor, and seeks to eliminate all that hampers this endeavor. While the Catholic Church is primarily concerned with the salvation of souls and with one's eternal destiny, it is also genuinely concerned with man's earthly existence and his temporal welfare during his pilgrimage to his eternal home.

In 1891, in response to a growing disparity of wealth in many areas of the world, Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical letter that addressed the rights and duties of those with capital who employed laborers and the rights and duties of laborers toward those with greater wealth who employed them. This encyclical, called Rerum Novarum (hereafter RN), laid out fundamental principles for the relationship between "capital" and "labor," and also responded to both negative and positive methods that were being employed to deal with this problem. The negative methods were stirring up revolution and hatred toward the wealthier in society with an interest in redistributing their personal property, while the positive methods encouraged the wealthy to practice generosity and compassion through setting up private organizations to assist workers and their families in times of need. Pope Leo XIII believed that human society could only be saved and healed by a Christian life and Christian institutions, because they are ordered to man's true end and true good. Following are seven principles of Catholic social doctrine that were laid out in this encyclical. They are as applicable today as they were over a hundred years ago.

The dignity of the human person, as mentioned above, comes from the fact that man is created in the image and likeness of God. Each person has God's life, law and love deeply imprinted on his very nature. God, each person has the ability and desire to both give and receive life, law and love to others. The ability of man to practice virtues in regard to God and his fellow man gives him a value much higher than any other earthly creature. His ability to practice virtues like prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance allows him to bring to fulfillment the powers and gifts that he possesses; hopefully in loving communion with God and his fellow man.

Another part of man's dignity comes from the fact that he possesses free will. This can be either a blessing or a curse as far as living with others in society. Due to free will a person can either choose to serve God and his fellow man with his gifts and abilities, or use his gifts and abilities to get others to serve him. Hence, virtues that were meant to help man reach his intended end of eternal happiness can instead become perverted into vices that hinder man in reaching this end. With this complex tension between virtue and vice, good and evil, one can see that relationships between capital and labor, or employers and employees, can be quite complicated. One only has to look at the present situation in the U.S. economy regarding taxes, health care, welfare programs, banking, etc. to see that things can get extremely convoluted. Where generosity should be the guiding principle, sometimes greed is present instead in the taking of greater compensation for one's work than it is worth. Where self-sacrifice should be present, sometimes selfishness exists in the exploitation of workers. RN points out that capital and labor need each other and that both have a crucial role to play in upholding man's dignity. Capital provides the funds to provide man with food, clothing and shelter, while labor provides the manpower to make the capital from the resources that God has provided.

Each person should be treated with respect because he or she has an eternal soul with hope of living for eternity as a son or daughter of God in God's heavenly kingdom. This is the principal aspect of man being created in the image and likeness of God-that man has an immortal soul and the capacity to enter into an eternal union with God. Some practical applications in respecting man's dignity in the workplace are as follows: 1) one should be given time off of work to worship God, thus upholding man's dignity and keeping him connected with his Creator; b) one should have periods of rest and not be expected to work long hours that prevent one from getting adequate sleep; c) one should not be required to work in unsafe conditions where he is in danger of bodily harm; d) one should not be forced to work in immoral conditions that endanger his soul; e) an employer should pay a fair wage and an employee should give a full day's work for a full day's pay; f) states should not overtax earnings; g) a worker should be allowed time to fulfill family obligations. These guidelines maintain the respect and dignity of the person.

The common good, according to RN, is truly more about making man virtuous than granting man material comforts. Pope Leo XIII believed that the highest good a society could have was virtue. For if everyone in society was virtuous, then there would be just and fair laws, and no one would be without the means to live fairly well because Christian charity would cause others to provide for those who were needy. Rightly understood, the "common good" does not mean what is most materially good for the most number of people. Rather it means the good that is shared by all, which they hold in common. It is really more the moral and spiritual good that all members of society hold in common. Thinking of the biblical image of the Mystical Body of Christ is a good analogy to aid in understanding the concept of the common good.

In the Mystical Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:1-11; Eph. 1:18-23) each member of the body has an important role to contribute to the whole body. If each member of the body is healthy and contributing to the good of the whole, the body will be functional and accomplish that for which it was created. Members retain their diversity in a body (i.e., a brain cannot fulfill the function of a heart, which pumps oxygenated blood to the body, nor can a heart do the thinking and processing of electrical impulses, as a brain does), yet all the members form a single, united body. In the same way in civil society, those who labor at a trade provide an invaluable service to a society. They move the body of society in a sense. However, labor alone cannot keep society healthy and functional. There also needs to be those who hold and distribute capitallike bankers for instance-who provide the fuel for the workers' labor. To pit these two against each other is detrimental to both, as RN points out so well.

Pope Leo XIII states that if the needs of the common laborers are met, then they are more productive and those with capital benefit as well. He writes that to obtain profit and in the process cause another to be needy is morally wrong. Rather, when one is blessed with material wealth, one should use this to benefit as many others as possible. RN is quick to point out that no one should be forced to share his goods, however, as that would be stealing. Rather, all should be encouraged to practice the virtue of generosity. This Christian charity of almsgiving keeps the whole of society healthy and prevents those who are needy from becoming desperate and taking desperate or violent measures to provide for their needs. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (pars. 1907-1909) singles out three principal aspects of the common good: 1) respect for the human person and his rights; 2) social well-being and development; and 3) peace, which is "the stability and security of a just order."

Subsidiarity is a very important principle in Catholic social doctrine. While RN does not use this term specifically, it refers to the basic principle. Subsidiarity is the principle that governments should not intervene in matters that can be taken care of or resolved by families or communities. States or governments should not replace the rights and responsibilities of families. Rather, those in authority in government should see themselves in a fatherly role of guidance and protection. They should only intervene when a family or community is unable or unwilling to fulfill their rights and duties in regard to its members. Government should be at the service of the family, not vice versa.

Larger governments should never remove from families or smaller local governments what they can do for themselves, because this removes their freedom and personal initiative. However, if a person, family or small community is totally without any means of providing for itself—perhaps due to illness, injury, drought, flood, hurricane, earthquake, etc—then the larger government should assist. Pope Leo XIII strongly emphasizes that socialism is fundamentally flawed because is seeks to replace the rights and duties of parents, families and communities with the supervision of the state. This destroys the family unit, which is the basic building block of society, where the virtues that build a productive, cohesive society are taught and practiced most successfully.

Participation is the principle that every person in a society should participate in building up society, while keeping in mind God's plan for the human person individually and communally. This principle is based on the belief that every person has been given gifts and talents by God to grow in virtue themselves and to aid others in growing in virtue. By using one's gifts and abilities, one can achieve his highest good and intended end, as well as help others to do the same. God wants man to participate in the world in which he lives. He wants man to participate in a life with the Blessed Trinity and with one's fellow man. This goes back to the human person's social nature; the fact that man was created for communion, not for isolation. Participation is a duty to be fulfilled by all, whereby one contributes to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the civil community to which he belongs.

Solidarity is the principle that all members of society have a responsibility to help the other members of their family, community or country with the needs and problems that they cannot remedy themselves. This includes protecting and caring for those who are weak, injured or unable to provide for themselves for one reason or another. States have a duty to prevent abuses of basic human rights and punish abuses when families and communities are unable or unwilling to take care of abuses on their own. The formation of Christian virtues like charity and generosity will help one to see others' needs, and give him the desire to act to fulfill those needs. However, sometimes laziness or selfishness keeps one from voluntarily practicing solidarity.

The state should not interfere in family, employer, or employee rights and duties in general (this is the principle of subsidiarity). Sometimes, however, the government does need to step in to stop evil situations like child abuse, exploitation of workers, dangerous working conditions, or unfair labor practices. The state should also protect its citizens from evil aggressors through police and military protection when necessary. If the principle of solidarity were truly practiced by family, extended family, neighborhoods, and church communities in interactions with those they know who are suffering from physical or spiritual need, there would not need to be the extensive (and often poorly managed) state welfare programs that are in existence in the U.S. today. RN states that the government can never be as effective as Christian charity in helping the poor.

The right of private property is explained extensively in RN. Pope Leo XIII states that private property represents the wages that one has rightfully earned, and that one needs private property to provide for the needs of one's family. This was especially true in 1891 when many grew food, raised animals for food or sale, or produced a marketable crop on their property. Pope Leo XIII rightly predicted that if private property was stolen from rightful owners and given to a state in the name of distributing the wealth more equitably, workers and the poor would suffer the most. This redistribution of property was being encouraged by those preaching socialist revolution. Pope Leo XIII's prediction was borne out after the Russian Revolution of the early 1900s, when a massive redistribution of land led to an economic crisis and famine that was largely responsible for the starvation of millions of Russians.

Ownership of private property is beneficial for the common good. This point is emphasized in RN. This encyclical points out that if one has ownership of land or other possessions, he will work harder to take care of them than someone who has no vested interest in the property. If a person works hard to acquire ownership of land, and then works hard to maintain the land and cause it to produce something valuable, then one has a certain rightful pride in this and will take better care of it than a stranger. It also is a matter of justice that one who labors to cultivate land and make it fruitful should be able to possess that which he has invested so much of himself in.

Universal destination of goods is the principle that God made the goods of the earth for the use of all men so that all would be fed, clothed and sheltered. RN states that Christian living should lead to temporal prosperity for all; not necessarily great temporal wealth for all, but adequate food and shelter for all. In order for this to be a reality, man must share the goods of the earth with all. Property rights and the right of free trade are only instruments for respecting the greater principle of the universal destination of goods. For example, private property can be taxed to assist in providing goods and services that are at the service of all, like police protection, the building of roads and public libraries, for example.

The fundamental principles of Catholic social doctrine that are set out in Rerum Novarum are as important today as they were in 1891. Two more social encyclicals have been written [editor's note: prior to when this essay was written; Benedict XVI's social encyclical Caritas in veritate, was presented in 2009] to expound on these principles, and both were written in anniversary years of this important encyclical.

In 1931, Pope Pius XI wrote Quadragesimo Anno (On Social Reconstruction) and in 1991, Pope John Paul II wrote Centesimus Annus. A reading of these three encyclicals can give one an important foundation for knowing what each person's rights and responsibilities are as a member of society. It can also assist those who set government and workplace policies to know the best ways to serve the ultimate good of all while respecting the dignity of each and every human person. As RN points out, socialism, which promotes class warfare between the wealthy and the poor, is never a good answer to social and economic problems. Neither is unbridled capitalism that promotes materialism and greed.

Christian social doctrine and Christian morality are the best answers to the problems of human society that beset man today. This is because they keep greed and power-mongering in check by inspiring generosity and a spirit of service to the less fortunate. Christian life discourages vice and encourages virtue. Christianity discourages vices like laziness, lust and pride, which can destroy both large and small incomes, ruin families and end hopes of eternal beatitude. Christianity encourages virtues like prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, which can help build a society where there is hope of both temporal well-being and eternal happiness.

Related Ignatius Insight Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:

What Is Catholic Social Teaching? | Mark Brumley
Caritas in Veritate: "Its Principal Driving Force" | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
CWR Round-Table: Caritas in Veritate | Catholic World Report
• Benedict XVI's Theological Vision: An Introduction | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | From the introduction to Christ, Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
• Pope Benedict XVI, Theologian of Joy | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | An interview with the author of Christ, Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI

Mrs. Barbara Lanari lives in the Archdiocese of St. Louis with her husband Steve and four children. She received her M.TS. in 2009 from Ave Maria University's Institute for Pastoral Theology. She is a home-schooling mom of seventeen years and a practicing R.N. on a medical-oncology unit. She received her formation in social ethics growing up in the inner city of Indianapolis, living as a young adult with the Missionaries of Charity in the Bronx, N. Y., studying under Dr. Lawrence Feingold, and reading papal encyclicals

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