Great Moments in Catholic History
Fr. Jacques Monet, S.J. 
18 Leo XIII issues Rerum Novarum

The Church's most important statement on social Justice

The hundred years that followed the French Revolution were filled with radical political, economic, and social change. New structures emerged, novel governments took power, old problems were given rapid, untried solutions -- most of them, for a variety of reasons, being diametrically opposed to the traditional teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The reaction of the majority of bishops and of the popes was generally negative. But when Leo XIII came to the throne in 1878, he made it clear that he wished to reconcile the Church with modern civilization.

As Count Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci, Leo XIII had been a scholar and a patron of scholars. As Cardinal Bishop of Perugia, he had been a founder of hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions of social service. He had also managed, by his intelligence, skill, and obligingness, to win concessions from the anticlerical Piedmontese government at the time of' Perugia's annexation to the new Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Once elected to the Chair of St. Peter, he wished to become "the workers' Pope."

Pope Leo would not admit that the Church was an outdated institution. Rather, he insisted, it favoured progress and would support just social development in all possible ways. He therefore promoted disarmament, attacked militarism, supported the idea of an International Court of Arbitration, and confessed himself a pacifist. He then developed his thinking in four great encyclical letters. Inscrutabili, published in 1878, made clear his mind that Society needed the moral leadership of the Church just as the Church, in turn, needed the just structures and institutions of modern Society. In Immortale Dei (1885) he declared modem democracy to be one of the many forms of government compatible with Catholic teaching. And three years later, in Libertas (1888), he sanctioned the rights of peoples to self-determination. That same year, his In Plurimis denounced the immorality of slavery and of racism.

These ideas were new in the 1880's, and some were startling. But more was still to come: one of the great moments of modern Catholic Church history, the publication of Rerum Novarum on May 15, 1891.

Rerum Novarum gave status and authority to the thinking of a minority of Catholic writers and social workers such as the Swiss Cardinal Gaspard Mermillod, who had been the patron of many international conferences on social questions, or the German worker become priest, Adolph Kolping, who had established a string of hostels for immigrant workers, or again the Italian Jesuit philosopher, Luigi d' Azeglio, who had been the first to use the term ''social justice" back in 1840.

Leo XIII's greatest encyclical was a social charter at the broadest scope. It denounced the industrial conditions that had created a proletariat whose situation, he wrote, was little better than slavery. It clarified doctrine on natural law and private property, as well as setting down basic principles on the rights of workers, employers, and the state. It further proclaimed the Pope's authoritative views on the dignity of labour, and on the right to organize into unions. Finally, it stressed the duty of the State to prevent the exploitation of the working class even by intervening in private industry if necessary.

Widely acclaimed as the Church's most important statement on social justice, Rerum Novarum has continued to inspire action into our own day. On May 15, 1931, Pope Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno to mark its fortieth anniversary and on May 14, 1971, Pope Paul VI published his forceful Octagesima adveniens. It was a letter addressed to Cardinal Maurice Roy of Quebec, President of the Pontifical Commission, Justice and Peace. In it Pope Paul drew on the teaching of Leo XIII to insist on the duty of personal involvement in the problems of social justice. "Liberation," he wrote, "starts with interior freedom. This is attained through a transcendent love for mankind and in consequence, through a genuine readiness to serve."

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