A Brief Summary of Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical on the Rights of Workers

If you spend your money only on food, clothing and housing, you will be a slave all your life. Money should allow you to make more money so that you can travel around, broaden your vision, have more time to read more books and see the beauty of the world.  ~Miles Guo

Why is it that thirty years after the greatest revolution in history, the Communists have not produced one single inspired work of the mind?  ~Whittaker Chambers, Witness 

In his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum (Revolutionary Events), Pope Leo XIII execrates grasping employers, working men like beasts in unsanitary conditions, overworking children and paying meager wages. These conditions had become so commonplace that he called “the condition of working classes the most pressing question of the hour.” He also recognized something foul afoot with the efforts to ameliorate these conditions. 

This period of empire building, ripe with innovation, including refrigeration, canned goods, the telephone and electricity, created millionaires at the same time that it worsened conditions for the working class. Employers freely harassed female employees and paid many less than a living wage, forcing masses to leave their homelands in search of gainful employment. 

Although many workers rose up by forming unions and striking against their employers, governments used force to suppress these reformation efforts. Karl Marx's ideologies gained momentum with the formation of the First and Second International Workingmen's Associations. Social Darwinism, professing that those who cannot keep up within society aren't fit to survive, gained widespread influence and acceptance. 

With Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII provides a humane, Christ-centered solution to these economic treacheries, which recognizes the dignity of all people and preserves their natural rights. 

An encyclical is a formal letter addressed to the whole Church that speaks from the Magisterium, the Church's authority to interpret the Word of God. Rerum Novarum affirms the equality of all men before the Creator. Since we're made in the likeness of God, we all possess a dignity we're obligated to defend. It says that work is fundamental to being human, and it naturally follows that people are due remuneration in exchange for labor to use as they please, including to purchase property. As the most basic unit of society, the family has rights that precede the state. The state serves to uphold people's rights, and associations play a central role in assuring them. A state that interferes inordinately thwarts human endeavor and creativity. The Marxist solution of denying people a right to property would bring about even worse conditions and reduce people to slaves. 

Due to its articulate summation of the rights of workers, Rerum Novarum became a big hit in the canon of encyclicals. Several ensuing encyclicals commemorate and build up on it, including Pius X's Singulari Quadam in 1912, Pius XI's Quadragesimo Anno (Fortieth Year) in 1931, and two of John Paul II's encyclicals, Centesiumus Annus (100th Year) in 1991 and Laborem Exercens in 1981. It is considered the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching.

And it contains an element of prophecy. Consider this excerpt from Rerum Novarum, written 26 years before the Russian Revolution, alongside an excerpt from Robert Putnam's article “Bowling Alone,” written four years after the Soviet Union collapsed:

It is only too evident what an upset and disturbance there would be in all classes [under Socialist state supervision]...the sources of wealth themselves would run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry...Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them.  ~Pope Leo XIII in 1891

With regard to the post communist countries, scholars and democratic activists alike have lamented the absence or obliteration of traditions of independent civic engagement and a widespread tendency toward passive reliance on the state.1  ~Robert Putnam in 1995

And now, well over a century since the encyclical's promulgation, and three decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, the problems Leo XIII set out to resolve have only grown worse. Currently, minimum wage jobs the world over barely provide a living wage, and pay nowhere near enough to enable someone to purchase property. 

In Hong Kong, a city with the most billionaires per capita, minimum wage is 37 HKD an hour ($4.50 USD), which is only enough to rent a room the size of a coffin.  Millions work all day only to return to a coffin rooms such as this one, or else a small cage.  

The massive fiscal policy response to the pandemic has increased people's dependence on the state, threatening to undermine the initiative and creativity of entire societies. Communist states like the CCP continue to flourish, while quasi-communist organizations are eager to usurp property rights from the rest of us. Consider this article, “Welcome To 2030: I Own Nothing, Have No Privacy and Life Has Never Been Better” by Ida Auken of the The World Economic Forum. The title speaks for itself.

Even more than 1891, the rights of workers is the most pressing question of the hour. The present-day landscape presents an urgent need to understand and embrace the principles and solutions found in Rerum Novarum. Capitulating to the alternative; giving into grasping men and communist ideologies; means, to borrow another quote from the former Communist Spy, Whittaker Chambers, “Slavery to men…and spiritual night to the human mind and soul.” 

Here is the encyclical, summarized down to about 1/4 of its original version. You can read it in its entirety here. 

Summary of Rerum Novarum

Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor

(1) The spirit of revolution has gone beyond politics and ideology, and is now seen in practical everyday life. This is a matter of grave concern. Everyone is discussing issues around industrial change, income disparity and a moral decline. 

(2) Let's talk about the conditions of working classes. It's hard to make simplifications here; it's a complicated topic. This is how evil people have exploited it.

(3) At one time, working guilds protected laborers. They've gone away, however, leaving laborers at the mercy of grasping, greedy men. 

(4) Socialists are coming in and saying that the solution for economic unphariness is for all property to be submitted to the state. This clearly isn't the solution. It will hurt the poor even more; reducing them to slaves. 

(5) Anyone who works is entitled not only to a wage, but also the right to use this money as he or she wishes--to save, to purchase land, whatever. A socialist state robs the worker of this right. 

(6) Although humans have animal characteristics, first and foremost we're endowed with intellect and the ability to reason. Unlike the beasts, we have the capacity to direct our lives. To this end, we're entitled to personal property. 

(7) We have the capacity to look into the future and plan; we can link present actions with the future. We have continual daily needs. So we have a right to the soil, so as to address these needs now and in the future. There is no need to bring the state into this natural way of things. 

(8) And so it follows that we can own land. Nothing bars us. 

(9) We must toil with the land in order to bring forth life-bearing fruit. Land bears the personality of the one who worked on it, giving him the right to the land. This, too, demonstrates that private ownership is part and parcel to natural law. 

(10) These are clear, obvious rights. People who deny them don't understand they're taking away from men what their labor has produced. “As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed their labor.”

(11) Private property, most of us have figured out, is an inherent right. Just laws enforce it. The 9th and 10th Commandments forbid coveting that which is not ours. Upholding this right contributes to peace and tranquility. 

(12) The family precedes the state. It is a society. It has rights and duties independent from the state. Many of us have a vocation or obligation to create this society. 

(13) The father, as head of family, has a right to property in order to provide for the family. When a family enters into a larger community, the community supports this right. 

(14) It's a grave error to believe the state should intrude on the family and impose on it. If the family is in dire need of help, or violent to one another, that's a different story. But otherwise, stepping in violates natural rights. The child is of the father, the state has no place interfering with this relationship. 

(15) Abolition of property would turn people into slaves. Wealth dries up because people have zero incentive to work hard and create. The poorest would be worse off with the abolition of ownership. It must be established as an inviolable right before working on the problem of poverty. Let's now look at the proper solution. 

(16) The Church must not be silent on this. It's her duty to speak out. The state, employers, the wealthy and the working class also must contribute. To leave out the Church means striving in vain. “The Church uses her efforts not only to enlighten the mind, but to direct by her precepts the life and conduct of each and all; the Church improves and betters the condition of the working man by means of numerous organizations.”

(17) You cannot reduce society to one dead level. There's all sorts of inherent inequalities (capacity, health, skill, strength), and this is good in fact. Societies have all sorts of needs, and people choose their role according to their given capacity. Even in a state of original innocence, we'd freely choose to work, but due our fallen state, work is compulsory. 

(18) Our fallen state brings about much suffering in this valley of tears. There is no escape from it. It's delusional to promise or believe otherwise. In fact, seeking escape from suffering leads us to an even worse state. “Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is, and at the same time to seek elsewhere, as We have said, for the solace to its troubles.”

(19) Classes work together in harmony (consider what Paul writes about the body in 1 Corinthians 12). The Church functions as an intermediary to bring classes together, reminding them of their duties to each other and to justice. 

(20) The following duties bind the proletarian and the worker: work honestly and in harmony and don't associate with evil persons who falsely promise great things. Here's what binds the wealthy owner and the employer: treat the employer with the dignity worthy of a human, give him time for religious duties, don't impose unfair taxes, and don't force excessive labor. Don't use them for your own gain. Don't defraud them of wages they're due. If the employer just followed these guidelines, then there would be no strife. 

(21) We're in a place of exile, not our abiding place. In this life, it doesn't matter if we're wealthy or not. What matters is that we use what we have correctly. Jesus won a victory, but it didn't remove suffering from our present condition.

(22) If you're wealthy, take caution! This might be an obstacle to you. We have a right to possessions, but we have a moral obligation to use our money and possession for the good of all. Once you've taken care of yourself, you're obliged to care for the indigent. We must share all that we have; in giving to others, we give to God.

(23) There is no shame in work. Jesus worked! 

(24) Virtue is more important that economic status. Virtue is within reach of anyone and everyone. Jesus in fact seems to favor the poor and the oppressed. With this in mind, it's hard for the wealthy to cling to pride in their status.

(25) In a Christian context, all classes unite in a bond of brotherly love. God is the father of us all, and only he can make us happy. If we all understood this, strife would cease. 

(26) The Church is about creating solutions, not simply pointing out what the solution is. The Church is special, it's run by Jesus. This gives it a special power to touch people, teach, form consciences and so bring about right conduct that originates from a love of God and men. 

(27) Let's look to history to support this statement: it's indisputable that civil society has been improved by Christian institutions. The human race was elevated. In order to heal, we need to return to Christian precepts. No other way. 

(28) The Church is concerned with temporal as well as spiritual concerns. It wants the poor to rise above wretched circumstances. When you practice Christian virtue it naturally leads to temporal prosperity, because it puts you in a place for God to take care of you. It keeps greed and pleasure-seeking for its own sake in check. It puts all excesses in restraint. 

(29) The Church helps the poor, practically. Consider the early Christians; through generosity no one had any need. The deacons were created in order to collect contributions, and Paul collected alms for the poor in Jerusalem. 

(30) The Church has established various institutions to provide solutions to all sorts of suffering. These can't compare to state efforts. This Christian giving stems from the virtue of charity, which stems from Christ. State giving doesn't originate from this source. 

(31) We need to get everyone on the same page here, not just the Church. Only a cooperative effort can bring about right conduct and order. So let's look at the role of the state in providing remedy and relief. 

(32) The state, generally speaking, is any government disposed to right reason and natural law. The objective of the state is public well-being and private prosperity. A state prospers when it enables happiness of its citizens; i.e. imposes moderate taxes, respects religion, supports families and the arts. The head of state should create laws that serve all classes, including the poor. Doing this removes the need to single out the poor with special relief efforts. 

(33) To the state, the interest of everyone is equal. Each man shall have his due, and every citizen, including the working class which is usually the largest in a society, must be looked after. The leader must act with distributive justice toward all. 

(34) Although all citizens contribute to society, they cannot do so equally. Men who hold great power in the state should be held in high esteem, as their decisions affect everyone. The working class do not have this much influence, but they do still contribute. Virtue is the chief good in a society. The working class facilitates the development of virtue with everything they do, and allows a state to grow rich. For this reason, the state must watch out for the working class. The entire society benefits from their labor; they must receive their due. It's to everyone's interest to shield the working class from misery. 

(35) The state doesn't absorb the individual and family; it safeguards the rights of both. The point of the government is to safeguard the community. Being a ruler isn't about selfishness. The ruler emulates how God governs: guiding the community and touching individuals. 

(36) Authorities must intervene when anyone is threatened or suffers. It's in the interest of everyone that a community maintain peace and good order, follow God's laws, respect religion and family life, maintain a high moral standard, revere justice and foster a community capable of defending itself. When any of these conditions are threatened, it's right for the state to intervene, but only to the limit that's necessary to remedy the situation.

(37) The state respects everyone's rights, and punishes those who injure others. The poor have a special consideration. The wealthy can help themselves, and don't need the state so much. But the poor don't have things to fall back on and are dependent on the state. For this reason, poor wage-earners are specially cared for by the government.

(38) It's important that laws safeguard property rights, particularly in the midst of unbridled avarice. It isn't right to take from others under the pretext of inequality. Most people acquire wealth honestly. But there are bad apples for sure. 

(39) People strike due to unworkable conditions. Strikes really disrupt the economy, and threaten public peace, so the state should do what it can to prevent strikes and remedy the situations that caused them. 

(40) We all have souls. This makes us all equal. Our soul is what elevates us above the beasts, and it's our soul that makes us in the likeness of God. We owe it to God, then, to preserve our own human dignity and human rights. Consenting to treatment that makes us like servants is ignoring the duty we owe to God. 

(41) And so it follows that we don't work on Sundays and Holy days. These days are intended to devote time to religion and God, not to idleness or indulgence. It's an important duty to put worldly cares aside and focus on God and matters of the spirit. 

(42) Greedy people who work men like beasts should be held in check. We have limits on our physical capacity, and need regular rest from work. Depending on the type of work, the season of the year and a person's gender, the amount of work one can take on varies. Children should not be put into factories; this could seriously hinder their development. Women, generally, should be dedicated to housework and bringing up children.

(43) Now we'll discuss the important topic of wages. It is said that it works like this: the employer sets a wage, the worker agrees to it, and that is that. The only violation of this system would be if the employer didn't pay what he agreed to.

(44) This doesn't entirely settle the issue, however. There's more to this topic. Labor has two characteristics: personal and necessary. To say it's personal means that a person chooses whether or not to accept a job or a wage. To say it's necessary means that he must work in order to survive. You need to consider both of these characteristics with respect to wage: they're intrinsically bound together. 

(45) Even as the employer and employee agree on wages, still another justice runs deeper--that the wage is enough to live on. If the employee has to agree to unfair circumstances, he's a victim to injustice. Insofar as regulating hours, sanitary conditions etc. of factories, let society boards do that, rather than the state, as the specifics would vary greatly (so as to avoid undue interference from the state).

(46) A laborer ought to employ thrift so as to save money and become a landowner. As we've said, ownership is an inviolable right. The state law should be such that as many as possible can own land. 

(47) This will help to equally divide property. Right now, as it stands, wealth is unequally distributed. The party with all the power also has the wealth, and manipulates things to its own benefit. On the other side are the needy and the helpless; the dejected. Providing these poor with the means to acquire wealth would allow the chasm to close. Additionally, the fruits of the earth would flow more abundantly, as people's motivation increases when they receive the fruits of their own labor. Finally, people would be devoted to their native land as it provides them the means for a decent and happy life. These three benefits are only possible without excessive taxation. Man has a natural right to property, and it's cruel for the state to inordinately take earnings from them. 

(48) Organizations are a helpful means to relieve the workman's distress, and close the chasm between classes. These include private societies that provide for families due to calamity, sickness, and death. 

(49) Workingmen's unions are the most important of all. History shows us the immense benefits of artificers' guilds, which promoted the arts and helped workingmen. We need such unions to suit the needs of workers today. There are several already, but it'd be good if there were more. Now let's explain how they're needed and how they might serve.

(50) We innately understand that we're weak on our own, and in need of assistance. The Bible tells us that we're much stronger when supported by others (Eccl 4:9-10, Prov 18:19) This reality binds people together in society, and compels them to join together in associations. 

(51) Private societies are distinct from the entirety of society. The objective of a civil society is the common good. Private societies are within this commonwealth; they work toward the advantage of its members. It's our natural right to join a private society, and the state must protect this right, rather than forbid the formation of private societies. 

(52) If the private society has an unlawful aim, then ok, the state can intervene and forbid its formation. However, they must be precautious here and still preserve the rights of the individual.

(53) Let's discuss the societies, confraternities and orders within the Church. Look at what they have accomplished! The state must not control them, but rather respect and nourish them. In many instances, however, the state has taken hold of these associations, violently, depriving them of their rights. How can we not speak out against this, particularly when the same states allow dangerous private societies to exist? 

(54) We have good reason to think that many of these societies are run by secret leaders, with nefarious purposes. They aim to force men to either join the society or starve. Working men have two options, then: either join the society, or else form their own societies and unite against these societies. We encourage the latter. 

(55) Many Catholics today have striven to better the lives of others through righteous means. They encourage everyone to follow the precept of the Gospel, which encourages harmony and moderation. They're encouraging the working class to join associations and helping them find work. Bishops show their support. Affluent Catholics have made huge investments to establish benefit and insurance societies for wage earners. All these efforts have benefited society immensely. We find great hope in this. The State needs to support this, and not thwart the spirit which inspires these movements. “For things move and live by the spirit inspiring them, and may be killed by the rough grasp of a hand from without.” 

(56) An association needs good governing, rules and organization in order to be fruitful. As to the organization, specifically—this depends on the particulars of each individual situation. 

(57) A workingmen's association should achieve the objective of bettering the individual's body, soul and property. The association needs to work towards religious and moral objectives, otherwise it's simply a secular organization. Remember what Jesus said: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world...” A Christian seeks God first, then material goods follow. And so these associations first and foremost are about strengthening the individual's relationship to God, and thoroughly educating them about false teachings. Let the workingman live a devout and sacramental Catholic life.

(58) The foundation of the society is based in religion: let's now speak of the relationship of members to one another. The offices should be designated for the betterment of the entire society. The duties of each office must be carefully mapped out, and funds handled honestly. Respecting the rights of the employer and employee is key. If a dispute arises, have members of the association help to settle the dispute. One function of the society should be the continual employment of its members, as well as assisting its elderly and maimed members. 

(59) These regulations are sure to help the less well-off, as well as bring prosperity to the state. Let's learn from the past: the early Christians, on balance, were really poor. However, they demonstrated themselves to be so honest, hardworking and peaceful that they eventually won the favor of the rich and powerful. 

(60) This condition of the working class is the foremost issue of our time, and we'd all like to have it settled. Christian working men can solve it straight away by forming associations and following in the steps of their forefathers. Other people, seeing their devotion to right duty over lucre, will likewise be won over.

(61) If things transpired as we've described here, much hope would spring forth, including from those who'd given up on their faith. Usually these men feel duped by empty promises. All they see is their grasping employer and a union beset by strife. And so they're broken in spirit. Catholic associations want to reach out to these working men, to ease their difficulties and provide them companionship and repose. 

(62) Now we've identified both the people and the means by which to solve this arduous problem. Let's speedily get to work, so that evil may not advance further. Commonwealths, masters, and workers must be lawful and mindful of their duties. Religion alone can destroy evil at its root, and so without re-establishing Christian morals, the best-laid plans will fail. 

(63) The Church will intervene in this matter, let all those who safeguard the public welfare be certain. All ministers in the Church must put all their energy toward this, and urge all classes to follow the Gospel. Use every means to secure the good of the people and arouse the queen of virtues, charity, which sacrifices for the sake of others and is the antidote to worldly pride. 

(64) “On each of you, venerable brethren, and on your clergy and people, as an earnest of God's mercy and a mark of Our affection, we lovingly in the Lord bestow the apostolic benediction.

Given at St. Peter's in Rome, the fifteenth day of May, 1891, the fourteenth year of Our pontificate.”


1 "Bowling Alone, America's Declining Social Capital" Robert Putnam, 1995

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