May 15, 1891

It was on this day that Pope Leo XIII promulgated Rerum Novarum, which has become the basis of Catholic Social teaching.

The opening words and the title of the Encyclical issued by Leo XIII, 15 May, 1891, on the "Condition of Labour". Although the Encyclical follows the lines of the traditional teaching concerning the rights and duties of property and the relations of employer and employee, it applies the old doctrines specifically to modern conditions. Opening with a description of the grievances of the working classes, it proceeds to refute the false theories of the Socialists, and to defend the right of private ownership. The true remedy, continues the pope, is to be found in the combined action of the Church, the State, the employer and the employed. The Church is properly interested in the social question because of its religious and moral aspects; the State has the right and the duty to intervene on behalf of justice and individual and social well-being; and employers and workers should organize into both mixed and separate associations for mutual protection and for self protection. All this is set forth with sufficient detail to reach the principal problems and relations of industrial and social life.

Probably no other pronouncement on the social question has had so many readers or exercised such a wide influence. It has inspired a vast Catholic social literature, while many non-Catholics have acclaimed it as one of the most definite and reasonable productions ever written on the subject. Sometimes criticized as vague, it is as specific as any document could be written for several countries in different stages of industrial development. On one point it is strikingly definite: "Let it be taken for granted that workman and employer should, as a rule, make free agreements, and in particular should agree freely as to wages; nevertheless, there is a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, that remuneration should be sufficient to maintain the wage-earner in reasonable and frugal comfort. 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.". Although this doctrine had been a part of the traditional teaching for many centuries, it had never been stated with such precision and authority. As the years go by and thoughtful men realize more and more how difficult it is to define the full requirements of justice in the matter of wages, a constantly increasing number of persons look up on this statement of Leo XIII as the most fruitful and effective principle of industrial justice that has ever been enunciated. (1)

Rights and Duties

As a framework for building social harmony, Leo proposed the idea of rights and duties. For example, workers have rights and also have duties to their employers; likewise employers have rights and also have duties to their workers.

Some of the duties of workers are:

"fully and faithfully" to perform their agreed-upon tasks
individually, to refrain from vandalism or personal attacks
collectively, to refrain from rioting and violence

Some of the duties of employers are:

to pay fair wages,
to provide time off for religious practice and family life,
to provide work suited to each person's strength, gender, and age,
to respect the dignity of workers and not regard them as slaves,

The Church by reminding people of their rights and duties can help to form and activate people's conscience.

However, Leo also recommended that civil authorities take a role in protecting workers' rights and in keeping the peace. The law should intervene no further than is necessary to stop abuses.


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