Rerum Novarum Analysis Essay

Rerum Novarum §1-25: Summary

For ease of reading, analysis and commentary will be posted separately from the summary. Numbers indicated in brackets correspond to the paragraphs of the translation found on the Vatican archive web site.
[1] Revolutionary change is no longer a mere theory but is now getting practical application in increased antagonism between workers and their employers. People at every level of society are consumed with these problems. [2] Since there are many different opinions about what should be done about the growing tension between workers and employers, it seems expedient for the Church to offer guidance by pointing out the principles that should guide public deliberations on the proper relationship between workers and employers. [3] No one would deny that, ever since the ancient trade guilds were abolished, working men have increasingly been taken advantage of by their employers, the powerless many being treated like slaves by a powerful and wealthy few. [4] The socialist “solution” is to do away with private property altogether so that no one can become rich and powerful, but this would actually result in much worse conditions for everyone – not too mention the fact that this “solution” is itself grossly unjust.

[5] Anyone who offers his labor for wages is seeking, besides the bare means of survival, to have a little savings, which for security’s sake he may invest in land. Private property, then, is simply a man’s saved wages given durable form. So when the socialists propose to do away with private property, they are depriving the working man of the right to invest his savings and making a better life for himself. [6] The socialist proposal also strips man of his humanity; unlike the beast who looks only to survive for the moment, man’s rational nature allows him to look to the future and to plan for its needs; therefore it is only human to wish to secure durable, stable possessions that will serve man's needs not just for today but in the future. [7] In order to do this, a man must have not only the use but also the possession of  land that will supply his needs. Since man precedes the State, he has the right to provide for his own needs, without intervention of the State.

[8] Even when the earth is parceled out to particular private owners, it still serves the needs of all, since those who are not landowners nevertheless procure the fruits of the earth with the wages earned as remuneration for their labor. So private ownership of property does not interfere with anyone’s opportunity to enjoy the fruits of that property. [9] Land is most fruitful when man cultivates it by means of his own ingenuity and toil; when he does so, he truly makes the land his own, and it is only just that he should, in fact, own it. [10] Therefore, to deny private ownership of property is to steal from a man the fruits of his own labor. [11] Private ownership of property, then, is just, according to natural law, and according to all just civil law. Moreover, divine law severely forbids coveting what belongs to another.

[12] So far we have been talking about just the individual man, but the argument becomes even more compelling if we consider man in his domestic context, i.e., as a husband and father. No human law can abolish the rights and obligations of marriage and the family. The family, in fact, is the most basic society, and precedes the State. [13] Since nature makes a man the head of, and chief provider for, his family, and since it is natural for a father to want his children to be able to carry on when he himself is gone, it is right that he should be able to provide an inheritance of property. And since the family precedes the State, its rights also precede those of the State; anyone who would deny this is detestable. [14] Therefore, the socialist idea that the State can interfere in the internal relations of the family is both wrong and unjust, although if a family is in such distress that it finds itself helpless and friendless, the family should be given public aid, since it forms part of the common wealth. Similarly, public authority should intervene when a household suffers from grave internal disturbance, in order to make each party behave justly, but these extremes are the only cases in which the State may intervene. So the socialist idea that the state can usurp the father’s place in governing the family violates natural justice and destroys the home.

[15] It is plain, then, that the socialist plan is destructive and unnatural. If the conditions of the masses are to be improved, the right to private property must be respected. Let’s consider what sort of remedy would be more just and effective. [16] It is appropriate for the Church to weigh in on this matter, since it is her task instruct men in how to live well, and She Herself cares for the poor and works for the good of all. [17] First of all, we must take into account human nature, which the socialists seem to ignore or pretend they can change by making all men equal. The fact is that all men are not the equal, with respect to natural abilities and proclivities. A just society provides opportunities for each man to take part in the way in which he is best able, and which suits him best. [18] Similarly, the socialists are lying or deluded when they promise that they can build a perfect world, free from suffering and injustice, and it is cruel for them to promise what can never be.

[19] One of the biggest errors of the socialists is to insist that the classes are naturally and inevitably hostile to one another – when, in fact, just the opposite is true. The classes need each other, for capital can do nothing without labor, and labor likewise needs capital. And both need the Church to help them act justly toward each other. [20] Workers must be dutiful in carrying out the labor for which they have willingly contracted, and they should behave with respect toward their employer and his property. Likewise, employers should respect the human dignity of workers, paying them a just wage and allowing them time to fulfill their familial and religious obligations. By no means may they take advantage of a man’s neediness to satisfy their own greed, nor should they manufacture ways to deduct from a man’s just wages. In fact, because the worker has such scanty means, those means should all the more be respected. These basic principles alone, if followed scrupulously, would suffice to maintain good relations between labor and capital.

[21] But the Church, following her Master, can do better than this, because She reminds men that God has created them for better things than what this earthly life can offer. Since we are just passing through this life on our way to eternal rewards, we should not cling to riches and other worldly goods, but simply use well whatever we have, be it little or much. Christ, by his own suffering, did not eliminate human suffering and toil, but transformed them into opportunities for virtue. [22] So the wealthy should beware lest worldly riches become an obstacle to eternal happiness, and should give generously of their surplus to those who have little. Whoever has been given much, in wealth, talent, or skill, should use it for the benefit of others. [23] And those who have little should remember that there is no shame in poverty, since Christ Himself became poor for our sakes. [24] The true worth of a man is in his virtue, which can be attained by rich and poor alike and will win for them both eternal happiness. In fact, God seems to prefer the poor and lowly, always showing them tender love, so the rich should be generous in giving and the poor should not be grasping. [25] If the rich and the poor alike keep these Christian precepts in mind, they will be bound together in bonds of love and brotherhood, realizing that they are both sons of God and co-heirs of Christ. Strife between the classes would cease if everyone bore these things in mind.

Leo XIII addresses Rerum Novarum to the bishops of the Catholic Church. He introduces his reflections by highlighting the social difficulties of the day. With these difficulties in mind, he then discusses five key issues: private property, the right of the Church to speak on social issues, the role of the state, the worker’s right to a just wage, and the importance of worker associations. He ends by providing a short conclusion.

Leo explains that the Industrial Revolution has encouraged humankind to ask questions about a variety of social issues, such as the relationship between employers and employees, the just distribution of wealth, the growing isolation of workers, the role of worker associations, and the decline in moral values. More specifically, Leo informs the bishops of the wretched living conditions of the poor; he proposes that Catholic Church leaders must once again refute the errors that have led to such social evils. Leo states that workers are left unprotected because the workers’ guilds of old are no longer intact and political institutions have rejected religious teaching. Leo explains that the power of industry is controlled by a few factory owners who are becoming rich from the hard labor of the working class. The lower class suffers from poor working conditions and low wages, and their animosity toward the owning class is escalating.

Leo writes that socialists are seeking to eliminate class division by proposing that possessions be held in common and private property eliminated. In opposition to the socialist response, Leo argues for the right to own private property. He explains that people have the capacity to plan for the future. By possessing land, people can attain the security of owning something with stable value and can enjoy the yearly fruit of the land. Further, the prospect of owning property gives workers hope and a motivation for ingenuity. Without the possibility of owning land, workers often lack the desire to work diligently. As a result, production suffers, and...

(The entire section is 832 words.)

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