Rerum novarum

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Rerum novarum
(Latin: Of revolutionary change)
Encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII
C o a Leone XIII.svg
In ipso Cercle jaune 50%.svg Pastoralis
Date 15 May 1891
Argument The social question
Encyclical number 37 of 85 of the pontificate
Text in Latin
in English

Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Rerum novarum (from its first two words, Latin for "of revolutionary change"[n 1]), or Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, is an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on 15 May 1891. It was an open letter, passed to all Catholic bishops, that addressed the condition of the working classes.

It discussed the relationships and mutual duties between labor and capital, as well as government and its citizens. Of primary concern was the need for some amelioration of "The misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class."[5] It supported the rights of labor to form unions, rejected socialism and unrestricted capitalism, whilst affirming the right to private property.

"Rerum Novarum" is considered a foundational text of modern Catholic social teaching.[6] Many of the positions in Rerum novarum were supplemented by later encyclicals, in particular Pius XI's Quadragesimo anno (1931), John XXIII's Mater et magistra (1961), and John Paul II's Centesimus annus (1991).


The first draft and content of the encyclical was written by Tommaso Maria Zigliara, professor from 1870 to 1879 at the College of Saint Thomas, the future Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum. Zigliara, a member of seven Roman congregations including the Congregation for Studies, was a co-founder of the Academia Romano di San Tommaso in 1870. Zigliara's fame as a scholar at the forefront of the Thomist revival at the time of his rectorship of the College of St. Thomas after 1873 was widespread in Rome and elsewhere.[7][8] "Zigliara also helped prepare the great encyclicals Aeterni Patris and Rerum novarum and strongly opposed traditionalism and ontologism in favor of the moderate realism of Aquinas."[9]

Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler and Cardinal Henry Edward Manning were also influential in its composition.


Rerum novarum is subtitled "On the Conditions of Labor." In this document, Pope Leo XIII articulated the Catholic Church's response to the social conflict that had risen in the wake of capitalism and industrialization and that had led to the rise of socialism and communism as ideologies.

The Pope declared that the role of the State is to promote social justice through the protection of rights, while the Church must speak out on social issues in order to teach correct social principles and ensure class harmony (rather than class conflict). He restated the Church's long-standing teaching regarding the crucial importance of private property rights, but recognized, in one of the best-known passages of the encyclical, that the free operation of market forces must be tempered by moral considerations:

"Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. 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."[10]

Rerum novarum is remarkable for its vivid depiction of the plight of the nineteenth-century urban poor and for its condemnation of unrestricted capitalism. Among the remedies it prescribed were the formation of trade unions and the introduction of collective bargaining, particularly as an alternative to state intervention.

The encyclical reaffirmed that private property as a fundamental principle of natural law. Liberalism also affirms the right to private property, but socialism and communism do not.

Rerum novarum also recognized that the poor have a special status in consideration of social issues: the modern Catholic principle of the "preferential option for the poor" and the notion that God is on the side of the poor were expressed in this document.[11][12]

Rights and duties

As a framework for building social harmony, the pope proposed the idea of rights and duties. For example, workers have rights to a fair wage and reasonable working conditions, but they 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[13]

The Church by reminding workers and employers of their rights and duties can help to form and activate people's conscience. However, the pope 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.[14] In many cases, governments had acted solely to support the interests of businesses, while suppressing workers attempting to organize unions to achieve better working conditions.

Dignity and rights of workers

The pope declared that workers had the right to safe and sustainable working conditions and working hours. Employers are responsible to provide these: "It is neither just nor humane so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies." Leo expressed great concern that everyone have adequate rest periods and work that does not exceed their strength. He specifically mentioned work in the mines, and outdoor work in certain seasons, as dangerous to health and requiring additional protections. He condemned the use of child labor as interfering with education and the development of children.

Fair wages are defined in Rerum novarum as at least a living wage, but Leo recommended paying more than that: enough to support the worker, his wife and family, with a little savings left over so that the worker can improve his condition over time.[15] He also preferred that women work at home.[16]

Rights and duties of property ownership

Rerum novarum strongly asserts the right to own private property, including land, as a principle of natural law.

Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. "It is lawful," says St. Thomas Aquinas, "for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence."[17]

The right to own property does not mean absolute freedom in the use of money, but carries responsibilities with it. Leo encouraged the wealthy to meet their own needs, the needs of their families, and to maintain a "becoming" standard of living. But they have a responsibility to give alms from what is left over. This is not a law, but a moral obligation.

Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God's providence, for the benefit of others.[17]

Common good

Without recommending one form of government over another, Leo put forth some principles for the appropriate role of the State in good government. The primary purpose of a State is to provide for the common good. All people have equal dignity regardless of social class, and a good government protects the rights and cares for the needs of all its members, both rich and poor.

As regards the State, the interests of all, whether high or low, are equal. The members of the working classes are citizens by nature and by the same right as the rich; they are real parts, living the life which makes up, through the family, the body of the commonwealth. ... therefore the public administration must duly and solicitously provide for the welfare and the comfort of the working classes; otherwise, that law of justice will be violated which ordains that each man shall have his due.[18]

Leo also pointed out that everyone is in some way a contributor to the common good. Some are leaders and thus more conspicuous. Others are less visible and may seem, individually at least, to contribute less. But everyone's contribution is important.

...the labor of the working class—the exercise of their skill, and the employment of their strength, in the cultivation of the land, and in the workshops of trade—is especially responsible and quite indispensable. Indeed, ... it may be truly said that it is only by the labor of working men that States grow rich.[19]

Preferential option for the poor

Leo emphasized the dignity of the poor and working classes.

As for those who possess not the gifts of fortune, they are taught by the Church that in God's sight poverty is no disgrace, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of in earning their bread by labor.[20]
God Himself seems to incline rather to those who suffer misfortune; for Jesus Christ calls the poor "blessed"; (Matt.5:3) He lovingly invites those in labor and grief to come to Him for solace; (Matt. 11:28) and He displays the tenderest charity toward the lowly and the oppressed.[21]

Equal treatment is preferable, but when the general laws are not adequate to protect the poor and vulnerable members of society, it is just to give them more help according to their need.

The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.[22]

This principle of the preferential option for the poor was developed more fully in writings of later popes.

Right of association

Leo distinguished the larger, civil society (also called the commonwealth, or public society), and smaller, private societies which exist within it. The civil society exists to protect the common good and preserve the rights of all equally. Private societies are diverse and exist for various purposes within the civil society. Trade unions are one type of private society, and a special focus of this encyclical: "The most important of all are workingmen's unions, for these virtually include all the rest. ... it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient." [23] Other examples of private societies are families, business partnerships, and religious orders.

Leo strongly supported the right of private societies to exist and self-regulate:

Private societies, then, although they exist within the body politic, and are severally part of the commonwealth, cannot nevertheless be absolutely, and as such, prohibited by public authority. For, to enter into a "society" of this kind is the natural right of man; and the State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them....[24]
The State should watch over these societies of citizens banded together in accordance with their rights, but it should not thrust itself into their peculiar concerns and their organization, for things move and live by the spirit inspiring them, and may be killed by the rough grasp of a hand from without.[25]

Leo supported unions, yet opposed at least some parts of the then emerging labor movement. He urged workers, if their union seemed on the wrong track, to form alternative associations.

Now, there is a good deal of evidence in favor of the opinion that many of these societies are in the hands of secret leaders, and are managed on principles ill-according with Christianity and the public well-being; and that they do their utmost to get within their grasp the whole field of labor, and force working men either to join them or to starve.[26]

He deplored situations where governments suppressed religious orders and other Catholic organizations.

Impact and legacy

  • Rerum novarum has been interpreted as a primer of the Roman Catholic response to the exploitation of workers.[27]
  • The encyclical also contains a proposal for a living wage, though not called by that name in the text itself (“Wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner.”) The U.S. theologian John A. Ryan, also trained as an economist, developed this idea in his book A Living Wage (1906).[28]
  • In Belgium, it is commemorated annually on the Catholic liturgical feast of the Ascension (also a public Holiday there) by the Christian Labor Movement (which has a traditional link with the Christian Democrat parties, all substantively Roman Catholic), as a kind of counterpart to the socialist Labor Day (also a public holiday in Belgium) on May 1.
  • The positions expressed by the fictional Bishop Morehouse in the beginning of Jack London’s The Iron Heel (s:The Iron Heel/Chapter II) are clearly derived from the Rerum novarum.
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia, written in 1911, states that the document "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."[12]

Highlights of the encyclical

Paragraph 19:

The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity. Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvellous and manifold. First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice. Wikisource-logo.svg Paragraph 19.

Paragraph 20:

Of these duties, the following bind the proletarian and the worker: fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon; never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder; and to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss. The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work-people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers—that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. His great and principal duty is to give every one what is just. Doubtless, before deciding whether wages are fair, many things have to be considered; but wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this—that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven. "Behold, the hire of the laborers … which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth; and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth." Lastly, the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should in proportion to their scantiness be accounted sacred. Were these precepts carefully obeyed and followed out, would they not be sufficient of themselves to keep under all strife and all its causes? Wikisource-logo.svg Paragraph 20.

Paragraph 22:

Therefore, those whom fortune favors are warned that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles; that the rich should tremble at the threatenings of Jesus Christ—threatenings so unwonted in the mouth of our Lord(10) and that a most strict account must be given to the Supreme Judge for all we possess. Wikisource-logo.svg Paragraph 22.

See also

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  1. The opening words in Latin are "Rerum novarum semel excitata cupidine",[1] which in the official English translation is rendered "the spirit of revolutionary change".[2][3] Rerum novarum is the genitive case of res novae, which literally means "new things" but idiomatically has meant "political innovations" or "revolution" since at least the days of Cicero.[3][4] John Molony argues that the word "revolution" is misleading in the context, and that a more appropriate rendering of the Latin would be "the burning desire for change".[3]


  • Rerum novarum, official English translation from the Vatican’s official website
  • Essential Catholic Social Thought by Bernard V. Brady. Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY, 2008. ISBN 1-57075-756-9


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  1. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  2. Rerum novarum, p. 1
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
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  5. Rerum novarum, p. 3
  6. "Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor), Berkley Center, Georgetown University
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  9. Benedict Ashley, The Dominicans, 9 "The Age of Compromise," Accessed 19, 2013
  10. Rerum novarum, p. 45
  11. The Busy Christian’s Guide to Social Teaching.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Catholic Encyclopedia (1911): Rerum novarum.
  13. Rerum novarum, p. 19
  14. Rerum novarum, p. 36
  15. Rerum novarum, p. 46
  16. Rerum novarum, p. 42
  17. 17.0 17.1 Rerum novarum, p. 22
  18. Rerum novarum, p. 33
  19. Rerum novarum, p. 34
  20. Rerum novarum, p. 21
  21. Rerum novarum, p. 24
  22. Rerum novarum, p. 37
  23. Rerum novarum, p. 49
  24. Rerum novarum, p. 51
  25. Rerum novarum, p. 55
  26. Rerum novarum, p. 54
  27. Brady, p. 60.
  28. Brady, pp. 74-76

Further reading

  • Catholic Social Teaching by Anthony Cooney, John, C. Medaille, Patrick Harrington (Editor). ISBN 0-9535077-6-9
  • Catholic Social Teaching, 1891-Present: A Historical, Theological, and Ethical Analysis by Charles E. Curran. Georgetown University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-87840-881-9
  • A Living Wage by Rev. John A. Ryan. Macmillan, NY, 1906.

External links