“…some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class: for the ancient workingmen's guilds were abolished in the last century, and no other protective organization took their place. Public institutions and the laws set aside the ancient religion. Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”—Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (Of New Things), May 15, 1891
The white collar might have replaced the blue collar in many instances, but the yoke around the neck remains similarly heavy 120 years after Pope Leo XIII wrote this deeply influential encyclical on the proper relationship between labor and capital. In its solid grounding in scripture, its understanding of the deterioration of the family created by adverse working conditions, and its ability to avoid the worst extremes of confiscatory socialism and unchecked capitalism, it did more than form the bedrock of modern Catholic social teaching. “Without being either a democrat or a radical himself,” writes Eamon Duffy in his history of the popes, Saints and Sinners (1997), “Leo opened the door to the evolution of Catholic democracy.”
Recall the position of labor in the United States only five years before Leo sent this open letter to the upper echelon of the Roman Catholic Church. Chicago’s Haymarket Riot in May 1886, in which seven policemen were killed, not only set back the movement for an eight-hour workday, but proved the undoing of the Knights of Labor, who were blamed for the incident.
The pontiff who issued this clarion call for the dignity of the worker could easily have furthered or deepened the reactionary tendencies encouraged in the Church by his predecessor, Pope Pius IX. Anyone at the 1878 papal conclave who voted for Leo in the hope that the already aged man (68) would not have time to exacerbate the kind of mischief created by Pius were already finding themselves in for a rude shock: Leo would occupy the papal throne for 25 years and live to be 93, issuing 86 encyclicals—a record no other pontiff has approached.
Moreover, Leo was insistent on his privileges as head of the hierarchy. You can see it in the anecdotes about him (e.g., not allowing Catholics having an audience with him to sit at any time during the interview), and even more in the rhetoric in Rerum Novarum that mixed eloquent appeals for the betterment of workers with the assurance that any solution was useless “apart from the intervention of religion and of the Church”:
“It is We who are the chief guardian of religion and the chief dispenser of what pertains to the Church; and by keeping silence we would seem to neglect the duty incumbent on us. Doubtless, this most serious question demands the attention and the efforts of others besides ourselves -- to wit, of the rulers of States, of employers of labor, of the wealthy, aye, of the working classes themselves, for whom We are pleading. But We affirm without hesitation that all the striving of men will be vain if they leave out the Church. It is the Church that insists, on the authority of the Gospel, upon those teachings whereby the conflict can be brought to an end, or rendered, at least, far less bitter; 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; does her best to enlist the services of all classes in discussing and endeavoring to further in the most practical way, the interests of the working classes; and considers that for this purpose recourse should be had, in due measure and degree, to the intervention of the law and of State authority.”
In the light of this triumphalist tone, it amounts to a kind of miracle that Leo offered to the world a document that advocated a living wage and union rights, attacked conscienceless capitalism and called on the state to take steps to assure the dignity of labor.
Duffy locates the inspiration for the encyclical in Leo’s meetings with pilgrims led by the industrialist Lucien Harmel, who had tried unsuccessfully to enlist other Catholic employers in his enlightened practices of model housing, saving-schemes, health and welfare benefits, and workers’ councils.
But it might be that the seeds for his vision were planted a full five decades before his encyclical, when, appointed papal delegate (and later archbishop) for Perugia, Leo began a small savings bank that provided small tradesmen and farmers with loans at low interest. The conditions he observed led him to cry out, even before becoming pope: “And does not the sight of poor children, shut up in factories, where in the midst of premature toil, consumption awaits them—does not this sight provoke words of burning indignation from every generous soil, and oblige Governments and Parliaments to make laws that can serve as a check to this inhuman traffic?”
Over the years, subsequent popes revisited the issues raised by Leo, and these have not always been greeted with hosannas. (Of Pope John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical, Mater et Magistra , or “Mother and Teacher”, William F. Buckley Jr. announced, in the pages of his National Review: “Going the rounds in conservative circles: 'Mater si, Magistra no.'")
Yet, across the span of more than a century, it was the critique of the conservative Leo that remains the most challenging to today’s conservative Catholics. They will have to answer if even the slightest step taken to assure the health and lives of workers is truly, as so many right-wingers contend, the onset of socialism; if the hand of God exists in corporations that move functions outside their host countries; if sidelining 50-and-over able-bodied workers really recognizes the ongoing worth of people; and if enormous differences in compensation between the highest- and lowest-paid at corporations are truly authentic parts of Catholic social teaching.