Imagine you are the pope. The previous half-century has seen the rise of many radical political movements and systems of thought hostile to the Church. Major societal upheaval is well underway, disrupting the basic order of civilization that had persisted for centuries. The territory that had for a millennium been politically controlled by your predecessors has been almost completely lost to secular rulers. Your immediate predecessor died “a prisoner of the Vatican.” What do you do?
Why, you publish a major encyclical on social, economic and political life, of course!
In David O’Brien and Thomas Shannon’s indispensable book Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage, they write, “When one considers the background out of which Rerum Novarum emerged, it is a wonder that the document was written at all.” The broader world was most certainly not clamoring for Pope Leo XIII to weigh in on political or economic theory. By worldly standards of judgment, the careful preparation of such a document could be seen as little more than a waste of time.
And yet, Rerum Novarum began the ongoing process of renewing the Catholic Church’s engagement with the broader world in light of modern circumstances. It inspired such great Catholic thinkers as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc to masterfully address economic concerns in light of reason and revelation, guided by the Catholic intellectual tradition.
When we read Rerum Novarum with 20th Century eyes, it is striking how relevant it remains. Perhaps more than ever, we need Pope Leo’s clearheaded thinking on human nature, and certainly on the nature and rights of the family.
Pope Leo begins by rejecting socialism as the answer to economic problems. He expressly opposes the understanding of man as simply a more highly evolved animal. Man is corporal, yes, but he is also spiritual and possesses a rational mind. Whereas animals are perfectly content to possess things only in a moment when they are needed, it is a requirement of human nature that men be able to work so as to acquire property. Private property is not an absolute right and must be limited by broader concerns for the common good, but it must be respected. Indeed, respect for private property is essential for the advancement of the common good. Without it, the incentives for individuals to produce those things necessary for human welfare are greatly diminished.
The State certainly has a legitimate role to play in civil society and the pursuit of the common good, but there is a unit of civilization which precedes the very existence of the State. The institution of the family existed prior to the State, “both in idea and in fact,” and therefore its rights must be seen as at least equal “with the State in the choice and pursuit of these things which are needful to its preservation and its just liberty.” Because the family is prior to the State, it “must necessarily have rights and duties which are prior to those of the [State].” The true test of any set of governmental policies and laws is whether it assists or hinders the family in fulfilling its proper vocation.
Perhaps more than any other principle articulated in Rerum Novarum, this is the greatest challenge to the modern West. In our time, it is increasingly argued and accepted that the family has no objective reality, but is merely a societal construct to be reorganized at will. As we have all experienced, the view of the traditional family as a bedrock institution prior to any other form of social organization, and therefore entitled to special treatment and protection, is often dismissed as nothing more than bigotry, with no further consideration needed.
Pope Leo devotes a large portion of his encyclical to addressing various economic and social problems and possible solutions to those problems. But, at their root, each proposed solution is really the same. Again, the State has an important role to play in maintaining order and promoting the common good, enabling individuals and families to pursue their proper vocations. But, the ultimate solutions will come from Catholics like you and me, working together with all men and women of good will. The answers will not come from massive pieces of legislation or from dramatic social movements. They will come from disciples of Christ faithfully following Him in their family and economic life.
The most widely known proposal from Rerum Novarum is a renewal of voluntary associations of workers in the various trades, based on medieval guilds but adapted to modern circumstances. Chesterton and other Distributists have long been very fond of this idea. Critics of Distributism charge that such an economic system is unrealistic. Perhaps the critics are correct. They certainly are, if one sees the winning of elections and the implementation of a national policy as the only means to achieve economic and political goals. However, a fresh reading of Pope Leo’s proposal should make it clear that national political movements are not what he had in mind.
The beauty of the associations advocated in Rerum Novarum is that they are voluntary and privately held. They are not massive unions led by leaders distant from the membership. They are certainly not government-established, nor are they simply economic arrangements. The workmen’s associations envisioned by Pope Leo are groups of individuals and families with a common interest, and they minister to not just occupational needs, but religious and cultural needs as well.
In other words, they are true communities. Like-minded people can come together to work, pray and live in ways that individuals cannot on their own. Nor can the State provide such security for millions without depriving families of their natural autonomy. Catholics have always been great at forming associations to meet charitable, educational and religious needs. There are real-world examples in recent decades of Catholics doing the same with regard to economic needs, just as Pope Leo observed and advocated in 1891.
What is the central lesson we may take away from Rerum Novarum in 2013? The answer to all of our problems can be found in one place: the Truth of Jesus Christ as proclaimed by the Catholic Church, faithfully and creatively lived in our families and communities. No political party or economic theory will ever be able to improve upon that.