Pope of the Worker


On May 1, 1991, Pope John Paul II issued Centesimus Annus, his second social encyclical and his ninth encyclical overall, in which he announced a twofold hope. First, he wished to mark the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) and recall Leo’s contribution to the development of the Church’s social teaching. Second, he wished to reflect on the way that subsequent popes have drawn upon the encyclical’s "vital energies" in their own social teaching. The pontiff wrote that "Pope Leo XIII, in the footsteps of his predecessors, created a lasting paradigm for the Church. The Church, in fact, has something to say about specific human situations, both individual and communal, national and international" (Centesimus Annus 5).

As John Paul recognized 100 years after its initial promulgation, Rerum Novarum ("new things") provided a key first step for the Church in addressing the dominant social question of the time: the exploitation and suffering of workers that was the byproduct of the Industrial Revolution. For his achievement, Leo was hailed as the "Pope of the Worker," and Rerum Novarum became what Pope John XXIII called the magna carta of Catholic social teachings.

For Catholic apologists, the name Rerum Novarum often emerges in discussions about Catholic social teachings. On the one hand, Catholics hear all the time that somehow the encyclical signaled the Church’s embrace of socialism and hatred of capitalism. At the same time, apologists must defend the Church from the accusation that Catholic leaders have never really done enough to help average workers and their families who struggle to make ends meet.

The truth, of course, is something altogether different. Long before the world gave much thought to the needs of common laborers and their families, Leo defended the rights of the worker against both socialism and capitalism, insisted on a just wage, demanded that private property be seen as a natural right, and proclaimed the integrity of the family against the dangers of modern industrialization. Catholics can therefore rightly acclaim this remarkable pontiff as the Pope of the Worker.

Human Dignity vs. Machine

The social crisis Leo addressed was late in arriving in Italy but had been maturing in Western Europe since the introduction of the machine. A Catholic-led, pioneering social effort had concerned itself with this crisis for nearly half a century. More than a mere preoccupation with the poor, it was also the pursuit of a program to deal with poverty’s root causes in light of justice and charity.

Masses of poorly educated workers concentrated in the cities, searching for work in the growing cities and factories. Hordes of uneducated laborers were forced to work in dangerous, unregulated factories and to live with their families in inhuman and squalid conditions, much like those described by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 novel The Jungle. Men, women, and children labored without contracts and could be fired at any moment. They worked for 14 or more hours a day, earning pitiful wages.

The Church initially addressed the new circumstances through a combination of direct assistance and the formulation of ethical norms for the changed economic reality. Direct assistance was provided through hospitals and schools, as epitomized in Italy by St. John Bosco and the Salesians and in France by Frédéric Ozanam and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. There were as well the efforts of Christian industrialists, such as Léon Harmel in France, who lived with his own employees. Bishops around the world provided leadership, including Bishop (Cardinal from 1890) Mermillod of Geneva and Lausanne, Cardinal Manning of Westminster, Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, Bishop Ireland of Minneapolis, and Cardinal Moran of Sydney.

The social activity of Catholics provided the groundwork for the development of an original body of teaching aimed at understanding the new social problems and devising solutions based on the Gospel. In France, Villeneuve de Bargemont wrote an 1834 treatise on political and Christian life, while in Germany, Bishop Wilhelm E. von Ketteler of Mainz helped launch a Catholic social movement that expanded swiftly across Europe after 1870. Leo later called von Ketteler "our great predecessor from whom I have learned" (Association Catholique, October 15, 1893, 428). Finally, the Fribourg Union, founded in 1884 and headed by Mermillod, brought together various leaders in the nascent Catholic social movement.

The Social Conscience of the Pope

Amid this background, on February 20, 1878, Cardinal Gioacchino Pecci was elected Pope Leo XIII, succeeding Pope Pius IX. Leo seemed at first an unlikely figure to spark so important a development in Catholic teaching. Born to a family of minor Italian nobles, he had been ordained in 1837 and then embarked on a very distinguished career in the service of the Holy See as a governor in the Papal States and then as a Vatican diplomat. Appointed bishop of Perugia in 1846, he was elevated to the cardinalate in 1853 by Pope Pius IX. While in Perugia, he was outspoken in his promotion of Thomism and even founded the Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

His election seemed to harbor little in the way of significant change. He was in his late sixties at the time, and his health was considered poor, so much so that the consensus was that he would have at best a brief reign after the 32-year pontificate of Pius IX. Indeed, one observer of the papal coronation, the Marquis de Vogüé, described it as a pageant of vanished realities, like the evocation of a ghost.

Moreover, Leo’s pontificate seemed quite taken up from the start with a variety of other challenges and distractions—from the Kulturkampf in Germany, to the laic laws of the Third Republic of France, to the ongoing difficulties with the Italian government that had resulted from the seizure of the papal states and Rome in 1870, after which Pope Pius IX declared himself a "prisoner of the Vatican."

But the new pontiff was also interested keenly in the social question and was gravely concerned by the misery and poverty of workers and their families in industrialized countries and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. The pope subsequently lamented this situation in Rerum Novarum:

For the result of civil change and revolution has been to divide cities into two classes separated by a wide chasm. On the one side there is the party which holds power because it holds wealth . . . On the other side there is the needy and powerless multitude, sick and sore in spirit and ever ready for disturbance. (47)

And even though he was 81 at the time, Leo began work on the encyclical with considerable vigor.

Against the Class Struggle

The encyclical begins with the acknowledgement of the existence of the social question and the need for a solution to "the misery and wretchedness pressing so heavily and unjustly at this moment on the vast majority of the working classes" (Rerum Novarum 3). Leo realized that this situation had arisen from the new industrial age and was consequently different from anything previously encountered by the Church or society.

Rerum Novarum’s tone is different from his earlier political encyclicals, as it starts by examining the socialist proposals for solving the problems of the Industrial Revolution: Property and possessions should be made common property, to be administered by the state. Leo insists, "The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property" (15). In all, nearly one-third of the encyclical is devoted to proving that socialism does not possess the answer to the social crisis, as it would do as much harm to the workers as it might help them. A biographer of Leo writes,

The Leonine emphasis is on the concrete, the Marxist on the abstract . . . there is an optimistic emphasis in Rerum Novarum. It is a realistic optimism since it is conditioned by the free action of men. It is in sharp contrast with Marx’s radical pessimism in regard to "what is" and radical optimism on "what will be." (Edward Gargan, ed., Leo XIII and the Modern World, 71.)

Having noted socialism’s problems, Leo next demonstrates that the Church offers the correct solution. The pope calls for cooperation among the classes—not class warfare. 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" (Rerum Novarum 19). He goes on to declare that justice demands that the Lord’s day be honored, that the worker not be exposed to corrupting influences, and that he have time to spend with his family. Equally, an employer must not force his employees to work beyond their strength and must give them a fair wage.

At the heart of his message is the dignity of the human person: "No man may with impunity outrage that human dignity which God himself treats with great reverence, nor stand in the way of that higher life which is the preparation of the eternal life of heaven" (RN 40). Rerum Novarum defends the basic rights of the individual and the family and their priority with regard to the state. The pope sees the family as "a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any state" (RN 12).

The third section of the encyclical is devoted to the role of government. Leo proceeds from the belief that the Church has the moral authority to promote justice, while the state has the obligation to safeguard private property and to protect the workers and defend their rights of association as part of its duty to aid the common good. The state has the right also to intervene when facing the mistreatment of any class, but the state may not interfere with the individual or the family unless it commits some injury to the common good.

Lastly, the pope examines labor organizations, building upon the experience he had gained from the Church’s involvement with worker issues through the Knights of Labor in the United States, the Gesellenverein in Germany, and Cardinal Manning’s intervention in the 1889 London dock strike. Leo states that workers have the right to group themselves for protection, but the pope is also aware of the problems that can occur in unions.

The Message Endures

Rerum Novarum was hailed immediately for its candid recognition of the existence of the social problem. For the first time, a document by a pope examined the social problems of the era in a comprehensive manner and sought to formulate a solution, with a particular eye on the plight of the worker and the needs of their families. In unprecedented fashion, it gave the average worker clear guidance from the Church.

The encyclical signaled a new approach for the Church in addressing social concerns. First, it was crafted with the assistance of international experts and represented the fruitful development in social thought over many previous years. The pontiff did not limit Rerum Novarum’s scope to civil or state authorities with the aim of stressing their responsibilities. Rather, he made a direct appeal to all people and all interested parties. Leo also helped to establish a new relationship between the Church and state, for he made it clear that the Church was not wedded to any particular form of government, so long as the Church was granted the freedom to function. Rerum Novarum thus also helped to promote both the rise of the Christian trade unions and the development of Christian Democratic Parties.

The lasting importance of Leo’s encyclical can be seen, finally, in the way that his successors acknowledged the debt of the Church to Rerum Novarum in their own papal magisterium and in the development of Catholic social teaching: Pope Pius XII’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno on the 40th anniversary and 1941 Pentecost discourse on the 50th anniversary; John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical Mater et Magistra on the 70th anniversary; Pope Paul VI’s 1971 letter Octogesima Adveniens on the 80th anniversary; and John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens on the 90th anniversary and 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus on the 100th anniversary. John XXIII offered a lasting commendation to the place of Rerum Novarum when he wrote in Mater et Magistra that the social teachings of Leo XIII "have had such importance that they can never fall into oblivion . . . and even today, in spite of the long lapse of time, the power of that message is still operative" (8, 9).


Matthew E. Bunson is a former contributing editor to This Rock and the author of more than 30 books. He is a consultant for USA Today on Catholic matters, a moderator of EWTN’s online Church history forum, and the editor of The Catholic Answer.

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 10.