Rerum Novarum Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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.)

Rerum Novarum Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Himes, Kenneth R., ed. Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005. This scholarly collection includes four foundational essays and fourteen commentaries on influential church documents. Each essay includes thorough bibliographical information. Brief index.

Misner, Paul. Social Catholicism in Europe: From the Onset of Industrialization to the First World War. New York: Crossroad, 1991. This work provides a history of European social life and reflection spanning from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth century. Includes a thorough bibliography as well as author and subject indexes.

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Translated by Vatican Press. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005. This reference work provides a comprehensive synthesis of central concepts in Catholic social ethics. Includes thorough reference and analytical indexes.

Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The Social Agenda: A Collection of Magisterial Texts. Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticano, 2000. This work is a concise compilation of official church statements thematically organized to discuss eleven issues central to Christian social ethics.