The Divine Lamp

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A Summary of Rerum Novarum

Posted by Dim Bulb on March 12, 2010

Previously (see the post following this one) I posted some excerpts on Pope Leo XII’s Encyclical Rerum Novarum (On Capital and Labor); here I post some background on that document. Numbers in  square brackets are footnotes, these follow the actual text, which I’ve taken from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church.

a. The beginning of a new path

87. The term “social doctrine” goes back to Pope Pius XI [139] and designates the doctrinal “corpus” concerning issues relevant to society which, from the Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum [140] of Pope Leo XIII, developed in the Church through the Magisterium of the Roman Pontiffs and the Bishops in communion with them[141]. The Church’s concern for social matters certainly did not begin with that document, for the Church has never failed to show interest in society. Nonetheless, the Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum marks the beginning of a new path. Grafting itself onto a tradition hundreds of years old, it signals a new beginning and a singular development of the Church’s teaching in the area of social matters[142].

In her continuous attention to men and women living in society, the Church has accumulated a rich doctrinal heritage. This has its roots in Sacred Scripture, especially the Gospels and the apostolic writings, and takes on shape and body beginning from the Fathers of the Church and the great Doctors of the Middle Ages, constituting a doctrine in which, even without explicit and direct Magisterial pronouncements, the Church gradually came to recognize her competence.

88. In the nineteenth century, events of an economic nature produced a dramatic social, political and cultural impact. Events connected with the Industrial Revolution profoundly changed centuries-old societal structures, raising serious problems of justice and posing the first great social question — the labour question — prompted by the conflict between capital and labour. In this context, the Church felt the need to become involved and intervene in a new way: the res novae (“new things”) brought about by these events represented a challenge to her teaching and motivated her special pastoral concern for masses of people. A new discernment of the situation was needed, a discernment capable of finding appropriate solutions to unfamiliar and unexplored problems.

b. From Rerum Novarum to our own day

89. In response to the first great social question, Pope Leo XIII promulgated the first social Encyclical, Rerum Novarum[143]. This Encyclical examines the condition of salaried workers, which was particularly distressing for industrial labourers who languished in inhumane misery. The labour question is dealt with according to its true dimensions. It is explored in all its social and political expressions so that a proper evaluation may be made in the light of the doctrinal principles founded on Revelation and on natural law and morality.

Rerum Novarum lists errors that give rise to social ills, excludes socialism as a remedy and expounds with precision and in contemporary terms “the Catholic doctrine on work, the right to property, the principle of collaboration instead of class struggle as the fundamental means for social change, the rights of the weak, the dignity of the poor and the obligations of the rich, the perfecting of justice through charity, on the right to form professional associations”[144].

Rerum Novarum became the document inspiring Christian activity in the social sphere and the point of reference for this activity[145]. The Encyclical’s central theme is the just ordering of society, in view of which there is the obligation to identify criteria of judgment that will help to evaluate existing socio-political systems and to suggest lines of action for their appropriate transformation.

90. Rerum Novarum dealt with the labour question using a methodology that would become “a lasting paradigm” [146] for successive developments in the Church’s social doctrine. The principles affirmed by Pope Leo XIII would be taken up again and studied more deeply in successive social encyclicals. The whole of the Church’s social doctrine can be seen as an updating, a deeper analysis and an expansion of the original nucleus of principles presented in Rerum Novarum. With this courageous and farsighted text, Pope Leo XIII “gave the Church ‘citizenship status’ as it were, amid the changing realities of public life” [147] and made an “incisive statement” [148] which became “a permanent element of the Church’s social teaching”[149]. He affirmed that serious social problems “could be solved only by cooperation between all forces” [150] and added that, “in regard to the Church, her cooperation will never be found lacking”[151].


Catholic World Report has posted the first of three essays, “What Is Social Justice?” Part one.

Footnotes 139-151:

[139] Cf. Pius XI, Encyclical Letter Quadragesimo Anno: AAS 23 (1931), 179; Pius XII, in his Radio Message for the fiftieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum: AAS 33 (1941), 197, speaks of “Catholic social doctrine” and, in the Encyclical Letter Menti Nostrae of 23 September 1950: AAS 42 (1950), 657, of “the Church’s social doctrine”. John XXIII retains the expression “the Church’s social doctrine” (Encyclical Letter Mater et Magistra: AAS 53 [1961] , 453; Encyclical Letter Pacem in Terris: AAS 55 [1963] , 300-301) and also uses “Christian social doctrine” (Encyclical Letter Mater et Magistra: AAS 53 [1961] , 453) or even “Catholic social doctrine” (Encyclical Letter Mater et Magistra: AAS 53 [1961] , 454).

[140] Cf. Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum: Acta Leonis XIII, 11 (1892), 97-144.

[141] Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Laborem Exercens, 3: AAS 73 (1981), 583-584; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1: AAS 80 (1988), 513-514.

[142] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2421.

[143] Cf. Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum: Acta Leonis XIII, 11 (1892), 97-144.

[144] Congregation for Catholic Education, Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church’s Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests, 20, Vatican Polyglot Press, Rome 1988, p. 24.

[145] Cf. Pius XI, Encyclical Letter Quadragesimo Anno, 39 AAS 23 (1931), 189; Pius XII, Radio Message for the fiftieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum: AAS 33 (1941), 198.

[146] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 5: AAS 83 (1991), 799.

[147] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 5: AAS 83 (1991), 799.

[148] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 56: AAS 83 (1991), 862.

[149] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 60: AAS 83 (1991), 865.

[150] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 60: AAS 83 (1991), 865.

[151] Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter Rerum Novarum: Acta Leonis XIII, 11 (1892), 143; cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 56: AAS 83 (1991), 862.

10 Responses to “A Summary of Rerum Novarum”

  1. Helen said

    Great paper. What continuities/differences do you see between Rerum Novarum and Centesimus Annus in their focus, tone and emphasis?

    • Dim Bulb said

      Helen, thanks for stopping by my blog.

      I didn’t write the “paper” you refer to, it comes from the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching.

      The most obvious difference between RN and CA is the latter’s emphasis/endorsement of the free market economies. The former, while rightly criticizing unbridled capitalism focused more on the dangers and fallacies of various forms of socialism.

  2. […] Posts Aquinas' Catena Aurea on Luke 20:27-38 for Sunday Mass, Nov 7A Summary of Rerum NovarumNov 8: Father Callan on Today's 1st Reading (Titus 1:1-9)This Weeks Posts: Sunday Nov 7- Saturday […]

  3. Joseph Bola Kolade said

    It is an educative site. Much were added to my knowledge on Rerum Novarum most century celebrated encyclical. Thanks for the good work.
    Joseph Bola KOlade National Missionary Seminary of St Paul Abuja Nigeria.

  4. Eleena Tarleton said

    Thank you very much for this summary! It helped a great deal.

  5. Ellen Phelan said

    how fantastic that someone was smart enough to post this on the net. you are a life saver! My catholic soul would wither without this information. (KS)

  6. cosmas Udoekpo said

    I love this summary. it is simple enough to digest.



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