Quotes Suitable For Framing: Pope Leo XIII

Rerum Novarum


Those who rule the commonwealths should avail themselves of the laws and institutions of the country; masters and wealthy owners must be mindful of their duty; the working class, whose interests are at stake, should make every lawful and proper effort; and since religion alone, as We said at the beginning, can avail to destroy the evil at its root, all men should rest persuaded that main thing needful is to re-establish Christian morals, apart from which all the plans and devices of the wisest will prove of little avail.

Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum-Paragraph 62





The problem with papal encyclicals when they delve into economic and political issues is that they tend to be long and fairly complex. They are also bound by the historical events surrounding them at the time when they are promulgated. People with axes to grind will usually pick and choose rather than reading the entire encyclical in its historical context.


Rerum Novarum was written in 1891 at a time of huge worker unrest and when both anarchism and communism were beginning to take root. The living conditions of workers were often appalling. Pope Leo, while making a full throated defense of property, also wanted to indicate sympathy for the workers and their often legitimate complaints.


In regard to paragraph 36 of Rerum Novarum Pope Leo in his final sentence indicates a concern that the State not take more action than is necessary to remedy an evil: “The limits must be determined by the nature of the occasion which calls for the law’s interference – the principle being that the law must not undertake more, nor proceed further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the mischief.”


All governments at the time of Pope Leo had a fairly hands off approach to industries compared to what we see today, and the rights of workers to form unions was often denied. An unanswerable question of course is how Pope Leo would have modified Rerum Novarum if he had lived in our time. That is the problem of course when we attempt to read social justice encyclicals in the same manner as a proclamation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Social Justice encyclicals are obviously heavily influenced by the historical context in which they were written, something that does not apply when a Pope is writing about some purely religious topic, rather than about the religious dimension of hotly contested economic and political questions. Such encyclicals can never be ignored by Catholics, but they must be read with the history of when they were written in mind, plus an examination of historical developments since the writing of the encyclical.

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  1. “Those who rule the commonwealths should avail themselves of the laws and institutions of the country;”
    Politicians must avail themselves of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the law of the land.

  2. “the rights of workers to form unions was often denied”

    In England, they were prosecuted as conspiracies in restraint of trade. In Scotland, however, this was held not to be a point of dittay, although a charge of “Conspiring to raise wages, or to concuss workmen, or to effect any similar object by violent and forcible means, or by criminal threats” was held relevent to infer the pains of law. [In Scots, “to concuss” = to coerce – ” Where there has been such a degree of force used to concuss a person to grant a deed…”]

    During the Revolution, the Le Chapelier Law (Law of 14 June 1791) provided, “It is contrary to the principles of liberty and the Constitution for citizens with the same professions, arts, or trades to deliberate or make agreements among themselves designed to set prices for their industry or their labour. .”
    Had it been seen as a way of protecting the rich against the poor, or the propertied against the property-less, it would have met with strenuous opposition by one of the Assembly’s defenders of the poor. But the law was passed without opposition because it seemed evidence to the entire National Assembly that the reconstitution of corporations in any form was a fundamental threat to the nation and its free constitution. The law made it clear that no intermediary body could stand between the individual – now armed with his natural rights – and the nation – now the guarantor of those rights.”

  3. I feel the same way Pedro and Anzlyne. I have a news clipping here from 1994 with an interview of now Cardinal Burke on the “plight” of the nations dairy famers. He has a lot of Pope Leo in him. He was a champion of family farmers in our Diocese of Lacrosse. Somehow what he preached did not in the least seem to be liberal but a true friend and a true understanding of what Leo XIII was getting at.

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