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.