Leo XIII, Encyclical Letter on the Condition of the Working Classes: Rerum Novarum (1891).
Rerum Novarum, the major landmark in Catholic social teaching, addresses work, private property, and the social ends of each. On these subjects, Rerum Novarum should be read in light of encyclicals celebrating its fortieth, seventieth, ninetieth, and one hundredth anniversaries, explaining, affirming, and expanding upon Leo’s teaching (see below). Pope John XXIII summarizes the key teachings of Rerum Novarum:
[Work must be regarded] not merely as a commodity, but as a specifically human activity. In the majority of cases a man's work is his sole means of livelihood. Its remuneration, therefore, cannot be made to depend on the state of the market. It must be determined by the laws of justice and equity. Any other procedure would be a clear violation of justice, even supposing the contract of work to have been freely entered into by both parties.
Secondly, private ownership of property, including that of productive goods, is a natural right which the State cannot suppress. But it naturally entails a social obligation as well. It is a right which must be exercised not only for one's own personal benefit but also for the benefit of others.
As for the State, its whole raison d'etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters. On the contrary, it must do all in its power to promote the production of a sufficient supply of material goods, "the use of which is necessary for the practice of virtue." It has also the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman.
It is furthermore the duty of the State to ensure that terms of employment are regulated in accordance with justice and equity, and to safeguard the human dignity of workers by making sure that they are not required to work in an environment which may prove harmful to their material and spiritual interests. It was for this reason that the Leonine encyclical enunciated those general principles of rightness and equity which have been assimilated into the social legislation of many a modern State, and which, as Pope Pius XI declared in the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, have made no small contribution to the rise and development of that new branch of jurisprudence called labor law.
Pope Leo XIII also defended the worker's natural right to enter into association with his fellows. Such associations may consist either of workers alone or of workers and employers, and should be structured in a way best calculated to safeguard the workers' legitimate professional interest. And it is the natural right of the workers to work without hindrance, freely, and on their own initiative within these associations for the achievement of these ends.
John XXIII, Encyclical Letter Christianity and Social Progress: Mater et Magistra ¶¶18-22 (1961).
Read this Resource