Are Pope Leo’s Views in Rerum Novarum Being Applied To Today’s Society?

Michelle Hernandez Period 7- People everywhere in the world today are all trying to achieve the same goal, happiness. Because, according to Aristotle, human beings have one ultimate end: a good, contemplative, and happy life. Aristotle says that “the final good is thought to be self-sufficing. We take self-sufficing to mean what by itself makes life desirable” (Nicomachean Ethics).  Aristotle believed happiness was the answer to this description, which is true. Happiness does make life desirable, but in today’s world, happiness takes the form of many things like family or pleasure, but I think that happiness more commonly takes the form of money. Money is the essential to the pursuit of happiness. Without money, there is no way to afford basic human needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare. Money also provides people with the ability to afford luxuries such as cars and TV’s. In order to make money, it is necessary for people to have jobs. A job provides a person with the income to afford their basic needs. But what if someone doesn’t have a job? Or what if a certain country has unfair labor practices? The 1981 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII called Rerum Novarum, addresses the conditions of the working class.

In Rerum Novarum or “Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor” Pope Leo set out to respond to the social conflict that had risen at the beginning of industrialization that had led to the rise of socialism. He addresses that the role of the state is to promote social justice through the protection of rights. He restates the church’s teaching regarding the crucial importance of private property and greatly condemns unrestricted capitalism. Pope Leo says, “[Socialists] hold that by thus transferring property from private individuals to the community, the present mischievous state of things will be set to rights, inasmuch as each citizen will the then get his fair share of whatever there is to enjoy. They are empathetically unjust, for they would rob the lawful professor, distort the functions of the State, and create utter confusion in the community”. As a framework for building social harmony, Leo proposes the idea of rights and duties in order to maintain “the balance of body politic”. For example, workers have rights and also duties to their employers. Likewise, employers have rights and also duties to their workers. “Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.” Some of the duties of workers are to “fully and faithfully” perform their agreed upon tasks, to individually refrain from vandalism or personal attacks, and to collectively refrain from rioting and violence. Some of the duties of employers are to provide fair wages, to provide time off for religious practice and family life, to provide work suited to each person’s gender, age, and strength, and to respect the dignity of workers and to never regard them as slaves. Leo reminds “those who fortune favors” that with the privilege of having great wealth comes the duty and responsibility to share the wealth with others in need. And for those without the gifts of fortune, “poverty is no disgrace and that there is nothing to be ashamed of in earning their bread by labor”. He agrees that public authority is sometimes necessary to protect workers’ rights and in keeping the peace. The current socially and politically corrupt countries pay little to no attention to the worker’s rights and employer’s duties addressed in Rerum Novarum.

Pope Leo goes on to assert the right of workers to safe working conditions and sustainable working hours. “It is neither just nor humane so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies”. However, safety and health at a work place is currently a major global concern in countries such as Honduras, Malawi, Republic of Moldova, Ukraine, Zambia and many more. According to the ILO (International Labor Organization), over 2 million people die around the world every year as a result of their work. Every day around one thousand people go out to work in the morning or evening and simply don’t return home because they die in occupational accidents. Occupational accidents have increased to over 300 million per year. The global economic cost of occupation accidents and disease represent 4 percent of the global GDP (International Labor Organization). Leo explicitly condemns child labor when he says “Work which is quite suitable for a strong man cannot rightly be required from a woman or a child. In regard to children, great care should be taken not to place them in workshops and factories until their bodies and minds are sufficiently developed”. According to the ILO, 115 million children are involved in the worst forms of child labor which includes practices similar to slavery, debt bondage, prostitution, and other forms of work that is harmful to their health, safety and morals. Leo also states that a working man should receive fair wages, so that he may support his wife and children with some savings left over to improve his condition over time. Sweatshops in countries such as Cambodia only pay their workers up to 75 cents a day (ILO). It’s clear that some of today’s employers are paying little to no attention to their worker’s rights.

Rerum Novarum also strongly asserts the right to own private property as a principle of natural law. “Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. It is lawful, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for a man to hold private property; and it is also necessary for the carrying on of human existence”. Private property, and the right to own it, are the cornerstone of a capitalist society such the US. However, under socialism or communism the means of production will be publicly owned. But does any private property remain, such as a house or a car? Are individuals in socialist or communist society such as Cuba given some kind of right to their individual use? The answer is no. The goal of a communism is to create a classless society. Their way of doing that is by changing the means of ownership from privatism to collective ownership. Some people will think that this is a fair way to eradicate the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Some agree with Pope Leo in that “private ownership is in accordance with the law of nature”.

It’s no secret that there are flaws in the world today when it comes to the working class, rights and duties of workers and employers, wages, and the right to private property. There are people out there, not only in third world countries but in privileged countries as well, that are simply trying to achieve happiness for themselves and for their families. However they unfortunately find oppression in either low wages, or unsustainable working conditions. There are also people that live in a country where the government owns all means of production and property so they can’t take advantage of their right to private ownership. It is a real tragedy that these people don’t have the opportunity to achieve their ultimate end, which is a full, contemplative and happy life, because they are put down by either their employers or their governments. Pope Leo wrote Rerum Novarum with the goal to respond to the rise of socialism. He attempts to remind us of the importance of worker/employer relationships, rights and duties of workers and employers, and private property. I feel that if more societies pay attention to the importance of all these topics that Pope Leo addresses more and more people will be able to achieve their true end and purpose.


“Piority of Labour Over Capital.” V Plater. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2013.

“Leo XIII – Rerum Novarum.” Leo XIII – Rerum Novarum. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2013

“International Labour Organization.” International Labour Organization. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2013.

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