"Rerum Novarum" to "Mater et Magistra"

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MANILA, Philippines, OCT. 25, 2003 (


HREF="http://www.zenit.org">Zenit.org).- Here is an adapted excerpt of an address by Father Jose Vidamor B. Yu given Sept. 29 at the theologians videoconference organized by the Vatican Congregation for Clergy.

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"Rerum Novarum" to "Mater et Magistra"
By Father Jose Vidamor B. Yu

Rerum Novarum

The Church during the 19th century had seen the major shifts of how man earned higher standards way of living. The Industrial Revolution had increased population growth in the whole of Europe; technical advances were made in industries like the steam engine for instance, which brought about the increase of production. Cities expanded and the Church experienced new births of cities in Europe. Capitalism has been the economic system adopted that provided an unsupervised urban working class, a proletariat that lived in subhuman conditions, exploited and unprotected. The factory has replaced the agricultural field in the daily cycle of human undertakings.

A great concern was to be focused on the poorer class of the society. Evangelical groups like the Methodists became popular with the working and lower class of people. They echoed one message: Their own liberation and salvation from their misery and predicaments is through faith in the passion and death of Christ. The evangelical movements focused on the authority and the inspiration of the Bible for liberation in situations like this.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, took a stand and proclaimed its reactions through the first social encyclical of the Church, "Rerum Novarum." Pope Leo XIII's encyclical, issued May 15, 1891, was written within the framework of St. Thomas Aquinas' understanding of the social order. Two things surfaced in the teaching: first, the Church denied support for class warfare while attacking socialism as proposed by Karl Marx, and second, it spoke against the various presuppositions of economic liberalism, that is, capitalism.

"Rerum Novarum" teaches:

First, the advancement of the industrialization period brought about injustice in the society through the inhumanity of employers and the unguided method of competition. "After the old trade guilds had been destroyed in the last century, and no protection was substituted in their place, and when public institutions and legislation had cast off traditional religious teaching, it gradually came about that the present age handed over the workers, each alone and defenseless, to the inhumanity of employers and the unbridled greed of competitors" ("Rerum Novarum," No. 6).

Second, "Rerum Novarum" was deeply concerned with the alienation of the workers from the Church as a result of the widening gap between the social classes. Socialism attempted to solve this increasing problem but was condemned by the Church, which proposed the equitable relationship between capital and labor instead. Leo XIII explained that the worsening situation due to the relationship between socialism and the working class in fact [is worse] than the evils of the capitalistic system.

The encyclical explains that "inasmuch as the socialists seek to transfer the goods of private persons to the community at large, they make the lot of all wage earners worse, because in abolishing the freedom to dispose of wages they take away from them by this very act the hope and the opportunity of increasing their property and of securing advantages for themselves" (RN, 10).

Third, the social encyclical insists that the rich and poor, capital or labor have equal rights and duties. Against the socialists, Leo XIII defends the right of individuals to private property. It is the prerogative of the individual to exercise his own right to possess certain properties as a citizen of the country. However, Leo XIII warns abuses of the right to private property. The encyclical laid down the limits to its use to avoid abuse to both individuals and properties. Private property is a vocation and a right. Leo XIII says that it "is a right natural to man, and to exercise this right, especially in life in society, is not only lawful, but clearly necessary. 'It is lawful for man to own his own things. It is even necessary for human life'" (RN, 36).

Fourth, the poor and the weak have to be defended by the state. The state has the inalienable duty to defend their rights. These rights have to be religiously protected it is because the weak and the poor rely on the state for protection. The power of the state is manifested through its service to the weak and underprivileged. The state should make the poor under its "special care and foresight" (RN, 54).

Fifth, the relationship between employers and employees has to be manifested through a just salary that would enable the workers to support themselves individually and their own families. Leo XIII exhorts that it is the state which has the duty to ensure the justice provided by the employers to their laborers. If justice could not be maintained, it would be detrimental to the employers, to the workers, trade and commerce and most especially to the interests of the state which as well as may stir up violence, riots, and civil disorder and thus jeopardize public peace (see RN, 56).

Sixth, the state has the right to intervene into the labor problem of its citizens to guarantee justice to all. However, Leo XIII warns that the state cannot absorb individuals. Every worker has the right to form unions with the condition that these associations should ensure its functions in favor of the laborer.

Leo XIII adds that "man is permitted by a right of nature to form private societies; the state, on the other hand, has been instituted to protect and not to destroy natural right, and if it should forbid its citizens to enter into associations, it would clearly do something contradictory to itself because both the state itself and private associations are begotten of one and the same principle, namely, that men are by nature inclined to associate" (RN, 72). Trade unions have the right also to uphold the legitimate rights of the workers.

Seventh, the state has the primary duty of saving the soul of the individual worker. The protection of the individual is not an end in itself "but a road only and a means for perfecting, through knowledge of truth and love of good, the life of the soul" (RN, 57). It should be the vocation of the state and the Church to ensure the salvation of every citizen of the country, especially among the working class, which constitutes the weak and poor of the society. Any social organization likewise has the duty to lead the workers toward religious and moral perfection (see RN, 77).

The encyclical "Rerum Novarum" of Leo XIII indicated the Church's awareness and response to the signs of the times. It was the task of the Pope to provide principles about the rights of workers and the duty of the state based on eternal truths.

"Rerum Novarum" was a giant step of the Church toward making an alliance with the workers and the poor while resisting the Church's temptation to ally with the bourgeois. The central theme of the encyclical was focused on the conditions of workers as effects of the Industrial Revolution. Relationship between employees and employers should be based on truth, justice, love, and respect to the individual's inalienable rights.

Quadragesimo Anno

The impact of Leo XIII's "Rerum Novarum" is assessed in Pius XI's encyclical "Quadragesimo Anno" on May 15, 1931. Pius XI focused on the principle of subsidiarity as an alternative to class struggles, socialism and capitalism. Following the social foundations and principles of "Rerum Novarum," Pius XI pursued social justice based on the Gospel principles. The Catholic Church desires to take up justice among the working class and the needs of the poor through social concern and charity. The encyclical was issued amidst the depression of social order, the rise of communist totalitarianism on the one hand, and extreme capitalism on the other.

Pius XI highlights these following points in his encyclical:

First, he reaffirms the principles set out by Leo XIII gaining foothold in the midst of the great Depression, in the age of dictators and ruthless totalitarian systems of the right and the left. "Quadragesimo Anno" develops Catholic social doctrines along the lines of the Gospel's great principles of love manifested through peace and justice, solidarity, the common good, subsidiarity, the right to property, the right to associate and the fundamental role of the family in society.

By affirming basic human rights, "Quadragesimo Anno" paved the way this courageous papal attacks on Nazism ("Mit Brennender Sorge," 1937), Soviet communism ("Divini Redemptoris," 1937), Italian fascism ("Non Abbiamo Bisogno," 1931) and Masonic anti-clericalism in Mexico ("Nos Es Muy Conocida," 1937)

Second, "Quadragesimo Anno" affirms once more the magisterial vocation of the Church through the "Christian reform of morals" (No. 15). The Church has the duty to educate the faithful with regard to the basic social principles founded on sacred Scriptures. Responding to the current signs of the times, the Church has to exercise its duty of leading the society toward its highest ideals by fulfilling its duty to restore the dignity of the workers.

It says that, "it is the Church, again, that strives not only to instruct the mind, but to regulate by her precepts the life and morals of individuals, and that ameliorates the condition of the workers through her numerous and beneficent institutions" (QA, 17).

Third, Pius XI attacks socialism as a system of societal affairs which may oppress human freedom through harmful collectivism. It is a system of political and economic state of affairs based on common ownership that overrides the right to private ownership. Pius XI mentioned two objectives of communism, namely "unrelenting class warfare and absolute extermination of private ownership" (QA, 112).

On the other hand, Pius XI exposed the evils of capitalism that leads toward extreme individualism, which may leave the rights of workers unprotected. One of the thrusts of the state is to defend the rights of the weak and the poor. Pius XI reiterated Leo XIII's call for reform saying, "the function of the rulers of the state, moreover, is to watch over the community and its parts; but in protecting private individuals in their rights, chief consideration ought to be given to the weak and the poor" (QA, 25).

Fourth, Pius XI emphasized on the "principle of subsidiarity" which gives the freedom of various small economic and social groups to handle matters of lesser importance. The state should not intervene in any affair that smaller groups, business and institutions can do by their own. The encyclical says that "the supreme authority of the state ought, therefore, to let subordinate groups handle matters and concerns of lesser importance, which would otherwise dissipate its efforts greatly. Thereby the state will more freely, powerfully and effectively do all those things that belong to it alone because it alone can do them: directing, watching, urging, restraining, as occasion requires and necessity demands" (QA, 80).

Mater et Magistra

To carry out the mission of Christ in the transformation of the social environment, John XXIII interpreted the signs of the times from the perspective of the Gospel.

First, the Church being a mother and a teacher, John XXIII [in the 1960 encyclical "Mater et Magistra"] mentions the changes transpiring in the society. On the technological level, the advancement of science and technology was upbeat, the discovery of the atomic energy was an advancement, the modernization of agriculture was a sign of protection and promotion of the agricultural sector, and the means of communication and transportations had manifested the interconnectedness of peoples around the world.

On the social level, workers become aware of their rights to insurance, education, the awareness of being members of unions, and the desire for convenient life. On the area of political life, the Church has been aware of the decline of colonialism allowing the emergence of the nation-state. The postwar situation had provided a major step toward affirming the uniqueness of cultures and nations. Peoples now govern themselves and establish their own laws and institutions. The independence of peoples and cultures was affirmed by the Church to pursue its task of inculturation, dialogue, and other forms of evangelization.

Second, John XIII has developed the principle of subsidiarity to the interdependence of peoples and nations. The growing economic and technological age had turned the world into a global village by means of communications and transportation. The increasing complexity of the socioeconomic life has made people desire for interdependence through associations, thus "a daily more complex interdependence of citizens, introducing into their lives and activities many and varied forms of association" (MM, 59).

Third, John XXIII used the human person as the criterion for evaluating socioeconomic situations. The dignity of the human person remains central to the any political, economic and social progress. It highlights that, "consequently, if the organization and structure of economic life be such that the human dignity of workers is compromised, or their sense of responsibility is weakened, or their freedom of action is removed, then we judge such an economic order to be unjust, even though it produces a vast amount of goods, whose distribution conforms to the norms of justice and equity" (MM, 83).

John XXIII made it a point that a just economy does not only mean the abundance and the distribution of the production of goods and services. It also includes the process of the individual as a human person who is the subject and object of these goods and services.

Fourth, it is the vocation of the state to pursue and promote common good. "Mater et Magistra" pursued dialogue between the Church and the international community with regard to human rights. It is the vocation of the Church to protect and defend with full clarity. Human rights promotion is an indispensable mission of the Church. John XXIII used the expression of his predecessor Pius XII "signs of the times" as a positive opportunity for the Church to proclaim and respond to the needs of the times in the light of the Gospel.

Fifth, it is the vocation of the Church and the individual Christian to overcome the excessive inequality among the various sectors of society. John XXIII says that the human person is responsible for his acts and has a capacity for self-mastery (see MM, 55). The ordering of the material and social world is respecting the dignity of the human person.

The human person created is in God's image and is rooted in a nature that is physical and spiritual exercising the gift of freedom (see MM, 208). It was the concern of the Church for the dignity of the human person that makes it strive to resist economic and political changes that would compromise human dignity and freedom.