Reflection on Rerum Novarum
Reflection Paper on Rerum Novarum for Labor Law...
Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum: Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor. The Encyclical was created in the “spirit of revolutionary change”. It appears to be a detailed response to Marxist ideologies as well as an analysis of the Capitalist system, society, family, labor, and labor unions. The entirety of the discussion used Natural or Divine Law and Christian faith and morality as the framework. The Encyclical was the Church’s laudable attempt to connect Christian virtues of equality, charity, paternity to what they deem to be the ‘worldly’ matters such as State ideologies and labor conditions, while maintaining a firm belief that what happens to man’s soul in the afterlife is of utmost importance. While idealistic in, perhaps, an extreme sense of the word, the insights or objectives of the Encyclical had, in mind, the same sense of justice found in legal precepts, taught to law students. And, while written by a Pope, no less, the Encyclical was privy to the motivations and desires of men, like the way he feels deserving of ownership of property for his labor, as well as to the human capacity for greed, as is manifested in those in leadership positions and those who have great wealth. To some degree, the Encyclical also had a sense of realism, in that it balanced idealism with how the world works. The Encyclical was therefore sensitive to the perception of general readers, with the exception of women—the women of our generation, at the very least. Viewing this Encyclical in our current era, feminists would be hard-pressed not to feel disdain towards the Encyclical’s opinion of women as that of the old world: that they are only suited to duties of the household. This may be deemed quite appalling as the Pope discusses in order to show that workers have different roles in society—the wealthy, there to provide capital, and
the laborers, there to maximize this capital, and then, the women, there to raise children. Setting this aside, especially given the widely accepted social treatment of women in 1891, I felt that it was necessary for the Pope to have made this sense of connection with the people, for its attempt in showing the harms and unnatural characteristic of a Socialist State was a grand one. It needed all the sensitivity it could muster to topple the Marxist ideology, which many would likely have seen as the cure to harsh labor conditions and glaring inequalities, by showing how unnatural it was for man, being the rulers of all of the dominion populated by animal creations, not to maintain ownership over that which he labored. The Encyclical manifested a great degree of recognition of the hardships that needed to be alleviated and so provided an alternative by turning to the justice created by our laws, which, the Pope presumed, bowed down to the dictates of both morality and reason. To do this, however, the Encyclical needed to address a certain reality, which it had to concede, and to even teach as a doctrine: “There natural exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition.” Personally, though, I felt that the way the Encyclical attempted to have inequality be seen as something natural or even necessary was immensely idealistic. Later, the Encyclical turned to the afterlife, and the way God makes no distinctions between a person with little money and a person with great wealth, so long as the wealth was
earned properly, and spent properly. However, the Encyclical’s immediate and, perhaps, pragmatic attempt of remedying the inherent unfairness of this inequality was to view it in this manner: “Such unequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition.” I felt that this way of viewing the inequality may be quite an exaggeration. It was trying to say that those who work in the mines were there because they were “most suited” for the task due to their “own peculiar domestic condition[s]”. While I do feel that it was an inevitable assertion, since there was no better way of looking at it, it had the undertones of futility—of a deterministic universe where people cannot escape the destiny given to them by their birth lottery. Nevertheless, the Encyclical stood for this view and attempted to assuage the laborerreaders by turning their attention to mechanisms to ensure just compensation as well as charitable institutions and programs that ensure the dignity of the impoverished. Aside from discussing rewards of the afterlife, the Encyclical showed the importance of labor unions to maintain a healthy check-and-balance between employers and laborers as well as Church organizations that accepted the views of all classes of society. The Encyclical also focused on having people from all classes maintain the Christian virtues, citing that, despite humanity’s inherent capacity for greed, there are many who are as charitable as they can be. The Encyclical conceded to allowing the wealthy to spend as
much money as they need in order to maintain their status in life, but that they should exercise humanity in sharing to the needy what they have in excess. In conclusion, the Encyclical was a comprehensive show of labor conditions as well as a well-crafted attempt by the Pope to provide an alternative and to show the institutions that maintain a reasonable amount of check-and-balance. However, despite the soundness of the points made and the sensitivity it has shown to the human condition, I have my reservations as to the overall persuasive value of the Encyclical.