Rerum novarum

Last updated
Rerum novarum
Latin for 'Of revolutionary change'
Encyclical letter of Pope Leo XIII
C o a Leone XIII.svg
Date15 May 1891
SubjectOn Capital and Labour
Number37 of 85 of the pontificate
 In ipso
Leo XIII. Leo XIII..jpg

Rerum novarum (from its incipit, with the direct translation of the Latin meaning "of revolutionary change" [n 1] ), or Rights and Duties of Capital and Labor, is an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII on 15 May 1891. It was an open letter, passed to all Catholic patriarchs, primates, archbishops and bishops, [5] that addressed the condition of the working classes.


It discussed the relationships and mutual duties between labor and capital, as well as government and its citizens. Of primary concern was the need for some amelioration of "the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class." [6] It supported the rights of labor to form unions, rejected socialism and unrestricted capitalism, while affirming the right to private property.

Rerum Novarum is considered a foundational text of modern Catholic social teaching. [7] Many of the positions in Rerum novarum were supplemented by later encyclicals, in particular Pius XI's Quadragesimo anno (1931), John XXIII's Mater et magistra (1961) and John Paul II's Centesimus annus (1991).


The first draft and content of the encyclical was written by Tommaso Maria Zigliara, professor from 1870 to 1879 at the College of Saint Thomas, the future Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum. Zigliara, a member of seven Roman congregations including the Congregation for Studies, was a co-founder of the Academia Romano di San Tommaso in 1870. Zigliara's fame as a scholar at the forefront of the Thomist revival at the time of his rectorship of the College of St. Thomas after 1873 was widespread in Rome and elsewhere. [8] [9] "Zigliara also helped prepare the great encyclicals Aeterni Patris and Rerum novarum and strongly opposed traditionalism and ontologism in favor of the moderate realism of Aquinas." [10]

Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler and Cardinal Henry Edward Manning were also influential in its composition.


Rerum novarum is subtitled "On the Conditions of Labor". In this document, Pope Leo XIII articulated the Catholic Church's response to the social conflict that had risen in the wake of capitalism and industrialization and that had led to the rise of socialism and communism as ideologies.

The pope declared that the role of the state is to promote social justice through the protection of rights, while the Church must speak out on social issues in order to teach correct social principles and ensure class harmony (rather than class conflict). He restated the Church's long-standing teaching regarding the crucial importance of private property rights, but recognized, in one of the best-known passages of the encyclical, that the free operation of market forces must be tempered by moral considerations:

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice. [11]

Rerum novarum is remarkable for its vivid depiction of the plight of the nineteenth-century urban poor and for its condemnation of unrestricted capitalism. Among the remedies it prescribed were the formation of trade unions and the introduction of collective bargaining, particularly as an alternative to state intervention.

Although the encyclical follows the lines of the traditional teaching concerning the rights and duties of property and the relations of employer and employee, it applies the old doctrines specifically to modern conditions. [12] Leo first quotes Thomas Aquinas in affirming that private property is a fundamental principle of natural law. He then quotes Gregory the Great regarding its proper use: ""He that hath a talent, let him see that he hide it not; he that hath abundance, let him quicken himself to mercy and generosity; he that hath art and skill, let him do his best to share the use and the utility hereof with his neighbor." [13] Liberalism also affirms the right to private property, but socialism[ citation needed ] and communism do not.

Rerum novarum also recognized that the poor have a special status in consideration of social issues: the modern Catholic principle of the "preferential option for the poor" and the notion that God is on the side of the poor were expressed in this document. [14]

Rights and duties

As a framework for building social harmony, the pope proposed the idea of rights and duties. For example, workers have rights to a fair wage and reasonable working conditions, but they also have duties to their employers; likewise employers have rights and also have duties to their workers. Some of the duties of workers are:

Some of the duties of employers are:

The Church by reminding workers and employers of their rights and duties can help to form and activate people's conscience. However, the pope also recommended that civil authorities take a role in protecting workers' rights and in keeping the peace. The law should intervene no further than is necessary to stop abuses. [15] In many cases, governments had acted solely to support the interests of businesses, while suppressing workers attempting to organize unions to achieve better working conditions.


The encyclical mentions several fundamental principles to guide relationships between capital and labor.

Dignity of the person

Leo states that, "...according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood." [16] He maintains that a person's dignity derives from the fact that he/she is created in the image of God and endowed with free will and an immortal soul. [17]

Guidelines to maintain the respect and dignity of the person in the workplace would therefore indicate:

The pope specifically mentioned work in the mines, and outdoor work in certain seasons, as dangerous to health and requiring additional protections. He condemned the use of child labor as interfering with education and the development of children.

Fair wages are defined in Rerum novarum as at least a living wage, but Leo recommended paying more than that: enough to support the worker, his wife and family, with a little savings leftover so that the worker can improve his condition over time. [18] He also preferred that women work at home. [19]

Common good

Without recommending one form of government over another, Leo put forth some principles for the appropriate role of the State in good government. The primary purpose of a State is to provide for the common good. All people have equal dignity regardless of social class, and a good government protects the rights and cares for the needs of all its members, both rich and poor. Leo also pointed out that everyone is in some way a contributor to the common good and everyone's contribution is important.

Pope Leo XIII points out that no one should be forced to share his goods; however, when one is blessed with material wealth, one should use this to benefit as many others as possible. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists three principal aspects of the common good: 1) respect for the human person and his rights; 2) social well-being and development; and 3) peace, which is "the stability and security of a just order." [20]


Pope Leo strongly criticized socialism in that it seeks to replace the rights and duties of parents, families and communities with the supervision of the state. The civil government should not intrude into and exercise control over the family, the basic building block of society. However, if a family finds itself in exceeding distress due to illness, injury, or natural disaster it is right that extreme necessity be met by public aid, since each family is a part of the commonwealth. By the same token, if within a household there occur grave disturbance of mutual rights, public authority should intervene to force each party to yield to the other its proper due. They should only intervene when a family or community is unable or unwilling to fulfill their rights and duties in regard to its members. [17]

Rights and duties of property ownership

Despite growing support for measures such as a land-value tax at the time it was written, Rerum novarum strongly asserts the right to own private property, including land, 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." [21]

The right to own property does not mean absolute freedom in the use of money, but carries responsibilities with it. Leo encouraged the wealthy to meet their own needs, the needs of their families, and to maintain a "becoming" standard of living. But they have a responsibility to give alms from what is left over. This is not a law, but a moral obligation.

Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God's providence, for the benefit of others. [21]

Preferential option for the poor

Leo emphasized the dignity of the poor and working classes.

As for those who possess not the gifts of fortune, they are taught by the Church that in God's sight poverty is no disgrace, and that there is nothing to be ashamed of in earning their bread by labor. [22]

God Himself seems to incline rather to those who suffer misfortune; for Jesus Christ calls the poor "blessed"; (Matt.5:3) He lovingly invites those in labor and grief to come to Him for solace; (Matt. 11:28) and He displays the tenderest charity toward the lowly and the oppressed. [23]

The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government. [24]

This principle of the preferential option for the poor was developed more fully in writings of later popes.

Right of association

Leo distinguished the larger, civil society (also called the commonwealth, or public society), and smaller, private societies which exist within it. The civil society exists to protect the common good and preserve the rights of all equally. Private societies are diverse and exist for various purposes within the civil society. Trade unions are one type of private society, and a special focus of this encyclical: "The most important of all are workingmen's unions, for these virtually include all the rest. ... it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient." [25] Other examples of private societies are families, business partnerships, and religious orders.

Leo strongly supported the right of private societies to exist and self-regulate:

Private societies, then, although they exist within the body politic, and are severally part of the commonwealth, cannot nevertheless be absolutely, and as such, prohibited by public authority. For, to enter into a "society" of this kind is the natural right of man; and the State has for its office to protect natural rights, not to destroy them.... [26]

The State should watch over these societies of citizens banded together in accordance with their rights, but it should not thrust itself into their peculiar concerns and their organization, for things move and live by the spirit inspiring them, and may be killed by the rough grasp of a hand from without. [27]

Leo supported unions, yet opposed at least some parts of the then emerging labor movement. He urged workers, if their union seemed on the wrong track, to form alternative associations.

Now, there is a good deal of evidence in favor of the opinion that many of these societies are in the hands of secret leaders, and are managed on principles ill-according with Christianity and the public well-being; and that they do their utmost to get within their grasp the whole field of labor, and force working men either to join them or to starve. [28]

He deplored situations where governments suppressed religious orders and other Catholic organizations.

Impact and legacy

Highlights of the encyclical

Paragraph 19:

The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. 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. Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvellous and manifold. First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice. Wikisource-logo.svg Paragraph 19 .

Paragraph 20:

Of these duties, the following bind the proletarian and the worker: fully and faithfully to perform the work which has been freely and equitably agreed upon; never to injure the property, nor to outrage the person, of an employer; never to resort to violence in defending their own cause, nor to engage in riot or disorder; and to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss. The following duties bind the wealthy owner and the employer: not to look upon their work-people as their bondsmen, but to respect in every man his dignity as a person ennobled by Christian character. They are reminded that, according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood; but to misuse men as though they were things in the pursuit of gain, or to value them solely for their physical powers—that is truly shameful and inhuman. Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex and age. His great and principal duty is to give every one what is just. Doubtless, before deciding whether wages are fair, many things have to be considered; but wealthy owners and all masters of labor should be mindful of this—that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven. "Behold, the hire of the laborers … which by fraud has been kept back by you, crieth; and the cry of them hath entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth." Lastly, the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should in proportion to their scantiness be accounted sacred. Were these precepts carefully obeyed and followed out, would they not be sufficient of themselves to keep under all strife and all its causes? Wikisource-logo.svg Paragraph 20 .

Paragraph 22:

Therefore, those whom fortune favors are warned that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles; that the rich should tremble at the threatenings of Jesus Christ—threatenings so unwonted in the mouth of our Lord(10) and that a most strict account must be given to the Supreme Judge for all we possess. Wikisource-logo.svg Paragraph 22 .

Impact on Portugal

With the regime established in Portugal under António de Oliveira Salazar in the 1930s, many key ideas from the encyclical were incorporated into Portuguese law. The Estado Novo promulgated by Salazar accepted the idea of corporatism as an economic model, especially in labor relations. According to historian Howard J. Wiarda, its basic policies were deeply rooted in European Catholic social thought, especially those deriving from Rerum Novarum. Portuguese intellectuals, workers organizations and trade unions and other study groups were everywhere present after 1890 in many Portuguese Republican circles, as well as the conservative circles that produced Salazar. Wiarda concludes, that the Catholic social movement was not only powerful in its own right but it also fitted in an harmonized nicely with an older Portuguese history and political culture which emphasized a natural law tradition, patrimonialism, centralized direction and control, and the 'natural' orders and hierarchies of society. [32]

See also


  1. The opening words in Latin are "Rerum novarum semel excitata cupidine", [1] which in the official English translation is rendered "the spirit of revolutionary change". [2] [3] Rerum novarum is the genitive case of res novae, which literally means "new things" but idiomatically has meant "political innovations" or "revolution" since at least the days of Cicero. [3] [4] John Molony argues that the word "revolution" is misleading in the context, and that a more appropriate rendering of the Latin would be "the burning desire for change". [3]


Related Research Articles

Distributism is an economic theory asserting that the world's productive assets should be widely owned rather than concentrated.

Pope Leo XIII 256th Pope of the Catholic Church

Pope Leo XIII was the head of the Catholic Church from 20 February 1878 to his death. He was the oldest pope, and had the third-longest confirmed pontificate, behind those of Pius IX and John Paul II.

Living wage Minimum income necessary to meet basic needs

A living wage is defined as the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs. This is not the same as a subsistence wage, which refers to a biological minimum. Needs are defined to include food, housing, and other essential needs such as clothing. The goal of a living wage is to allow a worker to afford a basic but decent standard of living through employment without government subsidies. Due to the flexible nature of the term "needs", there is not one universally accepted measure of what a living wage is and as such it varies by location and household type. A related concept is that of a family wage – one sufficient to not only support oneself, but also to raise a family.

Quadragesimo anno is an encyclical issued by Pope Pius XI on 15 May 1931, 40 years after Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum, further developing Catholic social teaching. Unlike Leo XIII, who addressed the condition of workers, Pius XI discusses the ethical implications of the social and economic order. He describes the major dangers for human freedom and dignity arising from unrestrained capitalism, socialism, and totalitarian communism. He also calls for the reconstruction of the social order based on the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

Catholic social teaching is the Catholic doctrines on matters of human dignity and common good in society. The ideas address oppression, the role of the state, subsidiarity, social organization, concern for social justice, and issues of wealth distribution. Its foundations are widely considered to have been laid by Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical letter Rerum novarum, which advocated economic distributism. Its roots can be traced to the writings of Catholic thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo, and is also derived from concepts present in the Bible and the cultures of the ancient Near East.

Tommaso Maria Zigliara Roman Catholic Cardinal

Tommaso Maria Zigliara, OP was a Roman Catholic priest of the Dominican Order, a theologian, philosopher and a cardinal.

Aeterni Patris was an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII in August 1879,. It was subtitled "On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy in Catholic Schools in the Spirit of the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas". The aim of the encyclical was to advance the revival of Scholastic philosophy.

Centesimus annus is an encyclical which was written by Pope John Paul II in 1991 on the hundredth anniversary of Rerum novarum, an encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. It is part of a larger body of writings, known as Catholic social teaching, that trace their origin to Rerum novarum and ultimately the New Testament.

Mater et magistra is the encyclical written by Pope John XXIII on the topic of "Christianity and Social Progress". It was promulgated on 15 May 1961. The title means "mother and teacher", referring to the role of the church. It describes a necessity to work towards authentic community in order to promote human dignity. It taught that the state must sometimes intervene in matters of health care, education, and housing.

Luigi Taparelli Italian scholar

Luigi Taparelli was an Italian Catholic scholar of the Society of Jesus who coined the term social justice.

Laborem exercens is an encyclical written by Pope John Paul II in 1981, on human work. It is part of the larger body of Catholic social teaching, which traces its origin to Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum.

Divini Redemptoris is an anti-communist encyclical issued by Pope Pius XI. It was published on 19 March 1937. In this encyclical, the pope sets out to "expose once more in a brief synthesis the principles of atheistic Communism as they are manifested chiefly in bolshevism".

Octogesima adveniens Apostolic letter by pope Paul VI

Octogesima adveniens is the incipit of the 14 May 1971 Apostolic Letter addressed by Pope Paul VI to Cardinal Maurice Roy, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, on the occasion of the eightieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum. Generally known as A Call to Action on the Eightieth Anniversary of Rerum novarum, it discusses themes such as securing democratic foundations in society.

Social teachings of the papacy gives a succinct review of salient features in the papal social encyclicals beginning with Rerum novarum, the groundbreaking encyclical of Pope Leo XIII in 1891, and going to the present time.

<i>Caritas in veritate</i> encyclical

Caritas in veritate is the third and last encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, and his first social encyclical. It was signed on 29 June 2009 and was published on 7 July 2009. It was initially published in Italian, English, French, German, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Catholic social activism in the United States is the practical application of the notions of Catholic social teaching into American public life. Its roots can be traced to the 19th century encyclical Rerum novarum of Pope Leo XIII.

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.

<i>Quamquam pluries</i> encyclical

Quamquam pluries is an encyclical on Saint Joseph by Pope Leo XIII. It was issued on August 15, 1889 in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Quod apostolici muneris is the second encyclical of Pope Leo XIII. It was published on 28 December 1878.

Rerum Novarum Centre

Rerum Novarum Centre, Taipei, increased operations in 1971 but had roots going back to Jesuit social services in Taiwan since the 1950s. The Centre tries to meet the major social and legal needs of native and foreign workers in the greater Taipei area, while also responding to emergencies and to the needs of the aboriginal peoples of Northern Taiwan.


  1. "Rerum novarum". The Tablet . 77 (2663): 5. 23 May 1891.
  2. Rerum novarum, p. 1
  3. 1 2 3 Molony, John (2006). "10: Christian social thought; A: Catholic social teaching". In Gilley, Sheridan; Stanley, Brian (eds.). World Christianities c.1815–c.1914. Cambridge History of Christianity. Vol.8. Cambridge University Press. pp. 148–149. ISBN   978-0-521-81456-0 . Retrieved 19 February 2014.
  4. Lewis, Charlton T.; Short, Charles (1879). "novus". A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews' edition of Freund's Latin dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press. But, in gen., novae res signifies political innovations, a revolution
  5. "wiki article Encyclical, section Catholic usage
  6. Rerum novarum, §3
  7. "Rerum Novarum (The Condition of Labor), Berkley Center, Georgetown University
  8. McInerny, Ralph (1968). New Themes in Christian Philosophy. Ardent Media. p. 177.
  9. "Ite ad Thomam: "Go to Thomas!": There Was Thomism Before Aeterni Patris" . Retrieved 26 October 2014.
  10. Benedict Ashley, The Dominicans, 9 "The Age of Compromise," "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-12-13. Retrieved 2013-08-20.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Accessed 19, 2013
  11. Rerum novarum, p. 45
  12. 1 2 Ryan, John Augustine. "Rerum Novarum." The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 5 October 2016
  13. Gregory the Great. Hom. in Evang., 9, n. 7 (PL 76, 1109B)
  14. The Busy Christian’s Guide to Social Teaching.
  15. Rerum novarum, p. 36
  16. Rerum novarum §20.
  17. 1 2 3 Lanari, Barbara. "Rerum Novarum and Seven Principles of Catholic Social Doctrine", Homiletic & Pastoral Review , December 2009
  18. Rerum novarum, p. 46
  19. Rerum novarum, p. 42
  20. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §§1907-1909
  21. 1 2 Rerum novarum, p. 22
  22. Rerum novarum, p. 21
  23. Rerum novarum, p. 24
  24. Rerum novarum, p. 37
  25. Rerum novarum, p. 49
  26. Rerum novarum, p. 51
  27. Rerum novarum, p. 55
  28. Rerum novarum, p. 54
  29. Brady, p. 60.
  30. Brady, pp. 74-76
  31. Puirseil, Niamh (May 2016). "Labour in Name Only". Jacobin. New York: Jacobin Foundation. p. 67. Retrieved August 2, 2020.
  32. Howard J. Wiarda, "The Portuguese Corporative System: Basic Structures and Current Functions." Iberian studies 2#2 1973) pp 73-80, quoting page 74.

Further reading