Fr. Dehon on the Significance of the Encyclical
Rerum Novarum [“On the Condition of Workers”],
by Pope Leo XIII, 1891
Rerum Novarum described the widespread malaise. It asserted that, to remedy the problem, justice must work together with charity. It formulated the Church's social dogma which it summarized in three great themes: (1) the right to own property and its limitations; (2) the relationships between capital and labor; and (3) the shocking injustice of the new forms of usury.
Let us review these points. The right to own property and its limitations. Private and personal property is a natural right of humankind. The right to live and to provide for the sustenance of one's family is the basis of the right to private property. It is because you have the right to live that your property must be respected. It is because others have that same right that you owe them your surplus.
The relationships between capital and labor. The immediate result of labor must be sustenance for the worker. The enrichment of the capitalist is in addition to that, if it is possible at all. Labor must provide the worker with the wherewithal to sustain his life in the broadest meaning of the words. The working conditions must not entail unjust obstacles to the legitimate development of his physical life, his domestic life, or his moral and religious life, because every person has the right to the fullness of those three dimensions of development.
Cumulative justice prohibits usury in contracts, that is, profit which is not justified and whose only foundation is in deceit or oppression of the weak. The old forms of usury are met again, with new gravity, in modern agiotage [the practice of making speculation a business, that is, to buy and sell with no purpose other than to seek a quick or considerable profit.] and in the present system of credit.
If those principles of social life had been respected, the malaise would not exist. Leo XIII goes on to tell us the general principle behind the solutions to be effected, and the very nature of those solutions.
True Christianity, the Gospel fully understood and fully implemented, is the solution to the social malaise. But by that Leo XIII does not mean the conservative Catholics who see no means of salvation other than two personal virtues: the Christian beneficence of the master and the Christian resignation of the worker. Of course, the encyclical proclaims the efficacy of charity and resignation; but it gives priority to the achievement of justice.
From the beginning of the encyclical, Leo XIII notes the intolerable evils from which workers are suffering. He does not represent them as inevitable forms of suffering, but as social and personal injustices. He does not ask Catholics to mitigate those injustices through charity; he demands that they be suppressed.
Christian Social Renewal, 7th Lecture: “The Democratic Program”