4.2.2 Rerum Novarum: introduction

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Unit 4 Contents

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In one of the best books on CST, Donal Dorr (who was referred to in Unit 3, 3.5.1),  says this about Rerum Novarum:

Though the content of Leo’s encyclical was important and remains important, what was perhaps even more important was the character of the document as a cry of protest against the exploitation of poor workers.  It is not so much the detail of what Leo had to say that was significant but the fact that he [spoke] out at that time, intervening in a most solemn way in a burning issue of the day.  His intervention meant that the Church… was seen to be taking a stand on behalf of the poor.1

Dorr agrees with an earlier writer, Alec Vidler, who said that Rerum Novarum “had a truly epoch-making effect in driving home the idea that Catholics must have a social conscience” (Vidler quoted in Dorr, p. 15).

Especially the first of these quotations puts across why RN can be seen as within the prophetic strand of the Church’s witness.  What did the encyclical actually say?   Relative to other main encyclicals in CST, it is a fairly short document (c.14,000 words).  Apart from its introduction and conclusion, it can be seen as having four main parts.

Introduction (##1-3)

1. Everyone has a natural right to private property (##4-15)

2. The role of the Church in teaching and charity (##16-31), including its teaching on the obligations of employers and workers

3. The role of government in ensuring just working conditions (##32-47)

4. Workers have a right to form associations/unions (##48-61)

Conclusion (##62-64)

This division into four main parts is not found in the original text.  But it corresponds with how some commentators have distinguished the main subjects addressed in Rerum Novarum.  Notice that each of parts 2 to 4 is about the proper role of certain groups in society.

Note about section nos In that outline of the structure of RN, the paragraph or section numbers in brackets are as in the ‘official’ text accessible at www.vatican.va.  Some other editions of the encyclical have different numbering of sections, so if you refer to a version other than that on the Vatican’s website you will need to check whether its numbering corresponds with that.2

Introduction: ##1-3

The prophetic character of the document is clear from the opening paragraphs, as noted in Unit 2 of the module (2.1.5).  Here is the quotation given there:

[W]e clearly see… that some opportune remedy must be found quickly for the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class… [I]t has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition… To this must be added that the hiring of labour and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself. (#3)

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End of 4.2.2

Go to 4.2.3 RN, part 1: A natural right to private property

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  1. D. Dorr, Option for the Poor: A Hundred Years of Catholic Social Teaching (2nd ed. Orbis, 1992), p. 14. 

  2. One with different numbering is the Study Edition published by the Catholic Truth Society in 1983, which has notes by Joseph Kirwan who was Principal of Plater College at the time. 

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