4.2.4 RN, part 2: The role of the Church in teaching and charity (##16-31)

Back to 4.2.3

Unit 4 Contents

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Our run through of RN has two screens on this second part of the encyclical, this one and the next.  We focus here on what it says about the obligations of workers and employers: ##16-25.

In #16, Leo begins by asserting that the Church has a proper role in teaching on the topics addressed in this encyclical.  He says that “by keeping silence we would seem to neglect the duty incumbent on us”.  This is even though many others must also address these topics, namely, “the rulers of States… employers… the wealthy… [and] the working classes themselves, for whom We are pleading” (#16).  No doubt the Pope insisted on the Church’s role in addressing the subject because, at that time as now, many people objected to the Church speaking out on matters of economics and politics.

As the encyclical’s first part made very clear, one of Leo’s clear purposes was to critique socialism.  Next he rejects the idea of a basic conflict of classes, which was central in Marxism.

The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up 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…  Each [class] needs the other: capital cannot do without labour, nor labour without capital.  Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity. (#19)

It is against this background that he emphasizes the duties of both the worker to their employer and of the employer to the worker.  By stressing both, he is rejecting class conflict and implying a strong affirmation of the common good. The following passage is one of the most important in the encyclical, so I’ve reproduced it at length here.  You will notice a few phrases that might seem like something out of the nineteenth century – they are!

[T]he following duties bind… 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…  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 honourable 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 labour 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 labourers… 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” [James 5.4]… (#20, italics added)

Here is a strongly prophetic voice.  You can see why the Pope had to insist on the Church’s right to speak on this subject – plenty of defenders of laissez-faire liberalism would have loathed what he said.

In the lines I’ve put in italics within that quotation, notice the principle of ‘the dignity of the human person’, and two things that follow from it.  It means first that workers must not be treated as “things” – mere instruments – and second that employers must pay a just wage.

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Reflection

Screen 4.1.4 introduced what Leo XIII meant by a ‘just wage’.

What do you think a ‘just wage’ is?

After using this term, Leo XIII said, “Doubtless, before deciding whether wages are fair, many things have to be considered…”

What do you think needs to be considered before deciding that wages are just?

We shall look further at this issue of just wages later on.

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End of 4.2.4

Go to 4.2.5 RN, part 2, continued

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