4.2.7 RN, part 4: Workers have a right to form associations/unions (##48-61)

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Unit 4 Contents


In a great deal of public opinion in Western countries, not least the UK, there is a general hostility to trades unions.  This has been especially so in the last 30 years. The Roman Catholic Church stands against such hostility.  Ever since RN, CST has strongly supported workers forming unions to defend their proper interests in their relationships with employers.

It was this stance in Rerum Novarum that was perhaps the most surprising at the time and that put CST in a very distinctive place on the ideological map.  As we have seen, Pope Leo favoured private property and rejected socialism.  These things alone would make his position seem right wing and close to liberal capitalism.  But, as the last screen showed, he also insisted that government should not leave free markets to operate irrespective of outcomes for workers.  And he insisted that it was not only permissible for workers to join together in collective bodies to defend their rights but that this was necessary and highly desirable.  These things made him seem dangerously left wing to the defenders of capitalism – who held that relationships in markets should be between separate individuals, not collective bodies.  Indeed favouring trades unions made him seem socialist to them!

Let us look at what part four of RN actually says.  In fact I have oversimplified things a bit, in two respects.  First, Pope Leo favoured both employers and workers founding their own associations, although his focus is very much on the latter.  Second, he strongly favoured workers forming distinctly Catholic trades unions – i.e., separate ones from those associated with socialism.  This idea of distinctly religious trades unions can seem strange in Britain, as there is almost no history of them.  But in several other European countries there is a long tradition of Catholic workers’ bodies – inspired not least by RN.

Here are some quotations from RN part 4:

[E]mployers and workmen may of themselves effect much…  by means of such associations and organizations as afford opportune aid to those who are in distress, and which draw the two classes more closely together… (#48)

The most important of all [such bodies] are workingmen’s unions… Such unions should be suited to the requirements of this our age – an age of wider education, of different habits, and of far more numerous requirements in daily life. It is gratifying to know that there are actually in existence not a few associations of this nature, consisting either of workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient. (#49)

We read in the pages of holy Writ: “It is better that two should be together than one; for they have the advantage of their society. If one fall he shall be supported by the other. Woe to him that is alone, for when he falleth he hath none to lift him up” (Eccl. 4.9-10). And further: “A brother that is helped by his brother is like a strong city” (Prov. 18.19). (#50)

Very clearly, it is not just any workers’ association which the Pope regards as acceptable.  In particular he warns Catholics against those that are socialist and especially those which, being premised on class conflict, operate with a secret, revolutionary agenda.

Now, there is a good deal of evidence in favour 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 labour, and force working men either to join them or to starve. Under these circumstances Christian working men must do one of two things: either join associations in which their religion will be exposed to peril, or form associations among themselves and unite their forces so as to shake off courageously the yoke of so unrighteous and intolerable an oppression…. [T]he second alternative should by all means be adopted. (#54)

Some have criticized Pope Leo’s position here, arguing that the insistence on distinctly Christian trades unions prevented the unity of the working class in standing up to the employers.  Without doubt this point has some validity, not least as it led some Catholics to believe that it wasn’t legitimate to join socialist unions even when circumstances made it unrealistic to set up distinctly Catholic unions.  Indeed some have argued that the unambiguous rejection of socialism in RN meant that Catholics in some contexts were in effect prevented from having any real way of participating in struggle for justice for workers.

Yet we can see that, in Leo’s perspective, with its characteristically Christian commitment to the common good, his rejection of the Marxist claim that class conflict was fundamental in social relations meant he was bound to commend a form of workers’ activism that was clearly not based on class conflict.  He thought that to commend Christian participation in such socialist activism would be deeply misleading.

The debate around this issue was extensive, and we shall see later in this unit that Pope John Paul II returned to it in Laborem Exercens.  He did so against the extraordinary background of the emergence of the world-changing ‘Solidarity’ trade union in Poland – which was, of course, totally opposed to the Marxist regime in that country.  It was almost as though the contrast between socialist and Catholic workers’ movements that Pope Leo XIII insisted on in Rerum Novarum became pivotally important in the homeland of his successor as Pope nearly a century later – as you will see shortly.

If you have time, read the fourth part of RN about workers’ associations.


Optional reading (8pp)

Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum,

##48-61 (fourth part) and ## 62-64 (conclusion)

You will need to scroll down to #48.



End of 4.2.7

Go to 4.2.8 Rerum Novarum: summing up

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