Papal Encyclical on Labor Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As the world confronted the new challenges of industrialization, the resulting social dislocations, and answers offered by anarchism and socialism, Pope Leo XIII presented a Roman Catholic perspective founded on traditional theology and the realities of the changing social, political, and economic environment. Although not all embraced it, his encyclical Rerum novarum served as a seminal statement on labor that shaped papal attitudes for seven decades.

Summary of Event

The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the increasingly frenetic industrialization of Europe and North America. On both continents, this process produced societies that faced new and revolutionary changes that severely challenged the traditional relationships between employers and employees, as well as between states and their citizens. Burgeoning populations ensured ample labor forces but also seemed to recommend a cold and often cruel treatment of this “factor of production” to owners and managers. European nation-states, many of which had only recently come into existence as modern nation-states, struggled to find a role in this rapidly changing landscape and wavered between paternalistic interference and negligent laissez-faire policies. Leo XIII [p]Leo XIII[Leo 13];encyclical on labor Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclical on labor Labor;papal encyclical on [kw]Papal Encyclical on Labor (May 15, 1891) [kw]Encyclical on Labor, Papal (May 15, 1891) [kw]Labor, Papal Encyclical on (May 15, 1891) Leo XIII [p]Leo XIII[Leo 13];encyclical on labor Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclical on labor Labor;papal encyclical on [g]Italy;May 15, 1891: Papal Encyclical on Labor[5760] [c]Religion and theology;May 15, 1891: Papal Encyclical on Labor[5760] [c]Business and labor;May 15, 1891: Papal Encyclical on Labor[5760] Liberatore, Matteo Mazzella, Camillo Zigliara, Tommaso Maria

Early trade unionism promised some relief and power for the working classes, but this movement met strong opposition from capitalist owners and the liberal governments that tended to reflect their values. In the United States, the picture was much the same, as “robber barons” and ambitious industrialists took advantage of every opportunity to reduce costs and maximize profits, while the federal government remained ambivalent. Although Christianity Christianity;and capitalism[Capitalism] had a long tradition of moral teaching on many social issues, this new and evolving situation—which pitted capitalism, private property rights, and ownership privileges against the social, economic, and even physical welfare of the laboring classes—demanded to be addressed by the most powerful of Christian voices, that of the Roman Catholic pope.

The very forces that had unleashed industrialization, modern nationalism, and increasing secularization in society had weakened papal authority and muffled its voice. Indeed, the papacy was noted for its championing of the interests of the wealthy European classes, the traditional allies of the clerical class. Nonetheless, in the person of Pope Leo XIII, the Roman Catholic Church had a leader who was unusually engaged in contemporary social matters and who was willing to use his pulpit for the common good.

Vincenzo Gioacchino Pecci, who took the name Leo XIII upon being elected pope in 1878, was a diplomatic and well-traveled cleric who understood the political and economic forces at work in industrializing Europe better than did most leaders in Rome. Pope Pius IX Pius IX , Leo’s predecessor, had ruled the Catholic world for three decades as an antiliberal autocrat and a self-styled martyr to Italy’s 1870 unification. Leo’s instincts and experience led him to take a different road as supreme pontiff.

As papal political power had disintegrated, Pius had created a powerful diplomatic infrastructure in Catholic Europe and beyond, one that held sway even in such antagonistic states as imperial Germany. Inheriting this tool, Leo went to work establishing a staunch moral voice, disembodied from any political base and beholden to no particular interests. In dealing with states, he deftly balanced traditional Catholic or papal positions with a willingness to compromise on minor matters. He could, at the same time, adopt the works of the thirteenth century theologian Thomas Aquinas as the Church’s official doctrine and applaud achievements of the modern world that did not unduly threaten Church teaching.

During the very first year of his reign, 1878, Leo promulgated Quod apostolici, which spoke out against the class struggle noted and encouraged by Marxism;and Roman Catholic Church[Roman Catholic Church] Marxists and socialists. In Arcanum, two years later, Leo reaffirmed the human family as the basis of society, refuting those who would radically alter fundamental social relationships. As bishop of Perugia, Pecci had befriended many Catholic socialists—while dismissing socialism itself—and had founded the Gardens of Saint Philip Neri, a local Catholic organization that promoted social justice along lines set down by French Catholic workers associations. Even so, when the Catholic Union of Freiburg, which had been established by a Catholic bishop, asked Leo in 1887 to convene an international convention to discuss the major social issues of the day, Leo refused, citing his unwillingness to confront the Italian government. That government, still relatively new, remained steadfastly opposed to any potentially provocative gathering.

Coronation of Pope Leo XIII.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Leo sought a way openly to embrace the growing movement known as Social Catholicism and just as openly to strike a blow against socialism and communism. In the 1880’s, he began collecting information and opinions on the condition of modern labor both from theorists and from those engaged directly with Social Catholicism. With Leo’s encouragement, the Jesuit editors of Cività Cattolica, a journal that incorporated and espoused the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, published a series of articles on social issues and the moral theology that should be brought to bear in understanding and confronting them. Leo then harnessed one of these editors, Matteo Liberatore, Liberatore, Matteo to draft a papal encyclical formally addressing the condition of the working class from these Catholic perspectives. Cardinals Tommaso Maria Zigliara Zigliara, Tommaso Maria and Camillo Mazzella Mazzella, Camillo and several papal secretaries helped shape the work, and Leo polished the final document. It is generally known, as most encyclicals are, by its opening words, Rerum novarum, “of new matters.”

Rerum novarum was issued on May 15, 1891, and is divided into five unequal parts. In the first, Leo utilizes four classic Catholic arguments based on theology and reason that uphold the validity of private property and freedom of its use. With this argument, he sought to buttress the foundations of liberal capitalism and undermine its socialist and communist critics. In the second section, the pope laid out both the theoretical underpinnings of the Church’s role in shaping society and a blueprint for the exercise of that role. Recognizing that the Church had long since lost any ability to enforce its will, Leo outlined the ways in which teaching and preaching could constitute a powerful—and necessary—moral voice to guide all the world’s people.

Leo expanded on the theme of teaching and preaching in the third part of the encyclical, including positive activity by the Church and lay Catholics alike. Provision of social welfare for the needy, promotion of social justice, and organization to oppose arbitrary and oppressive treatment by the powerful classes lay at the heart of Leo’s conception of Catholic-led social action. The fourth part of the encyclical laid out a positive role for the state in providing an environment that was conducive to an equitable and just relationship between capital and labor.

As he rejected socialism, so Leo rejected the laissez-faire state. Instead, he promoted a polity that protected both property rights and the God-given rights of working people to safe and fair workplace conditions, a living wage, and justice in disputes. In the final section of the document, Leo extolled the benefits of voluntary trade unionism and envisioned Catholics creating parallel organizations that would provide voices for the working class and leverage against intransigent capitalists. Leo would have the state embrace such organizations rather than oppose them: He hoped that capitalist states would see their value as bulwarks against socialist or communist alternatives.

Rather than merely condemning exploitation or defending property rights, Leo presented a nuanced and interconnected analysis of contemporary issues and called upon the Church, modern nation-states, workers, and employers to engage symbiotically for the benefit of all. Rerum novarum thus put forward a clearly articulated rationale for social and political action designed to help workers gain social justice without impairing the ability of capitalists to increase profits. It recognized the complexity of the contemporary landscape, while nevertheless envisioning traditional teaching as still not only relevant but crucial to that landscape. The forcefulness of Leo XIII’s vision for the betterment of society made his encyclical a landmark statement in the social history of modernization.


Rerum novarum was the first comprehensive statement of papal attitude toward the problems of labor during the Industrial Revolution. It consistently shaped statements of papal social teaching over the succeeding seven decades, a period sometimes characterized by its “Leonine” policy. Nonetheless, its acceptance was anything but uniform. Leo’s endorsement of the interventionist state fell flat among free market liberals, while his support for private property displeased the more radical among the working classes. Others condemned the papacy for daring to intervene in arguably nonreligious matters. Catholicism, though, could now be accepted as a constructive presence in the industrializing world, and those who operated between the radicals and the hardcore capitalists could view the papacy as a force for moderation rather than a source of traditionalist inertia.

Leo’s vision of a Catholicism that was continually strengthened and made ever more relevant by its engagement in the modern economic and social worlds was left unachieved. He wanted to see the papacy rise from its near-death to a new pinnacle of influence, as Catholic moral law became the foundation of a new, industrialized Western society. Despite its seminal role in articulating Catholic social teaching, however, Rerum novarum neither directed the development of liberal economic development nor halted the progress of leftist political action.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coleman, John, and Gregory Baum, eds. Rerum Novarum: A Hundred Years of Catholic Social Teaching. New York: Trinity Press International, 1991. A centenary compilation of short articles dealing with the impact of Rerum novarum on subsequent developments in Catholic social theory and practice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holland, Joe. Modern Catholic Social Teaching: The Popes Confront the Industrial Age, 1740-1958. New York: Paulist Press, 2003. Focuses on the background to, content of, and ripple effects of Rerum novarum in subsequent papal documents, with substantial coverage of the encyclical itself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">John Paul II. On the Hundredth Anniversary of Rerum Novarum: Centissimus Annus. Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1991. Contains text of John Paul II’s letter, published on the centenary of Rerum novarum, which reflects on the encyclical’s relevance over the century and for Christians in the contemporary world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leo XIII. The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII, 1878-1903: Or, A Light in the Heavens. Rockford, Ill.: Tan Books, 1995. A ready source for the full texts of Rerum novarum and other encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII.

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