On May 15, 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the seminal encyclical for workers Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor). This memorable encyclical officially ushered in the transition in Catholic social thought from a basis in agrarian economy to the understanding of the industrial evolution throughout the world through manufacturing and other industries.
Pope Leo XIII secured the foundation that work is at the center of the church's reflection on human identity and activity. Rerum Novarum and many papal encyclicals for the past 125 years have argued for the protection of workers and the right to form a union. With each encyclical, each generation addresses the challenge of the central nature of work within the changing and ever complex situation of its time.
Before it was popularly defined, the concept of globalization was addressed in the first paragraph of Rerum Novarum in connection with new development of industry, new techniques striking out new paths, changed relations of employer and employee, abounding wealth among a very small number and destitution among the masses. This was written in the context of the industrial revolution. Since 1891, each generation is faced with a similar challenge in its efforts to evaluate how developments in industry and technology affect "the condition of the worker."
Many church historians claim that Rerum Novarum is the starting point of an important tradition of Catholic social teaching on the economy, politics, world order, and peace that has served as a compelling alternative to secular politics. For example, within Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XII writes, ". . .by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition." Leo XIII warned of the injustices created by the reliance on the free market while at the same time warning of the dangers of state socialism.
In its day, Rerum Novarum had a threefold effect. First, it was seen as a reformist rather than a radical document by workers' associations. Second, priests, not laity, were urged to take up the cause of the workers. (That has practically reversed itself in 2016. There is a scarcity of labor priests but a surplus of committed lay Catholic labor leaders.) Third, the encyclical took on secular socialism as well as rampant capitalism. A large part of the church's social teaching is determined by important social questions to which social justice is the proper answer. As we rediscover Rerum Novarum, we also uncover salient issues that were as important in 1891 are they are today pertaining to capital and labor.
Explore Pope Francis' environmental encyclical: Get this free readers' guide when you sign up for the weekly Eco Catholic email.
The encyclical captures the spirit of the Industrial Revolution and the rights of workers:
The most important of all are workingmen's unions, for these virtually include all the rest. History attests what excellent results were brought about by the artificer's guilds of olden times. They were the means of affording not only many advantages to the workmen, but in no small degree of promoting the advancement of art, as numerous monuments remain to bear witness. 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 of either workmen alone, or of workmen and employers together, but it were greatly to be desired that they should become more numerous and more efficient. We have spoken of them more than once, yet it will be well to explain here how notably they are needed to show that they exist of their own right and what should be their organization and their mode of action.(49)
Catholic social teaching states that the right to organize is based on the human right of freedom of association that is found in the natural law. The right of workers to freely choose unions necessarily involves their right to decide how they shall decide for or against a union. More importantly, Rerum Novarum marked the bestowal of significant papal approval of emerging Catholic social movements. This gave the impetus to establish the rights of workers to organize into benevolent and protective societies with the twofold objective of implementing corrective reform and encouraging social betterment.
As Catholic union promoters, we staunchly support the Roman Catholic moral teaching on abortion, family values and the danger of the so called right-to-die movement. We also support the 1986 U.S. Catholic Bishops pastoral letter, "Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy." We support the U.S. bishops' teaching on labor unions: "The purpose of unions is not simply to defend existing wages and prerogatives of the fraction of workers who belong to them, but also to enable workers to make positive and creative contributions to the firm, the community, and the larger society in an organized and cooperative way."
It is our hope that the U.S. bishops are just as consistent with Catholic social teachings as they are with Catholic sexual teachings. Both are called to the dignity of creation. The twofold purpose of marriage is mutual love between husband and wife and the procreation of children while Catholic social teaching teaches the dignity of the human person and the creation of a just workforce called unions. However, 125 years later in 2016, the sacramental union of marriage is also threatened, along with the right of labor unions to exist. The number of Catholic sacramental unions and Americans joining private sector unions has declined dramatically in the last 10 years.
We believe there are four major concerns regarding the future of labor unions:
Right to association. In recent years, the AFL-CIO has witnessed an erosion of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 by the courts and the U.S. Congress. In many cases, employers with deep pockets can make it nearly impossible within the law for employees to organize. Proof of this claim lies in recent legislative measures in Wisconsin and Indiana to weaken the rights of public sector unions.
All papal encyclicals dealing with labor unions such as Rerum Novarum, Pope John Paul II's Laborem Exercens, and Pope Benedict XVI's Caritas in Veritate, have one primary point in common. Catholic social teaching is not just seeking charity to alleviate the plight of the poor but true justice for all workers, especially union employees. Nowadays, organized labor faces union-busting schemes by unscrupulous employers who want to eradicate private sector unions. Also, there is a growing number of unenlightened elected officials who want to ban public sector unions in their respective states. Recently, West Virginia became the 26th state to be designated as "right to work," meaning little or no unions.
Currently, we are grateful for the deadlocked Supreme Court vote allowing the teachers' union in California to require dues for all in that public sector profession. We understand and support states' rights and federal law. We hope that our laws continue to support the right to association as does Catholic social teaching.
Immigration. In recent decades, there have been dramatic changes in the age, gender and ethnic make-up of the workforce. This is largely due to undocumented immigrants competing for blue-collar jobs as well as the increase of available work visas for highly trained immigrant workers competing for white collar jobs.
The AFL-CIO is not anti-immigrant. In fact, it supports comprehensive immigration reform with the hope that the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants will, after legalization, wish to join unions. We also note that the majority of the undocumented are Roman Catholics who would formally join their parishes and help support them with their just wages.
Wage theft: The Seventh Commandment and the right to strike. We support the compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic church that the Seventh Commandment, "Thou shall not steal," is not merely about property and stealing but also about social justice and human dignity.
Many corporations have the unrestricted ability to move capital to another nation or another state to exploit the cheapest labor available. This has led to the huge loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs to other nations or, within the U.S., to states that do not uphold union labor laws. This is wage theft that reduces the wages of many eligible workers. There are corporations today that are emotionally and financially committed to foment a union-free environment. Why? They simply do not want to pay a just wage and offer necessary medical and retirement benefits. That is wage theft and is a matter of social justice and the pursuit of human dignity.
In addition, we support the right of Catholic school teachers to strike whenever necessary. Again we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "Recourse to a strike is morally legitimate when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit." If the Catechism approves a legitimate strike, why do many U.S. Catholic pastors and bishops accuse the labor leaders of being anti-Catholic? Again, that is wage theft.
Climate change. Rerum Novarum is fulfilled by Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si.' Catholic social teaching has been communicated through a tradition of papal, conciliar, and episcopal documents.
The relationship between human work and care for the environment is wonderfully addressed in Laudato Si' inspired by the "Canticle of Creation" by St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology. This encyclical is primarily a message of hope and a call to action. In the first chapter, he alludes to the earth as "our common home" and that we need to take precious care of it. Like Pope Leo XIII 125 years ago, Pope Francis acknowledges that the "acceleration of changes" affecting humanity and the planet coupled with a "more intensified pace of like and work" are at odds with the "naturally slow pace" of biological evolution.
The world has changed dramatically in the 125 years since Rerum Novarum. But like his predecessor, Pope Francis warns "the goals of this rapid and constant change are not necessarily geared to the common good or to the integral and sustainable human development."
In the third chapter of Laudato Si', Pope Francis also asserts the human roots of the ecological crisis. He maintains the need to protect employment and the conditions of working people. "Any approach to an integral ecology, which by definition does not exclude human beings, needs to take account of the value of labour … because to stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short term financial gain, is bad business for society." The antecedent for this teaching is based in Rerum Novarum.
However, the issue of climate change is no longer a scientific debate. It is a political debate that Pope Francis acknowledged in his address to the United Nations in September 2015. He referred to worker justice and the rights of workers as a shared responsibility of all nations. The pope emphasized the common good in society and that everything in the world is connected. By being connected to our ecological and labor crises we can find viable solutions to take care of "our common home" together.
By proclaiming the dignity of work and defending the rights of workers, Pope Leo XIII focused on a theme that would recur in Catholic social teaching throughout the following 125 years. Changed conditions in society have precipitated continual development of this tradition to keep current this aspect of church teaching.
From Rerum Novarum until now, additional encyclicals have addressed the rights of workers and the dignity of every human person. We assert that the most important encyclical written since that seminal work, is Pope Francis' Laudato Si' which is addressed not only to Catholics but to all of God's creatures everywhere. Pope Francis addressed not only the plight of workers but the plight of the world where we all live and our shared responsibility to take care of Mother Earth. Protecting the environment is the most certain way to protect the rights of workers both now and in the future.
[Denis M. Hughes is the former president of the New York State AFL-CIO and former chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Board. Franciscan Fr. Brian Jordan is a labor priest, chaplain at St. Francis College, Brooklyn, and chaplain to the New York City union construction workers.]
Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.
We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.