Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Leo XIII And Labour

by Charles J. O'Malley



There are men who make history and there are documents that make civilization. Leo XIII. was one of the greatest makers of history that the Nineteenth century knew. He was more. Generations hence it will be said of him that he was one of the greatest builders of civilization his age produced. It is a matter of simple truth to say that no states man of his day exerted as powerful an influence on the age, and it is certain no thinker of the century just closed did so much to restore right social order for the future. During life Pope Leo XIII was often classed with Gladstone and Bismarck; yet he was greater than they. They were at best, solicitious only for the welfare of single nations. Leo XIII struggled to bring about the uplift of all nations. No man of his age strove so earnestly to make universal justice prevail. More spiritual than Gladstone, more farseeing than Bismarck, more philosophical than both combined, after ages will show that in the work of preserving social order he was the greatest force the Nineteenth century produced.

A proof of this may be found in the now world-famous encyclical, "On the Condition of Labor." Officially styled the encyclical Rerum Novarum, obviously it had its base in that vigorous pronouncement against Socialism, Communism and Xihilism issued December 28, 1878. The encyclical on labor was issued May 15, 1891, but in reality it must be regarded as a supplement to the former. This is true because political agitators of that day had almost inextricably bound the social question and the question of labor together. In the former Leo had insisted that it was the duty of all who had authority or wealth to make better the condition of those who toil. It was their duty, he asserted, to see that the laborer should have his proper wages. In the latter he insisted even more urgently that justice ought to be done. In the first he warned against the acceptance of false ideals, which, put in operation, would bring about the destruction of Christian faith, the Christian home and that civilization which grew out of Christianity; yet urged at the same time that evils existed which ought to be rooted out. In the latter he showed rulers and employers and those employed how they could be changed without injury to the existing system. The tone of the encyclical was one of sympathy for the oppressed. "Some remedy," he urged, "must be found, and found quickly, for the misery and wretchedness pressing so heavily and so unjustly, even at this moment, on the vast majority of the working classes. The custom of working by contract, and the concentration of so many branches of trade in the hands of a few individuals, have brought about a condition of affairs in which a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the masses of laboring poor a yoke little better than slavery itself."

Strong as this is, and as far-seeing as it is vigorous, the "Great White Shepherd," as some one has called him, was not content with mere statements. The right of man to own private property was next considered. He declared it man's natural right. "To affirm that God has given the earth for the use and enjoyment of the whole human race, is not to deny that private property is lawful. The earth has been granted to mankind in general, not in the sense that all without distinction can deal with it as they like, but rather that no part of it has been assigned forever to any one in particular, and that the limits of private possession have been left to be fixed by man's own industry and by the laws of individual races. Is it just that the fruit of one's own sweat and labor shall be possessed and enjoyed by some one else? As effects follow their cause, so is it just and right that the results of labor should belong to those who have bestowed the labor."

So spoke the "workingman's Pope" on the right of each individual to use and to enjoy that which his toil earned. Yet even this did not fill up the measure of his solicitude. With Socialism preaching its alluring doctrine throughout the earth, he felt that again it must be analyzed and its evil principles exposed. Turning to its main tenet community of goods he showed that it must be rejected, since it would only injure those it would seem to benefit. It would utterly destroy the system of wages and introduce widespread confusion and disorder. It would be impossible, he declared, to reduce civil society to a dead level. Socialists may do their utmost to that end, but all such striving against nature is in vain. There naturally exists among mankind manifold differences of the most important order. People differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal conditions. All this, the Pope goes on to explain, is part of the lot of humanity, and has to be accepted as such. ~No strength and no artifice will ever succeed in wholly banishing from human life some of the ills and inequalities which beset it. The Pope utterly condemns the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the capitalist and laborer are intended by nature to live in conflict. Capital cannot do without labor or labor with out capital. In the precepts of religion, the Pope declares, is to be found the guidance of each class with regard to its duties towards others. Religion teaches the laboring class to carry out honestly and fairly all equitable agreements entered into; never to injure the property or to attack the person of an employer; never to resort to violence or to engage in any riot or disorder. Religion teaches the wealthy owner and employer that their work-people are not to be accounted their bondmen, and that it is shameful and inhuman to treat men like chattels to make money by, or to look upon them merely as so much muscle or physical power. The employer must never tax his work people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their age or sex. All masters of labor "should be mindful of this, that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and 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."

It is often objected by Socialist leaders of our day that Leo XIII analyzed existing evils well, but prescribed no remedy. The statement is untrue as often as it is made. We have seen that he advised the application of the teachings of Christianity. He even went further. He urged the organization of societies of Christian workingmen, and declared that they ought to be protected by the state. The state, moreover, he asserts, ought to protect the rights of those who toil by seeing to it that just laws be passed and enforced protecting the interests of laborers. Shorter hours ought to be provided, the virtue of female laborers ought to be insured by legal enactment, and finally child labor ought to be abolished by the state. Every person who labors ought to be given wages sufficient to provide frugal comforts for himself and family. The law of the various countries, declared this statesman, ought to be so executed that they shall make for justice. Since justice is all that can be desired, what more do the agitators desire? "What other could they expect Leo XIII to suggest?

Here it may be well to ask how this tremendously important document was received by the civilized world? Could such a pronouncement be delivered without exciting almost universal comment? Obviously, it could not. Catholic thinkers, of course, applauded; yet it is true that the non-Catholic world was not chary in commendation. In England the London Times declared that it "abounded in observations worthy universal attention, and breathed a spirit of Christian charity which, if imitated, would go far to resolve all the industrial questions of the epoch." The St. James Gazette asserted that it manifested "an ardent love for the working people, many passages being inflamed with an eloquent anger against the inhuman abuses which too often find their way into industry and commerce!" The Guardian, the English High Church organ, warmly commended it, saying that "in all questions which concern labor the Catholic Church instantly puts itself on the side of the working population." "Its effect," continued that journal, "will be of immense importance in the development of the social question, and it will be so, also, without doubt for the future of the Catholic Church. The Anglican Bishop of Winchester declares that if the Pope were not listened to "the world will have to expiate its neglect by some terrible calamities." In France commendation was equally strong from opponents of the church. Barres, a Socialist leader in the Chamber of Deputies, declared that, "given a few years to efface existing mistrusts, and the Democracy would no longer see an enemy in the priest." Leroy-Beaulieu, the Socialist, in "The Papacy, Socialism and Democracy," declared the world was beholding "the return to the stage of one of the greatest actors in history." Emile Olivier, also a Socialist, asked in comment, "when has not the church sided with the poor? When has it ever failed to spread over them its maternal wings?" Vorwarts, the great organ of German Socialism, asserted that the Pope had "gone in advance of all princes and all governments of civilized states, and has resolved the social question. He has resolved the social question so far as it is given to any existing power to resolve it." Now that the church in this country is engaged in a conflict with Socialism, the foregoing quotations certainly have a timely value.

Nor was there lack of analysis and commendation in our own country. The American mind is quick to grasp every discussion that is of value. Nearly two years afterwards the great encyclical was thus analyzed in an address by H. C. Simple, of Montgomery, Ala., in the Columbian Catholic Congress held in Chicago:

The platform of Catholics on the condition of labor was announced by Leo XIII. in the encyclical Kerum Novarum. This paper seeks to gather a syllabus of leading social principles from that immortal document, which called forth letters of thanks from the Emperor of Germany and the President of the French Republic, and which shows that the head of the church as the reverend counselor of states is the father of Christians and the friend of the people.

What task more arduous than to define the rights and the duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and labor? What more perilous than to discuss the foundations of society when every word is scanned by crafty agitators, enemies of peace and order? Yet what more humane than to extinguish the members of the mighty conflict which threatens the very foundations of society, than to alleviate the hardships suffered by the defenseless victims of the un-Christian laws, greedy competition, rapacious usury and despotic monopolies and trusts?

All agree, arid no one can deny, that some remedy must be found, and quickly found, for the misery and wretchedness which press so heavily at this moment on the large majority of the very poor. But where is it to be found?

Socialism steps forward and answers: I have found it; I am the redeemer of society. I will invest all property in the state; I will give it the sole administration, and it shall distribute to each according to his needs. Thus I will abolish poverty and bring back the golden age of universal equality.

"No," replies the Holy Father. "Your project is at once futile, unjust and pernicious. It is futile, for if all goods must forever remain in common, where is the workingman s hope of bettering his condition by industry and economy? Where is his liberty, his inalienable right to invest his wages permanently and profitably, to dispose freely of the fruit of his sweat?

But above all, it is emphatically unjust. Centralization of property in the state violates natural rights. The state cannot take away the right to acquire property, for this right is from God, who made man in His own image and likeness, and said Let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping thing. We see this natural right by the light of pure reason, and see it in ever-recurring necessities, and in nature's first law of self-preservation. We see it in our intelligence, which surveys the vast outward world of countless objects necessary and useful for the support of life, and which joins the future to the present. We see it in our free will, which directs and guides us under things best suited to each of us. And no matter how primitive a condition of man be conceived, even though no state existed, yet if a man occupy for his exclusive use any of the goods of earth or any spot on its surface which no other has occupied, it becomes his, and if besides occupying it he expends on it the labor of his hand or his mind, he stamps it with his own personality, and to dispossess him would be to rob him of his labor.

"This natural right to acquire and hold property is manifested more clearly still in the rights and duties of the father of the family. What right more clear, what duty more sacred for the father than to provide for his offspring against the wretchedness of want in this mortal life ? Yet by what other means can this sacred duty be fulfilled than by this acquisition and ownership of permanent property, to be transmitted by inheritance?

True, the state may regulate exercise of these natural rights, and in the exercise of this power to regulate the transmission of property by inheritance, or testamentary gift, may it not correct to some extent the great evil of our times, the accumulation of millions on millions by single individuals or families, by the imposition of such inheritance taxes as will not only provide some relief to the suffering poor from the heavy burdens of taxation, but secure a fund for the merely frugal support of industrious worldngmen in times of hardship? The state may even enter the domestic circle to protect the members of the family, but the state cannot usurp or absorb the parental authority, or destroy its very life, by assuming the control of all property.


Taken from "Leo XIII: The Great White Shephard of Christendom

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