This month we remember not only the 120th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s landmark encyclical on the condition of the workers, Rerum Novarum, but also its successor encyclicals, which together have helped build the foundations of Catholic social thought and teaching.
Today, Rerum Novarum is well recognised as the first of the Catholic Church’s social encyclicals. For the first time, the Church formally recognised the right of workers to organise in trade unions. The encyclical also laid out the elements of a just wage that would orient workers’ demands for many decades into the future.
Published in 1891 at the height of the European Industrial Revolution, Rerum Novarum was also a key formative document in the life of the young Joseph Cardijn who was later to found the Young Christian Workers movement. Aged nine years, he read the encyclical aloud to his illiterate father.
It was a document that would have a decisive impact on his whole life as an advocate for the workers, particularly young workers.
Later, in 1931, when Pope Pius XI, published the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno to mark the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, he made specific reference to Cardijn’s emerging YCW movement.
“The ranks of the workers themselves are already giving happy and promising signs of a social reconstruction,” Pope Pius XI wrote. “To Our soul’s great joy, We see in these ranks also the massed companies of young workers, who are receiving the counsel of Divine Grace with willing ears and striving with marvelous zeal to gain their comrades for Christ.” (Paragraph 140)
Thirty years later, Cardijn would suggest to Pope John XXIII that he also write an encyclical to mark the 70th anniversary of Rerum Novarum.
“It is time the Church talked about work again,” Cardijn told Pope John during a private audience in March 1960. “The issue is not the same now in 1960 as it was in the time of Leo XIII or Pius XI.”
“No-one could have foreseen then its present dimensions, its universality, its technological aspect, its influence on every race and on young people generally. An encyclical dealing with the world of work today would have an impact even greater than Rerum Novarum or Quadragesimo.”
“But it needs to be a positive encyclical, open to the collaboration necessary,” Cardijn told the Pope, warning him gently against a document that would simply condemn various evils.
“Write your ideas and send them to me,” the Pope told Cardijn.
The result just over a year later on 15 May 1961 was the encyclical Mater et Magistra.
This was the encyclical that would formally endorse the “see, judge, act” method as part of Catholic social teaching.
“There are three stages which should normally be followed in the reduction of social principles into practice,” Pope John wrote (Paragraph 236).
“First, one reviews the concrete situation; secondly, one forms a judgment on it in the light of these same principles; thirdly, one decides what in the circumstances can and should be done to implement these principles. These are the three stages that are usually expressed in the three terms: look, judge, act.”
Later this teaching would also be taken up by Vatican II, notably in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
For this reason, the Cardijn Community International plans to promote a three year campaign to mark the 50th anniversary of Vatican II from 2012-2015.
In a world where the industrial revolution has reached every continent to become a truly global phenomenon, let us recall Cardijn’s own contribution to the Church’s social thought and practice.
– Cardijn Community International, 17 May 2011