Rerum Novarum: 120th Anniversary
A statement from the Australian Bishops Conference
Sunday 15 May 2011 marked the 120th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical Rerum Novarum, which was the genesis of Catholic teaching on the spiritual, economic and social aspects of modern industrial societies.
The Encyclical was very much a product of its time, and even in Australia it had its influence on our evolving industrial relations system.
In many places, events connected with the Industrial Revolution profoundly changed centuries-old societal structures, raising serious problems of justice and posing the first great social question - the labour question - prompted by the conflict between capital and labour. The Church felt the need to become involved and intervene in a new way: the res novae ("new things") brought about by these events represented a challenge to Church teaching and stirred special concern for millions of working people. A new discernment of the situation was needed, a discernment capable of finding appropriate solutions to unfamiliar and unexplored problems.
Rerum Novarum "expounds … the Catholic doctrine on work, the right to property, the principle of collaboration instead of class struggle as the fundamental means for social change, the rights of the weak, the dignity of the poor and the obligations of the rich, the perfecting of justice through charity, on the right to form professional associations" (Congregation for Catholic Education, Guidelines for the Study and Teaching of the Church’s Social Doctrine in the Formation of Priests, Vatican Polyglot Press, Rome, 1988, page 24).
Rerum Novarum became the document inspiring Christian social engagement the point of reference for this engagement. Since its appearance, the Church's social doctrine can be seen as a deeper analysis and expansion of the original nucleus of principles presented in Rerum Novarum.
At various times over the past 120 years, Rerum Novarum has been commemorated by further Encyclicals seeking to address the emergence of new things throughout the world. Many of the new things of the 21st century could not be imagined by Pope Leo XIII, but many of the evils of the nineteenth century are still with us, frequently in the factory systems of the developing world that supply the needs of wealthy nations.
Blessed John Paul II, through his Encyclicals Laborem Exercens (1981) and Centesimus Annus (1991), marking the 90th and 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, expounded and developed Catholic teaching on the centrality of work to the human condition and the requirements of a system that promotes economic progress and the dignity of work.
The nature of work and the rights that flow from it continue to be a central part of modern Catholic social teaching. As much as ever, we affirm that the worker is entitled to a just wage for the work performed and that the wage should be at least sufficient to support the worker and the worker’s dependents.
Catholic social teaching on minimum wages is summarised in the following passage from the Australian Catholic Bishops’ 1991 Pastoral Letter, A Century of Catholic Social Teaching:
"When a person is employed to work full-time for wages, the employer, in strict justice, will pay for an honest day’s work a wage sufficient to enable the worker, even if unskilled, to have the benefits of survival, good health, security and modest comfort. The wage must also allow the worker to provide for the future and acquire the personal property needed for the support of a family. To pressure or trick the worker into taking less is, therefore, unjust."
The Church has long had a strong interest in the protection of workers and their families through a decent wage and employment protection. As the Bishops pointed out in the 1991 Pastoral Letter:
"The publishing and dissemination of Rerum Novarum in 1891 coincided with a period of serious social, political and industrial upheaval in Australia. At the time, the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Moran, was seen as one of our country's outstanding defenders of the rights of workers, many of whom were suffering from the very kind of exploitation denounced by Leo XIII. A number of the lay Catholics, who contributed to the historical growth of those political and industrial organisations which were created to win a more just deal for working people in the following years and the early decades of the twentieth century, were influenced by Rerum Novarum."
In November 2005 the Bishops Conference issued a statement on various aspects of the then proposed Work Choices legislation. One of the matters that concerned the Bishops was the proposed wage-setting provisions. They said:
"Workers are entitled to a wage that allows them to live a fulfilling life and to meet their family obligations. We are concerned that the legislation does not give sufficient emphasis to the objective of fairness in the setting of wages; the provision of a fair safety net by reference to the living standards generally prevailing in Australia; the needs of employees and their families; and the proper assessment of the impact of taxes and welfare support payments. In our view, changes should be made to the proposed legislation to take into account these concerns."
On Monday 16 May 2011, almost exactly 120 years after Rerum Novarum, Fair Work Australia began hearing final submissions in this year's Annual Wage Review. The Australian Catholic Council for Employment Relations has filed extensive submissions in support of low paid workers with family responsibilities.
The Tribunal will make a decision under provisions in the Fair Work Act 2009 that are consistent with the objective stated in the 2005 Statement. However, it is only by the outcomes of the decisions that the success of the legislation can be measured.
We hope for outcomes that are truly consistent with the great vision of Rerum Novarum
, a vision born of the Gospel and no less relevant to the situations we face now than it was to the situation addressed by Pope Leo XIII at the end of the nineteenth century.
« Return to news list