Pope Francis' Rerun Novarum

Karl Marx famously said that historical events occur twice, first as tragedy and then as farce. So it would seem with the reaction of American conservatives to Evangelii Gaudium, the new 85-page apostolic exhortation issued by Pope Francis. Just days after Sarah Palin fretted that some of the Pope's statements "sound kind of liberal," Rush Limbaugh called Francis' critique of income inequality and trickle-down economics "pure Marxism." Meanwhile, Stuart Varney of Fox News branded the Pope's teachings on social justice "neo-Socialism."

As it turns out, the critics of Pope Francis could have lifted their talking points from any gathering of Gilded Age robber barons 122 years ago. When Pope Leo XIII issued his influential Rerum Novarum in 1891, the defenders of unfettered and unburdened capitalism denounced the Holy Father using much of the same language.

A quick glance back at Leo's "Of New Things" shows that Francis' teachings on social justice are not. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops highlights the critical role Rerum Novarum played in the growth of the American labor movement by encouraging millions of Catholic workers to join unions. As the UCCSB explains:

This groundbreaking social encyclical addresses the dehumanizing conditions in which many workers labor and affirms workers' rights to just wages, rest, and fair treatment, to form unions, and to strike if necessary. Pope Leo XIII upholds individuals' right to hold private property but also notes the role of the state in facilitating distributive justice so that workers can adequately support their families and someday own property of their own. He notes the poor "have a claim to special consideration."

Over a century before Pope Francis warned that trickle-down economics "expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system," Leo XIII cautioned:

The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon, and must chiefly depend upon the assistance of the State. And it is for this reason that wage-earners, since they mostly belong in the mass of the needy, should be specially cared for and protected by the government.

It wasn't Marx but Leo who explained that "the labor of the working class--the exercise of their skill, and the employment of their strength, in the cultivation of the land, and in the workshops of trade--is especially responsible and quite indispensable" before concluding:

It may be truly said that it is only by the labor of working men that States grow rich.

When Pope Leo XIII spoke on the rights of capital and labor, his words were not well-received by the union-bashers of his day--or ours:

Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice.

Like Francis, Leo emphasized both the moral priority of caring for "the least of these" while reminding all of Jesus' guidance that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God."

Therefore, those whom fortune favors are warned that riches do not bring freedom from sorrow and are of no avail for eternal happiness, but rather are obstacles;(9) that the rich should tremble at the threatenings of Jesus Christ - threatenings so unwonted in the mouth of our Lord(10)...

Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God's providence, for the benefit of others.

Almost 125 years and three papal encyclicals later, Pope Francis has reiterated Pope Leo's counsel that workers must not be left "isolated and defenseless" in the face of "the callousness of employers and the greed of unrestrained competition." As he put it last week:

"In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting."

Waiting, that is, for social justice.

(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)


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