A Revolutionary Pope for Revolutionary Times

Eighty-one year old men are not the first people who come to mind when we hear the word “revolutionary.” But 125 years ago, one such man—Vincenzo Pecci, better known to history as Pope Leo XIII—did something radical. By issuing the first modern social encyclical, Rerum Novarum, he ushered in a new era for Catholicism’s relationship with what we often call “modernity,” especially the world created by the Industrial Revolution and the upheaval in ideas precipitated by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

This wasn’t the first occasion that Leo entered into discussions of political economy. His second encyclical, Quod Apostolici Muneris (1878), promulgated just 10 months into his pontificate dealt directly with the topic of socialism. Not mincing his words, Leo bluntly stated that socialism—whatever its form—corrupted the state, damaged the family, violated legitimate property rights, contradicted the commandment against theft, and, above all, was contrary to divine and natural law.

That’s strong stuff. Yet, as Rerum Novarum illustrated, Pope Leo wasn’t a libertarian. But then neither was Adam Smith, at least by contemporary standards. Certainly, Leo admired the French Catholic free market liberal, Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850), who’s buried in Eglise Saint Louis des Français in Rome. In a pastoral letter published only 18 months before being elected pope, the-then Cardinal Pecci of Perugia wrote: “A celebrated French economist, Bastiat, has grouped and shown as in a picture the multiplied benefits man finds in society.” That said, Leo was not blind to the social turmoil (or what the twentieth-century economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction”) that’s part-and-parcel of capital-intensive market economies.

Critically Engaging Modernity
Pope Leo wasn’t interested in trying to recreate a pre-capitalist world or even promoting some type of social democracy. While utterly uncompromising on matters of faith and morals, Leo refused to wed the Catholic Church to a sometimes-romanticized past. Instead he wanted Catholics to take seriously what Rerum Novarum’s first sentence described as “That spirit of revolutionary change” which was upending old certainties to which some Catholics, battered by the forces unleashed by the French Revolution, were understandably inclined to cling.

This, I’d suggest, is the broad context in which Rerum Novarum should be read. Between 1878 and 1903, Leo issued an astonishing 85 encyclicals. Many dealt squarely with the political, social, and economic challenges associated with the “new things” that, having started in Western Europe and North America, were engulfing the globe. In this regard, Leo arguably showed himself to be a revolutionary pope made for revolutionary times.

Many practical steps were taken during Leo XIII’s pontificate to better position the Church in the modern world so it could undertake its core mission of spreading the Gospel. Leo initiated, for example, negotiations that gradually ended the Kulturkampf launched by Imperial Germany against its Catholic subjects in the 1870s. Here Leo was aided by Otto von Bismarck’s recognition that his assault against the Catholic Church in Germany had failed. Moreover, Bismarck needed Germany’s instinctively anti-socialist Catholics if he wanted to contain the rise of socialism in Germany. Within ten years of Leo’s election to the papacy, most of Bismarck’s anti-Catholic legislation had been repealed or gutted.

Another Leonine move involved the pope’s distancing of the Church from the royalist cause, or, more precisely, to affirm that the Church could accommodate itself to a variety of political arrangements. That was one purpose of his 1892 encyclical Au Milieu des Sollicitudes. As the French title suggests, this text indicated to Catholics in France that they weren’t obliged to support a monarchical regime and could reconcile themselves to the Third Republic. Despite the encyclical acknowledging the French Revolution’s often viciously anti-Catholic dimension, many French Catholics were shocked by Leo’s words. Yet, despite the ongoing conflict between France’s Catholics and the Republic which underpinned the Dreyfus Affair and eventually led to France’s 1905 law of separation and the expulsion of religious orders, the encyclical’s long term-effect was to detach the Catholic Church from entanglement in throne-and-altar arrangements.

In this light, we see that Rerum Novarum forms part of a distinct papal program. Though the encyclical reiterates his earlier denunciation of socialism, Leo does not present industrial capitalism as something to be opposed holus bolus. Indeed, the text rigorously affirms—without absolutizing—private property (using language quite close to that of John Locke); insists that there are natural inequalities willed by God which are necessary for society to flourish; and warns against excessive state economic intervention, especially efforts to replace the Church’s charitable and anti-poverty work with government agencies.

There is in fact no call in Rerum Novarum for industrial capitalism to be somehow replaced with an entirely different economic system. Leo was more concerned with ameliorating capitalism’s disruptive social effects. Hence, while lamenting the disappearance of guilds (many of which had degenerated into closed shops and vehicles for protectionism), Leo endorsed the in-principle legitimacy of trade unions. Yet he was careful to ground unions on the principle of free association: the same principle, incidentally, that is central to the processes of contract and free exchange which are indispensable for market economies. This was accompanied by Leo stressing that neither contractual arrangements nor free exchange were exempt from the demands of justice. It was not enough, Leo held, for two people to agree for the terms of a contract to be just. Commutative justice, as indispensable as it is, wasn’t the only form of justice. It was subordinated to the demands of general or legal justice.

The Leonine Case for Freedom
In case this language of commutative and legal justice sounds familiar, that’s because it harkens back to Aquinas and the entire natural law tradition. Rerum Novarum references Aquinas many times as it uses natural law reasoning to better understand the new things of the time. Aquinas himself was quite familiar with the world of business, commerce, and money. Capitalism had, after all, first taken on definitive cultural and institutional form in medieval Catholic Europe.

Rerum Novarum’s invocation of natural law categories, however, goes beyond exploring how principles of justice play out in modern economic conditions. It also forms part of Leo’s wider and more ambitious agenda: the revitalization of natural law reasoning within the Church in order to apply to the business of making sense of a modern world that prided itself on its attachment to reason.

Natural law thought never fell into abeyance in nineteenth-century Catholicism. Many Catholic intellectuals, especially Italians such as Blessed Antonio Rosmini and Luigi Taparelli SJ, had deployed it to think through the political and economic realities created by the French Revolution. Leo XIII’s own brother, Cardinal Giuseppe Pecci SJ, was a noted natural law scholar. From Leo’s standpoint, natural law was the obvious way for the Church to (1) help explain the truths of Revelation to people who demanded proofs based on reason while also (2) entering into discussion of contemporary political and economic issues with people who didn’t accept Christian revelation.

This project was launched by one of Leo’s most important encyclicals, issued just over a year after his papacy began. In underscoring Thomistic philosophy’s importance for comprehending the truths of faith and reason, Aeterni Patris (1879) transformed Catholic seminary formation and revived natural law discourse among Catholics more generally. Part of the objective was to demonstrate to self-described modern people that Catholicism took reason just as, if not more, seriously as they did. That was especially true when it came to one subject extolled by the Enlightenment and its heirs—human liberty.

This brings us to another of Leo’s most significant but largely neglected encyclicals: Libertas. Published three years before Rerum Novarum, this text begins with the resounding affirmation that “Liberty, the highest of natural endowments, being the portion only of intellectual or rational natures, confers on man this dignity—that he is ‘in the hand of his counsel’ (Sir. 15:14) and has power over his actions.” There is much, Leo affirms, which is good in what he called “modern liberties”: “whatsoever is good,” he writes, “in those liberties is as ancient as truth itself.” The point, however, which Libertas drives home again and again, is that modern expressions of freedom, whether in terms of rights or institutions, must be grounded in right reason, not feelings or majority-will. Otherwise, liberty would underpinned by unreason and inevitably degenerate into license.

During Leo’s time, many Christians and non-Christians cheerfully assented to this argument. Today, however, it is widely disputed. Many resist any claim that knowledge of the truth of good and evil is inscribed into man’s very reason itself. To that extent, this core natural law proposition is surely one of the most revolutionary propositions that can be made today, including, it must be said, to those Catholics who have embraced emotivist accounts of human choice and action. It’s a testimony to Leo’s farsightedness that he understood that one of the major philosophical struggles in the modern world would concern the foundations of freedom.

The son of conservative Italian aristocrats, a distinguished diplomat, a talented bishop-administrator, and firm defender of that most traditional of popes, Blessed Pius IX, Leo XIII would at first glance seem to be the least likely of revolutionaries. Yet as we celebrate Rerum Novarum’s 125th anniversary, it’s worth recalling how this particular pope managed, without compromising doctrine, to face the Church up to developments that, for some Catholics of the time, verged on anathema. Whether it’s the challenges presented by economic globalization, the problems associated with increasingly complicated financial markets, or the incessant rights-talk that’s presently strangling coherent public discourse, Leo’s call to critically engage modernity—i.e., affirm the good, identify errors, and remind people of the Gospel’s core truths—surely remains valid for us today. 


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including, most recently, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).

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