Friday, February 01, 2008

The incredible vanishing Rerum Novarum

As the Western world moved out of the early modern period (1600-1789) and into the modern era, the changes brought forth in society from the Industrial Revolution caused a massive upheavel in the social, political and economic realms necessitated a response from the Church on the proper way to integrate perennial Catholic morality in this new environment. This concern brought forth the groundbreaking encyclical Rerum Novarum from Leo XIII in 1891. The encyclical addressed the proper relationship of workers to their management, the rights of workers and what a just wage consists of, condemned violence in labor movements, among many other things (very importantly, the refutation of socialism).

It is difficult to understate the importance of this document in the forumation of Catholic social doctrine (real Catholic social doctrine, not, as Athanasius says, the post Vatican II "pop socialism" that passes for social doctrine). Speaking of the document's legacy twenty years after its promulgation, the Catholic Encyclopedia says:

Probably no other pronouncement on the social question has had so many readers or exercised such a wide influence. It has inspired a vast Catholic social literature, while many non-Catholics have acclaimed it as one of the most definite and reasonable productions ever written on the subject.

Rerum Novarum only grew in importance as the twentieth century unfolded and nations experimented with new economic systems of organization, prompting a reaffirmation of RN in the 1931 encyclical Quadrigesimo Anno of Pius XI and in the 1938 Divini Redemptoris, which categorically condemned Communism based on, among many other things, principles set forth in RN.

All subsequent documents on Catholic social teaching were rooted solidly in Rerum Novarum. For example, Quadrigesimo Anno (1931) quotes RN 29 times. Divini Redemptoris quotes RN once and has several quotes from Quadrigesimo Anno (QA), thus reaffirming what was stated in RN. John XXIII, in his 1961 encyclical on Christian society Mater et Magistra, however, contains no references to RN, and only a single reference to QA.

John Paul II's use of RN is a bit confusing. In his first encyclical on social teaching (Laborem Exercens, 1981), out of the 91 footnotes, not a single one references RN and only two reference QA. Ten years later, in his famous Centesimus Annus (1991) marking the centennial of Rerum Novarum, John Paul quotes from Rerum Novarum 35 times (out of 119 footnotes) and makes almost as many refernces to QA. This is a marked contrast to the attention given to RN since the 1960's (between John XXIII in 1961 and John Paul II in 1981, Rerum Novarum was not quoted by them at all, and Quadrigesimo Anno quoted only three times in twenty-years. Why did JPII suddenly start using RN and QA in his 1991 Centesimus Annos? The obvious answer is that since the CA encyclical was a centennial commemoration of RN, it would be very awkward of him not to quote it. I think, therefore, Centesimus Annos is an aberration rather than the norm.

To prove the point, let's turn to the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, which has a lengthy section on the Church's social doctrine in its section on the 7th commandment (2401-2463). Here is an oppotune time to see where the post-Conciliar Magisterium sees the place of Rerum Novarum. How many times is it referenced in the CCC section on social justice?

In the CCC section on social justice, Rerum Novarum is not quoted a single time.

But wait, perhaps that is not as bad as it seems. We have seen that later encyclicals (like Divini Redemptoris) may not quote RN as much because they draw more from Quadrigesimo Anno, which is itself made up of quotes from RN. So how many times does the social justice section of the CCC quote Quadrigesimo Anno?

Again, there is not a sinlge quote in the social justice section from Quadrigesimo Anno.

If the two most pivotal documents on Catholic social teaching are not referenced, what then, does the CCC section on social justice base itself upon?

Mainly three documents (though there are minimal quotes from a few others). The biggest source, with 15 quotes, in JP2's 1991 Centesimus Annos. Second, with 8 quotes, is Gaudium et Spes (nowehere else quoted as a source for Catholic social teaching), and finally, with 5 quotes, JP2's Laborem Exercens (1981). What does this tell us?

First, all of these are post-Conciliar documents. Even more intriguing, all of them are John Paul II documents (it has long been suggested that John Paul, as Bishop of Krakow, wrote large portions of Gaudium et Spes). I think we can understand using CA and LE as sources for the CCC's section on social justice, but (a) why ignore RN and QA? (b) Why on earth use Gaudium et Spes?

Gaudium et Spes is only remotely concerned with the aspect of social justice addressed in RN and QA (and many would go so far as to say that it actually contradicts them). In the massive tome which is GS, there are 172 quotations. Of those 172, consider the following breakdown of sources:

Rerum Novarum- 2
Quadrigesimo Anno- 5
Mater et Magistra- 12 (remember, this 1961 encyclical of John XXIII didn't quote RN at all and only referenced QA once)

With only 7 total quotes from RN and QA, we can hardly say that GS is the best preserver of Catholic social teaching.

Not only this, but the CCC, in the Index of Citations at the back, does not even list Rerum Novarum among Leo XIII's encyclicals! Go look it up if you don't believe me! Not only in RN not quoted in the social justice section, but it is not quoted at all in the entire CCC! Not one single time. Quadrigesimo Anno is quoted only once.

Now, let's ask ourselves one question: How can the Catechism adequately pass on Catholic social teaching when it seems to have the most pivotal documents on the matter categorically left out in favor of Gaudium et Spes and Centesimus Annos?

The answer is simple: it is a blatant demonstration of Magisterialism, the idea that everything that is worth saying has been said by this current Magisterium, that post-Conciliar documents or JP2 documents are the only references we need seek, that pre-Conciliar documents are somehow not as pertinent as post-Conciliar ones, and that the current Magisterium has to restate the entire Tradition of the Church in its own terms in order to "bring things up to date." Meanwhile, innocent Catholics reading the CCC are not only deprived of the riches (true riches) of RN, but they are denied the opportunity to know that Rerum Novarum even exists because it is not even listed among Leo XIII's encyclicals (of course, since the CCC only lists sources it quotes from).

If anybody thinks Trads are being paranoid about the concept of Magisterialism, here is as concrete proof as we're ever going to get.


Alexander said...

What sort of weak language (perhaps ambiguity or whatever) is used in the current documents (Vatican II, JPII etc.) that the pre-John XIII documents did not have?

I have not studied this issue much but I wonder if there is some information online I can get a hold of that shows why the current documents are inferior

Boniface said...


I personally do not know why Rerum Novarum is ignored, or what the difference in language is; I am merely pointing out the fact that it is neglected as a source on Catholic moral teaching. I have no idea why, so I am just as curious as you. It seems that th post-V2 Church should love a document about helping the workers and the rights of the oppressed. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps content takes a backseat t chronology (ie, if it was pre-V2, then it is less valuable, regardless of what the content is).


Anonymous said...

To give this phenomenon a positive interpretation, I would guess that they believe that newer documents are more relevant. Not that they are more correct--whatever that would mean--, but that they supposedly treat the topic in light of what is going on in the world more directly. . . . And that, possibly, would be more pastoral (as opposed to a systematic study of all the documents pertaining to a subject).

Personally, I think there should be a more even distribution of document quotations.

When I was younger and just looking into Catholicism (*as a Catholic*, no less) my initial reaction to the quotations chosen in the Catechism was one of uneasiness. My gut reaction was: didn't the Holy Roman Catholic Church have a little more to say of value before the 1960's? It made me feel like something was being left out. . . .

Anonymous said...

But doesn't the 19th century sound even more remote than merely before the council?

Maybe it's just our viewpoint that's tainted, and while it may be conspiratorial in some, for most it's just myopia.

Anonymous said...

I think the motivation is that they believe the current documents to be more "relevant," but I think it is dangerous to try to dedcide what is and is not relevant for the Church. The most relevant thing is the Gospel, and the most relevant way of presenting it is the way it has always been presented.

Boniface said...

The thing is, with Catholocism, nothing the Church has ever said is to be taken as "remote." The canons of Nicea and Trent are just as immediate and pertinent to us as the actions of Vatican II. Perhaps certain matters have been superceded by others, or perhaps others are no longer live issues (like whether or not the King can appoint bishops), but these decrees are all immediately valuable to us because they reflect the unchanging mens ecclesiae .

I guess therein is a good definition of what it means to be Trad: a Trad is someone for whom the decrees and statements of Trent, Florence, Lateran IV, Nicea, etc. are just as present in the mind and relevant as those of their own generation.

Anonymous said...

An alternative explanation might be that much of the detail on social doctrine has been prescinded to "The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church". This latter, in addition to freely citing RN, is quite happy to quote Pius XI in saying that it "...became the document inspiring Christian activity in the social sphere and the point of reference for this activity".