This year marks the 125th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum and the beginning of the modern Catholic social encyclical tradition. In this landmark text, Leo courageously set out to examine the “new things” of his time, especially the changes associated with the Industrial Revolution. These included the emergence of an urbanized working class, the breakdown of old social hierarchies, and the rise of capitalism as well as ideologies such as socialism, liberalism, communism, and corporatism.
On April 20, 2016, Acton Institute is holding a free conference in Rome exploring similar themes. This conference on Freedom with Justice: Rerum Novarum and the New Things of Our Time will take place in Rome, Italy from 14:00-19:30 (GMT +2) at the Centro Congressi Roma Eventi – Fontana di Trevi. Remote participation is also possible through the online Live Broadcast. Among the speakers will be Rev. Prof. Wojciech Giertych, OP, Professor and Theologian of the Papal Household. For more information about this event or to register, visit www.acton.org/Rome2016.
Acton Institute’s director of research, Dr. Samuel Gregg, recently authored an article in Crisis Magazine which highlighted the radical character of Leo XIII’s attempt to engage the modern economic world:
“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.”