Left or Right? Catholicism After Rerum Novarum

BEFORE addressing this issue it is necessary to define what is meant by the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right,’ I will then highlight the key political trends in Rerum Novarum and examine the practical efforts which were made to implement such ideas. In addition, I will study the nature of subsequent papal encyclicals and explain how the Catholic Church fared during the course of the next century.

In the modern age political, social and economic ideologies are often squeezed into two distinct categories: those of Left and Right. This oversimplification has led to a great deal of confusion, but controlled media commentators continue to insist that the left flank of the political spectrum is composed of Socialists, Marxists or Communists, whilst its right-wing counterpart includes Conservatives, reactionaries and Fascists. Despite the rigid and dogmatic nature nature of these fixed ideological standards, for reasons of convenience and simplicity I will employ the same terminology to examine the character of the Catholic Church.

The publication of Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 was concurrent with the rise of Marxism. For more than one hundred years Western Europe had played host to a series of popular rebellions, most notably in France and Germany. In truth, the Church was finding it extremely difficult to cope with an unpredictable and revolutionary atmosphere which was also fuelled by a strong undercurrent of anti-clericalism and violent atheism. According to Lillian Parker Wallace, the fact that Marxism eventually failed to sweep all before it was partly due to Leo XII, “one of those strengthening the dyke which held back the flood.” [1]

The Catholic Church of the nineteenth century was faced with a serious dilemma. With the overthrow of the feudal system a new era of urban industrialisation, free trade and ruthless individualism had led to a largely dispossessed proletariat. It was not surprising, therefore, that workers had become imbued with a spirit of defiant anti-capitalism and, in desperation, began to look seriously at the emerging politics of both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. As more and more people began to attack the Church for its misguided toleration of corrupt monarchies and dynastic empires, Leo XIII became aware that it was necessary to put forward a series of alternative proposals in order to create a third path between capitalist exploitation and Marxist servitude.

Rerum Novarum was poised to become one of “the major landmarks of the age,” [2] but when the document was first published it received something of a mixed reaction. The press gave it a favourable response, with one newspaper declaring that “One used to consider Catholicism an exceedingly conservative force, placing in opposition to each other the Church and the Revolution as two irreconcilable enemies […] This antagonism was in all its violence at the moment when the commune of Paris resolutely attacked the clergy and religion. Things have changed since that epoch.” [3] However, Leftists thoroughly dismissed the encyclical and warned their comrades not to be seduced by the “Socialist Pope” [4]. But what are the main political tenets of Rerum Novarum?

Firstly, Leo XIII was genuinely concerned for the ordinary worker and was fully aware that the ravages of monopoly capitalism had caused “the great majority of them [to] live undeservedly in miserable and wretched conditions” [5]. He also believed that the decline of the trade guilds and the gradual secularisation of society had led to “the inhumanity of employers and the unbridled greed of competitors,” [6] enabling Marxists to take full advantage of the increasing “envy of the poor towards the rich” [7]. The Left sought to do away with “private possession of goods and in its place to make the goods of individuals common to all,” [8] and this strikes at the very heart of Leo XIII’s important encyclical. The Pope considered private property to be fundamentally sacred and this clearly has very little in common with the selfish individualism of capitalism or, indeed, the Marxist commitment to pseudo-egalitarianism and the wholesale levelling of society at the hands of a dominant party hierarchy.

Further evidence of Leo XIII’s anti-Marxism can be found in the passages relating to class struggle. Unlike the Communist assertion that all history is rooted in class conflict, the Pope believed that the formation of social categories were entirely natural and must act as “equally balanced counterparts to each other.” [9] On the other hand, the dominance of one class by another should not give employers the right to exploit their workforce: “Workers are not to be treated as slaves; justice demands that the dignity of the human personality be respected in them, ennobled as it has been through what we would call the Christian character.” [10] Once again, whilst the Pope is suggesting that the relationship between various societal interests is administered with a greater degree of compassion and understanding, he is also dismissing the need for a tumultuous reorganisation of society along revolutionary lines. Leo XIII, whose encyclical has since been described as “paternalistic,” [11] was not leaning to the Left or the Right but simply assuming the role of mediator.

Rerum Novarum could also be seen as an attempt to occupy the middle ground of the contentious political arena by way of its worker-friendly references to free association between employees. The Pope does not, however, go so far as to propose a social contract to uphold the rights of the individual in the way that Rousseau had done before him. Authority cannot be delegated by the people because, in the first place, the Church believes that it does not lie with them. It could also be argued that the general spirit of co-operation and brotherhood expressed by way of Leo XIII’s allusions to “private societies” [12] suggests that Rerum Novarum had at least something in common with the likes of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and other figures on the Left who, being Anarchists, had rejected the enforced orthodoxy of Marxism.

Nonetheless, Rerum Novarum still retained the historic ‘right’ of the Church to interfere in the affairs of State. Leo XIII makes it perfectly clear that earthly governments only constitute a form of authority if they accord with the Thomist concept that “Human law is only law in virtue of its accordance with right reason; and thus it is manifest that it flows from the eternal law. And in so far as it deviates from right reason it is called an unjust law; in such cases it is not law at all, but rather a species of violence.” [13] Needless to say, capitalism and Marxism base their values not upon theocratic interpretations of holy scripture, but upon their respective belief in market forces and dialectical materialism.

Thus far, I have demonstrated that the Catholic Church of the late-nineteenth century effectively transcended the categories of Left and Right. In 1910, Pope Pius X published Our Apostolic Mandate, a document designed to attack members of the French laity who had formed a neo-Catholic organisation involved in political activity. This encyclical gives us an insight into what the Church itself actually perceived to be the most suitable form of government. In a reference to Leo XIII’s assertion that democracy does not enjoy any special privilege above others forms of earthly administration, Pius X states that three manifestations of government are compatible with justice and his Appendix proceeds to name this triad of forms as being comprised of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, although the latter is said to be imperfect in the sense that it was under the direction of Masonic conspirators. However, the corresponding footnote leaves its readers in no doubt as to which forms of government are completely incompatible with justice and both Fascism and communism are singled out as “blood brothers, not at all the irreconcilable enemies which it was thought expedient to make us believe during World War II.” [14] So if the Church rejects the far-flung extremities of Left and Right in their entirety, analysts may still contend that Catholicism occupies one of the more centrist political categories. Secular interpretation is one thing, but what of those for whom the encyclicals were primarily written and how was the social teaching of the Church understood by the laity?

In 1926, two famous English converts – G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc – formed what became known as the Distributist League. This rather eccentric collection of idealists advocated an economic system in which property would be widely distributed throughout society. In order to acquire some understanding of Catholicism’s true political nature, it is worth examining some of the criticisms that were directed towards the existing ideologies of the time.

Hilaire Belloc often exposed the similarities between capitalism and Marxism, declaring that the “only economic difference between a herd of subservient Russians and a mob of free Englishmen pouring into a factory of a morning is that the latter are exploited by private profit, the former by the State in communal fashion. The motive of the Russian masters is to establish a comfortable bureaucracy for themselves and their friends out of the proletariat labour. The motive of the English masters is to increase their private fortunes out of proletariat labour. But we want something different from either.” [15]

This fact was further illustrated by G.K. Chesterton, who wrote of the so-called Communist ‘alternative’ to capitalism: “A pickpocket is obviously a champion of private enterprise. But it would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that a pickpocket is a champion of private property. The point about Capitalism and Commercialism, as conducted of late, is that they have really preached the extension of business rather than the preservation of belongings; and have at best tried to disguise the pickpocket with some of the virtues of the pirate. The point about Communism is that it only reforms the pickpocket by forbidding pockets.” [16] So property, at this time, was regarded by Catholics as something immensely important and Distributists were merely seeking to interpret the theoretical features of Rerum Novarum in a more practical way. Once again, there was a clear indication that Catholicism lay outside of commonly accepted political boundaries and whilst it never compared itself to specific forms of government it certainly made a point of condemning capitalism and Marxism.

In 1931, Pope Pius XI published Quadragesimo Anno, an encyclical designed to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum. In his introduction, Pius X explains how Leo XIII had written his letter on the condition of the working classes at a time when spiritual guidance “was most opportune and necessary.” [17] Although Quadragesimo Anno claimed to be celebrating the anniversary of one of the most ground-breaking papal documents, some might argue that its publication coincided with the economic depressions which had so demoralised British and American society during the 1930s. Indeed, Pope XI’s renewed attack on the “cruel and inhuman” [18] exponents of Communism may well have been the result of Catholicism’s own fear that it could reassert itself in the major cities of Europe and the United States.

Six years later, in 1937, Pius XI published Divini Redemptoris and devoted an entire encyclical to atheistic Communism. The Pope made a plea for urgent action in the face of Communism’s growing ascendency in world events. As an alternative, the Church put forward the idea of employers’ associations and corporations, something which was already taking shape in the factories and workshops at the very heart of Catholicism. When Benito Mussolini became dictator of Italy, the Church became very cautious. Although Il Duce had once been an atheist and left-wing revolutionary, he now took it upon himself to re-establish the crucifix in Italian schools and was noted for his skill in bringing about a Concordat between Church and State. Whilst Catholicism has since been attacked for its alleged complicity with Fascism, it is fair to say that the Church was equally concerned about both the rise of Marxism and Mussolini’s attempts to contain its powers elsewhere. The Church was less concerned with declaring its allegiance to a specific political ideology than praising those aspects of the Fascist regime which it considered to be conducive to its own aims and objectives.

The Church’s attitude to German National-Socialism, on the other hand, was perfectly clear and whilst the 1933 Concordat with Adolf Hitler had ordered priests to refrain from engaging in political activity, by 1941 relations became far worse when Bishop Galen of Münster spoke out against Nazi euthanasia and the systematic culling of the “incurably sick, people incapable of work, cripples, people who have become invalids through work or through the war” [19]

The principal themes of Rerum Novarum have since been reiterated, most notably by Pope John XXIII in his Mater et Magista (1961) and John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus (1991). The latter is particularly significant in that it gives us an indication of the Church’s position towards the close of the century. In a Chapter entitled ‘Towards the New Things of Today,’ John Paul II attempts to give Rerum Novarum a modern emphasis by stating that fresh reforms must involve “a continuous effort to improve workers’ training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measures to block shameful methods of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants, and those on the margins of society.” [20] One could be forgiven for noting a slight degree of populism in this statement, although the Pope was remaining as tight-lipped as ever as far as the real political preferences of the Church was concerned. On the other hand, Communism and class struggle are both “called into question” [21], whilst the Pope also warns against the capitalist tendency to make “market ,mechanisms the only point of reference for social life” [22] and defends trade unionism and “democratic participation” [23]. In his closing summary on Leo XIII, John Paul II notes that Rerum Novarum was diametrically opposed to both liberalism and Marxism, although his own view is that since the nineteenth century there have been “changes of mentality, behaviour and structures.” [24]

The present era has witnessed the rise of political correctness to an enormous extent, something which has often come into direct conflict with the Catholic Church. The opposition of successive popes to eugenics, contraception, abortion and euthanasia is certainly in line with its historical belief that man has no right to interfere in the work of God, despite the fact that it inevitably restricts the sovereignty of the individual.

Finally, there are very few Catholics who make reference to Rerum Novarum today and the Church of the twenty-first century seems to be walking a very thin tightrope above the churning waters of compromise and modernity. Whilst it seems clear that the Church cannot be pigeon-holed into any specific category we certainly know for sure that it is regularly attacked from all sides and by having to operate in an immensely materialistic and secularised world it is clear that retaining a degree of detachment and impartiality will become increasingly more difficult. What are we to make of Liberation Theology, for example, which has seen an unlikely alliance between Catholicism and the Left on an unprecedented scale? Not to suggest, either, that political compromises are not also taking place behind the walls of the Vatican on a regular basis or that the Church has not been infiltrated by many of its ideological enemies.


1. Wallace, Lillian Parker; Leo XIII and the Rise of Socialism (Duke University Press, 1966), p.vii.

2. Ibid., p.276.

3. Univers, 29th May 1891.

4. Wallace, op.cit., p.275.

5. Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (St. Paul Editions, 1942), p.6

6. Ibid., p.7.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., p.18.

10. Ibid.

11. O’Connell, James; ‘Is There a Catholic Social Doctrine?’ in Paul Furlong & David Curtis (eds.), The Church Faces the Modern World: Rerum Novarum and its Impact (Earlsgate Press, 1974), p.31.

12. Leo XIII, op.cit. p.44.

13. Aquinas, Thomas; Summa Theologica, I-II, Q.93, Art. 3 ad 2.

14. Pius X; Our Apostolic Mandate (Tenet Books, 1974), p.31.

15. Belloc, Hilaire; An Essay on the Restoration of Property (Wheatsheaf Books, 1984), p.1.

16. Chesterton, G.K.; The Outline of Sanity (Carraig Books, 1974), p.3.

17. Pius XI; Quadragesimo Anno (Catholic Truth Society, 1960), p.7.

18. Ibid., p.44.

19. Noakes, Jeremy & Pridham, Geoffrey; Documents on Nazism 1919-1945 (University of Exeter, 1974), p.308.

20. John Paul II; Centesimus Annus; (Catholic Truth Society, 1991), p.13.

21. Ibid., p.15.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid., p.16.

24. Ibid., p.42.

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