Rerum Novarum and Human Rights of Laborers

Rerum Novarum and Human Rights of Laborers

Dr. Paul Hwang Director of ALL Forum

The Church has made ethical judgments on social issues and published them in writings, which is called Catholic Social Teaching, CST. These texts are necessarily influenced by, and are intended to answer, the major social problems of the time. The encyclical “On Capital and Labor”(Rerum Novarum) is an important social teaching of the Church that illustrates this well.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII published the first papal document to present a comprehensive view of social issues, entitled “Rerum Novarum“. The pope strongly criticized the problems of capitalism as well as the illusions of socialism that were popular at the time. Since the 18th century, industrialization has progressed rapidly, leading to new technologies and major changes in laborer-capitalist relations. The polarization of wealth, which very few possess and many suffer from poverty, emerged as a major problem. The problem of poor working conditions faced by workers at that time was one of the serious side effects of industrialization. Although industrialization and factory labor have made great progress in productivity, they have forced workers to sacrifice themselves on the other hand. In addition to adult male workers, women and young children often worked long hours. Wages were lowered and life was impoverished. Long hours of work fatally deteriorated workers’ health and contributed to physical illness, disasters and accidents. In this situation, Rerum Novarum said the church supports workers’ legitimate demands, such as ensuring workers’ legitimate wages and the right to form labor unions.

The papal document rather concretely addresses the human rights situation of workers in this situation as follows: “…the first thing of all to secure is to save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making. It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies…. Finally, work which is quite suitable for a strong man cannot rightly be required from a woman or a child. And, in regard to children, great care should be taken not to place them in workshops and factories until their bodies and minds are sufficiently developed.” (no. 42)

For this reason, the Rerum Novarum was also known as the “Magna Carta of Labor”. The meaning of the Magna Carta of Labor can be given to workers in modern society in terms of protecting and promoting human dignity, which not only has a lot of influence on labor laws in Western countries, but has become the basis of labor laws in their countries.

The document acknowledges that private property rights are fundamental human rights and natural rights, and that it is impossible for human power to completely eliminate social inequality, while presenting obligations for capitalists and employers. The most important duty is to pay workers fair wages. Even if workers and employers sign contracts and decide wages through bilateral agreements, basic justice should always be reflected. Wages should not be insufficient for workers to maintain a frugal life and a minimum comfortable life.

Rerum Novarum emphasizes the importance of defining distributions. It points out that it is a proper duty for the rich to distribute goods to the poor, except for what is essential to their lives and necessary to maintain their status. It also points out that the most important duty of a national ruler is to strictly and fairly abide by the just distribution and take care of citizens of all walks of life. After this document, the Catholic Church became deeply interested in and participated in prophetic works that protect human dignity from social injustice, poverty and the gap between rich and poor, human rights violations and discrimination, violence and war.

In fact, since the document, the Catholic Church has consistently announced rules of association based on social interest since the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum by publishing Quadragesimo Annus by Pius XI in 1931. In 1981, Pope John Paul II updated and commemorated the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum in 1991 by publishing Centesimus Annus showing “how the Church should understand and speak out about labor and labor issues in the changing world”.

As such, Rerum Novarum has had a significant impact on the enactment of labor-related laws in many countries including Germany since the 20th century by proposing concrete measures to promote human rights of workers in serious condition.