Good Distinctions
Good Distinctions
Ep. 6 - On the Dignity of Work

Ep. 6 - On the Dignity of Work

A Look at Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII

The Long Nineteenth Century

The long nineteenth century really began in 1789 with the French Revolution and ending with World War One. This phrase was coined by the British historian Eric Hogsbawm to describe a series of events that made speaking of 1789 to 1914 make more sense historically speaking than 1800 to 1900. He categorized this long nineteenth century into three connected but distinct eras: the Age of Revolution from 1789 to 1848, the Age of Capital from 1848 to 1875, and the Age of Empire from 1875 to 1914. Hogsbawm was a committed Communist throughout most of his life, and so, he sees History in terms of the Marxist lens of power struggles. 

In the midst of this time period, there were certainly struggles. The Enlightenment ideals came to a head with the French Revolution’s cries of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The absolute monarchies and conservatism were being challenged and the revolution was willing to use violence, if necessary, to change the dynamic of power and secure liberal values for the common man. At the time, there were three classes in society, known as estates: the first estate was the clergy, the second estate was the nobility, and the third estate were the commoners. And, of course, the king enjoyed absolute power over the whole polity. Once this hierarchical structure was deposed and democracy was awoken, the revolutionary spirit spread throughout Europe. By 1848, only Russia and Britain remained largely untouched, in terms of the monarchy. 

The Industrial Revolution was in full swing by the middle of the long nineteenth century. Factories were rising up throughout the United States and Europe. These factories often had horrific conditions, but they led to the concentration of wealth among the owners and operators of private enterprises. The tycoons of various enterprises became obscenely wealthy, but with the overturning of the feudal system, the common man was finding it difficult to earn a decent wage. The conditions in factories and mills led to men in their mid-thirties retiring because they were physically no longer able to work. Child labor was common. The work week consisted of six days and the work day was sometimes sixteen hours long. In some factories, tired workers would endure burns, cuts, scrapes, lost fingers, hair getting caught in machinery, or even death. 

Admittedly the imperial system exported European culture and organizational strategies and structures to locales throughout the world. However, the subjection to hard labor, low pay, and widespread corruption made it hard for locals to see colonization as a good thing. Especially in Africa, the lines drawn on maps by the Europeans created conflict between various tribes which up to that point were at relative peace with one another. 

The long nineteenth century undoubtedly led to the world in which we now find ourselves. The progress of man in terms of technology, communication, and global interconnection was epoch-defining. However, as we can see from the 20th Century, the abandoning of conservatism, traditional morality, solidarity among people, and Neitzche’s “death of God” led to death, genocide, destruction, and a refusal to recognize the dignity fo the human person that the world had never seen on such a large scale. The same Communism that rose to prominence in the long nineteenth century and promised utopia ultimately was the direct cause of the negative effects and human death in the twentieth century. 

In the nineteenth century, Communism was on the rise, social change was rapidly reordering Europe, industrialization was in full swing and capitalism was becoming the dominant economic system. The working man was mistreated egregiously in many places and communism became more and more appealing. It also should not be forgotten that the aristocracy stood to gain the most from the new capitalist systems. Workers were unambiguously exploited and impoverished. 

Rerum Novarum

It is in this context, in 1891, that Pope Leo XIII wrote and released Rerum Novarum on Capital and Labor. This letter is the first of his social encyclicals and begins the development of what is now called Catholic Social Teaching (CST). CST is nothing other than an application of perennial Church teaching to the modern developments of capitalism, liberalism, socialism, materialism, and the like. So, CST is not new, but the world’s ideologies and systems are. How does the Church speak truth to the world and ensure that people are being approached with true dignity? This is what CST aims to do. It is not a social justice warrior ideology. It is not an endorsement of capitalism or communism.

The three major themes of Rerum Novarum are:

  • The balancing of labor and capital

  • The common good and 

  • The role of the state

Pope Leo XIII also recognized the special status of the poor in social issues and especially God’s love, compassion, and favor for the poor. This would later be called the preferential option for the poor

Balancing Labor and Capital

Pope Leo XIII says early on in the document that:

“It is no easy matter to define the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor. And the danger lies in this, that crafty agitators are intent on making use of these differences of opinion to pervert men's judgments and to stir up the people to revolt (RN, 2).”

In this, the Pope is acknowledging why workers are upset. They are being mistreated. He does not deny the good that the capitalist system can bring, but throughout Rerum Novarum he offers a helpful and important critique. He is likewise wary of liberalism and socialism. Without denying the reality of the world around him, the Pope is able to offer a balanced take on the situation. This is why Rerum Novarum continues to be so important throughout the ensuing 132 years. The good distinctions the Pope is making are timeless!

Speaking of these rights and duties and offering a critique of the Marxist view of class struggle, the Pope says:

“The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity. Now, in preventing such strife as this, and in uprooting it, the efficacy of Christian institutions is marvellous and manifold. First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice (RN, 19).”

Workers have duties towards their employers, the Pope says. They are to perform their work conscientiously which they have freely agreed to undertake. They should not settle issues with violence nor should they damage the property of their employer. Further they are “to have nothing to do with men of evil principles, who work upon the people with artful promises of great results, and excite foolish hopes which usually end in useless regrets and grievous loss (RN, 20).”

On the other hand, employers have duties as well. They should respect the dignity of their workers. There is a contract between employer and worker; they are not indentured servants, nor should they be seen as a factor in production. The employer needs to remember that working for a living is an honorable thing. They are not to overtax their workers by giving them work that is beyond their physical or mental capability. Employers must not defraud their employees into reducing their wages or create undue pressure. He says, “To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven (RN, 20).”

One of the most important items that Pope Leo writes about is the idea of what we now call a “living wage.” He says: 

“Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner. If through necessity or fear of a worse evil the workman accept harder conditions because an employer or contractor will afford him no better, he is made the victim of force and injustice (RN, 45).”

These free agreements duly honor the dignity of man and also lead to the flourishing of the worker, the employer, and the State. So, the Pope argues, the State should ensure that the interests of the working class are “carefully watched over” because it will be a benefit to the whole community that “being housed, clothed, and bodily fit, they may find their life less hard and more endurable (RN, 34).”

The Common Good

Let us now briefly examine the second main theme: the common good. In a critique of socialism, the Pope says that people have a right to private ownership. However, this right must be balanced against the notion of the common good. He says:

“The chief and most excellent rule for the right use of money is one the heathen philosophers hinted at, but which the Church has traced out clearly, and has not only made known to men's minds, but has impressed upon their lives. It rests on the principle that it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have a right to use money as one wills. Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary (RN, 22).”

He goes on to say, though, that:

“Whoever has received from the divine bounty a large share of temporal blessings, whether they be external and material, or gifts of the mind, has received them for the purpose of using them for the perfecting of his own nature, and, at the same time, that he may employ them, as the steward of God's providence, for the benefit of others (RN, 22).”

So, there is nothing wrong with having material wealth. But these gifts need to be used well and properly ordered for the good of all, in common. The Pope makes this point explicitly when he says, “all citizens, without exception, can and ought to contribute to that common good in which individuals share so advantageously to themselves… (RN, 34).” There must, of course, be a special concern in weighing the good of all in society towards the poor and marginalized, precisely because they are powerless, in many concerns, to advocate for themselves. 

The Role of the State

The role of the state is the third main theme. And it is fairly simple. The State exists to ensure the wellbeing for all in society, that the common good is served. And the state must support individuals and families to grow and develop. He writes:

“Hereby, then, it lies in the power of a ruler to benefit every class in the State, and amongst the rest to promote to the utmost the interests of the poor; and this in virtue of his office, and without being open to suspicion of undue interference - since it is the province of the commonwealth to serve the common good. And the more that is done for the benefit of the working classes by the general laws of the country, the less need will there be to seek for special means to relieve them (RN, 32).”

Besides ensuring the dignity of the human person, this advice is so practical. If workers are benefited from the outset, then the needs of special programs will be lessened and perhaps eliminated. Can you imagine, for example, a society which takes the needs of the lower and middle classes seriously in a preemptive sense rather than pouring money into social welfare programs that address needs after the fact? What would need to change in society for this to be a reality? It is something which I think current and future generations must contend with. And, frankly, the Catholic Church is the only institution which can lead the way, as we always have. The balance needed, especially in our broad and globalized society, comes from the life-giving saving Gospel of Jesus Christ instantiated through the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

The State should not subsume the place of individuals and families. It should be at the service of them and no more. As the Pope says,

“We have said that the State must not absorb the individual or the family; both should be allowed free and untrammelled action so far as is consistent with the common good and the interest of others (RN, 35).”

Human beings have dignity and worth, and the human family is the fundamental cell of society. If the State overwhelms this reality then society falls apart. If you are interested in more of an analysis on this, please go listen to my episode on Solidarity and Subsidiarity. In Rerum Novarum, the Pope teaches clearly that an important key to human dignity is the availability of fulfilling work, with pay and working conditions that show care and concern for the needs of the worker. Further, families have tangible needs and communities need to benefit from private enterprise. 


I have not even scratched the surface of the masterpiece that is Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII. I highly recommend giving the whole thing a read through, especially if you are engaged in private enterprise, government work, or are a worker or employer. So, what I’m saying, really, is that everyone should read this document! 

If you would like a walk through the seven main themes of Catholic Social Teaching, please go listen to the episode entitled: “Does Jesus Want us to be Social Justice Warriors?” Admittedly, the title is a bit clickbaity but I basically just explain the broad movements of Catholic Social Teaching. I hope today’s article and episode has been worthwhile to you! If you haven’t yet subscribed here on Substack, please consider doing so. That way you will never miss a thing that Teresa and I put out. 

We are grateful to have you with us in the Good Distinctions community. As always, if you have questions, comments, episode ideas, or want to chat, please reply to this post or send us an email at We’d love to hear from you! And please, if you would, like this article, share it with your friends and family, and leave a rating and review on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and like, subscribe, and share on YouTube. You can also follow us on Instagram at @goodistinctions. 

See you next week!

Good Distinctions
Good Distinctions
Good Distinctions are the spice of life!
We desire to REIGNITE good conversations, to SEEK out the best distinctions, and INSPIRE others to do the same!