In this essay I will identify the issues which brought about this papal encyclical in 1891, specifically the social conditions of people, resulting from industrialisation and the church’s Christological role in declaring human dignity in terms of God’s plan for mankind. I will set out the historical position in Britain in this late Victorian era within the context of European radical political upheaval, as part of the need for reform and a response from the Church. These issues will be compared with the encyclical one hundred years later, to analyse the development of policy in1891 and 1991 in terms of the church’s teaching, within the context of the wider social and political movements of the late twentieth century. I will determine that whilst John Paul II used the centenary in 1991 to publish Centesimus Annus and see it as a ‘re-wording’ of the original, it ultimately failed to take forward the radical change envisaged in Rerum Novarum, with limited exceptions.
Firstly we need to analyse the background to the period leading up to Rerum Novarum’s publication. Historically it can be argued that the encyclical came too late in the period, fifty years after the 1848 year of revolutionary fever in mainland Europe, yet too early for the full effects of socialism and Marxism in Russia, to have played out. Amidst the background of reform, Leo in his capacity as a papal delegate in the 1840s onwards, had witnessed first-hand the poverty and the effects of industrialisation. Rural communities moved wholesale to the crowded cities but were paid subsistence wages, often in dangerous working conditions with long hours and little rest. Leo knew the work of Emmanuel Ketteler and the Fribourg Union set up to debate and highlight these conditions. Also in France, the work of Antoine Ozanam and the birth of the Vincent de Paul order did much to highlight the condition of the poor, amidst the chaos of revolution and the breakdown of church structures. Switzerland saw the birth of the Catholic International Students’ Association, which raised awareness of the maltreatment of workers as part of the overall campaign for rights and a living wage.
In Britain, Catholics could now sit as Members of Parliament, thus they were generally more influential in law-making and had a voice in society. The restoration of the hierarchy in England in 1850 gave vent to the cry of ‘papal aggression’ by the establishment and the media of the day. Socially Britain was heavily industrialised in major cities with little state planning and resultant squalor, poor health and sanitation. A large pool of labour resulted in poor wages, with many employers becoming wealthy from the workers’ efforts, thus creating a more unequal society. The effects of the Reform Act of 1832, gave rights to the middle classes, but the Chartist Movement demanded further reforms. During the late...