On November 15, 2016, Georgetown University workers, students, staff, faculty, and clergy gathered in the spiritual heart of campus to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum.
Pope Leo XIII’s pivotal 19th century encyclical laid the foundation for Catholic teaching on labor and the dignity of work. More than a century later, these principles remain profoundly relevant to our society and our campus community on the Hilltop. These are the opening remarks offered by KI Executive Director and Georgetown University Professor of History, Joseph A. McCartin.
Exactly 125 years ago, in 1891, the industrializing world was going through a traumatic transformation that should seem familiar to us today: new technologies were transforming work; people were being uprooted by economic process from the lands of their birth and their traditional ways of life and drawn to the centers of the new economy, fleeing the collapsing worlds their parents had known and seeking new and better ones; millions of immigrants, emigrants, and migrants were crossing borders and seeking new homes; cities were growing and their problems were multiplying; tensions were emerging as cultures clashed; xenophobia was ignited (in the US it took the form of the American Protective Association, which sought to ban Catholic immigrants to this country); inequality was surging as some reaped enormous, unprecedented, and obscene profits from the new economy while others suffered egregious exploitation. Almost everywhere, including here in the United States, traditional politics was failing to come to grips with these changes and the anxieties they were unleashing. The US in those years saw the emergence of a powerful Populist movement, whose leaders criticized both mainstream parties as inadequate to the task of taming industrialism and the disruptive changes it was wreaking. A range of radicalisms beckoned to followers here and abroad – Marxian socialism, Bakunin-ite anarchism, Henry George’s Single Tax, Edward Bellamy’s Nationalism. The world was roiling.
It was into the chaotic present of that troubled moment that Pope Leo XIII stepped with words intended to call the world to a higher ground, a papal encyclical called Rerum Novarum. In English the title could be translated as “New Things” (or perhaps “Revolutionary Change”). The new things that Leo wrote about were the mixed fruits of industrialism: increased wealth on the one hand, and growing oppression and inequality on the other. The encyclical went on to argue that industrialism could be a good thing for humanity, but only if it was harnessed to serve the common good. Leo condemned unbridled materialism in no uncertain terms; and, while he criticized Marxian socialism, he strongly defended the rights of the poor and of workers. He called for protection of the workers’ rights to organize unions and bargain collectively with their employers.
With this encyclical Leo launched what in time became known as Catholic Social Teaching. Rooted in the Gospels of Jesus and the traditional teachings of the church, Catholic Social Teaching adapted these ancient teachings about justice to the social situation of the industrializing world. Out of this teaching grew concepts of what we now call “social justice.” This teaching above all recognized the dignity of the worker and rested on the unshakable assertion that the economy existed to serve humanity; humans did not exist to serve the economy. This teaching was elaborated over the course of the 20th century by other popes, bishops, priests, nuns, and lay people. It played a crucial role in shaping the outlook of the Catholics who went on to play a leadership role in the American union movement from Philip Murray of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s, to Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers in the 1960s, to Mary Kay Henry of the SEIU in our own day.
Catholic social teaching found an echo in the teachings of the other Abrahamic faith traditions: in the Social Gospel of Protestant Christians; in the notion of Tikkun olam (healing a broken world) or the vision of Yahweh as the deliverer of an enslaved and oppressed people, which is so central to Judaism; and in Islam’s deep concerns for fairness to the worker. In the end what Leo said in Rerum Novarum was not all that different from what the Prophet Muhammed said in the Holy Quran: “Your servants/workers are your brothers whom God the most High has placed under your authority. Therefore, a person who has a brother under his authority, should feed him out of that which he eats himself and should dress him with the same kind of clothes which he wears himself; he should not assign work to him which is beyond his capacity, and if you do so, then help him in his work.”
On those occasions when they have spoken to their deepest truths, these three great Abrahamic faith traditions have offered a moral bulwark against exploitation and for the care and respect of the worker.
Today we meet to honor an important moment in the history of faith-driven commandments for justice and solidarity. We meet to mark the 125 anniversary of Pope Leo’s powerful statement.
There is no doubt that we meet in troubled times. As it was 125 years ago, the world is again roiling. As 125 years ago we are in desperate need of clear moral voices that can draw on our deepest traditions and bring them to bear on the problems of our time in ways that honor our common humanity, that bring healing to a wounded world, that bring justice. And so we gather this afternoon.
Today we will hear from many voice from our community: workers, teachers, students, organizers, and clergy. And that is as it should be. Pronouncements from papal chairs have their place. Wise teachings from those who have earned seats of authority in our most hallowed institutions have much to teach us. But we should never forget that it rests on all of us to preserve and carry on the deepest values that such teachings seek to clarify. Those are entrusted to us. Powerful authorities will come and go; the good and bad, the worthy and the unworthy will alternate in the seats of power. We cannot entrust to those who hold such seats alone the role of leading. We must all take up that burden. If we are to carry on the best of our traditions, we must all be leaders. It is in a very deep way, on us.
And so in that spirit, we open these reflections.
Before we turn to the program, a word of thanks is in order to a few people. First to Prof. Rosemary Sokas, whose idea this was in the first place. We are deeply grateful to her for her leadership on this campus and her lifelong work dedicated to workplace safety, to respect for the lives, bodies, minds and souls of people who work. Second, I would also like to thank the staff of the Kalmanovitz Initiative, Jessica Fernanda Chilin, who has emerged as one of our community’s most important voices on issues of justice for immigrant people, and the indefatigable Alex Taliadoros, whose tireless, and I do mean tireless, work made this event possible. Alex above all made this event made this happen. I would also like to offer a word of thanks to our cosponsors:
- Population Health Initiative at the Georgetown School of Nursing & Health Studies
- Catholic Chaplaincy and Campus Ministry
- The Initiative on Catholic Social Through and Public Life
- The Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching and Service
- The Catholic Student Fellowship
- The Georgetown Solidarity Committee