It was on this day in 1891 that Pope Leo XIII issued an official Roman Catholic Church encyclical addressing 19th-century labor issues. It’s called Rerum Novarum, Latin for “Of New Things,” and it is considered the original foundation of Catholic social teaching.
He said in the open letter that while the Church defends certain aspects of capitalism, including rights to private property, the free market cannot go unrestricted — that there is a moral obligation to pay laborers a fair and living wage.
He had much more to say to employers; first, he told them “not to look upon their work people as their bondsmen.” He told them it was never OK to cut workers’ wages. And he told them to “be mindful of this — that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine. To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven.”
With these words Leo began a new chapter in the Catholic Church, one where social justice issues became incorporated into official Church doctrine, an essential part of faith, where the Church would stake out official positions and be vocal on issues like labor, war and peace, and the duties of governments to protect human rights.