May 16, 2011

WASHINGTON — Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum continues to offer lessons to society, said panellists at a conference marking the 120th anniversary of the landmark document.

Workers continue to struggle for decent wages and rights, a struggle not all that different from when the encyclical was published in 1891, said those taking part in the May 2 event at The Catholic University of America.

Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said recent events point to the need for the modern world to take to heart the lessons of Rerum Novarum.

The efforts in several U.S. states to do away with collective bargaining by state employees and huge demonstrations in Italy and England this year by students worried about their ability to find work are examples of worker insecurity, Turkson said in an interview.

Questions about worker rights and the power of capitalism come down to the need to protect human dignity, he said.

"For me the criteria is how people are treated," he said. "I tend to judge every government by how well that government treats its own citizens."

In a response to Turkson, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., said workers today face an economic revolution, much as was the case in the time of Pope Leo XIII.


Blaire, who chairs the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said "the current revolution is a technological one."

"Global poverty envelops the earth," he said. "Millions are unemployed. Working conditions around the globe are often deplorable. Church-state relationships in many instances are adversarial."

An example of the current needs for the teachings of Rerum Novarum lies in the need of the poor to have a voice on Capitol Hill amid budget and financial reform, said Blaire.

"The poor have no lobbyists with huge bank accounts to speak for them."

John Sweeney, president emeritus of the AFL-CIO, said at the time of Rerum Novarum, "untrammeled capitalism" had changed the relationship between "master and worker," the result of unregulated industries.

Today, the problem is that for the past 30 years, some industries "have been waging all-out war" against the gains workers got through the growth of unions in earlier generations, Sweeney said.

It's time for the Church to re-emphasize Rerum Novarum, he said.