Leo XIII’s Vision of Social Justice

Pope Leo XIII, born 210 years ago this year, is perhaps best known for his Marianism. He was one of the Church’s greatest promoters of the Holy Rosary, and was the first pontiff to embrace the title of Mediatrix for Our Lady. Yet Leo was one of the great thinkers of the modern age, having sketched out a uniquely Catholic philosophy of man and society for the modern world.

Before discussing Leo’s writings, it is necessary to examine the context in which they were written. Leo was born Vincent Joachim Pecci in 1810 in an Italy in which the pope was being held prisoner by Napoleon. Despite Napoleon’s subsequent defeat and the restoration of the Papal States, the seeds of revolution had been sown and during the subsequent decades the Church would come under constant attack by those seeking to unite the Italian peninsula under a secular liberal government. In 1870, Rome was occupied by the new Italian state.  For the first time in over a thousand years the pope had no temporal possessions. When Leo XIII was elected in 1878, he was the first pope in centuries to exercise no temporal power and to be completely at the mercy of a hostile state. Leo was the first pope to spend his entire pontificate within the walls of the Vatican, unable to leave lest he become a victim of secular aggression.

While the loss of the Papal States was a tragedy, it allowed the pope to focus all his attention on spiritual matters and on teaching the faithful. It is in this context that Leo XIII was to develop his great corpus of teaching which sought to address the central problems of his and our time.

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Leo’s encyclicals read as if written today and deal with problems that still trouble the mind of modern society. Foremost among these are the role of religion in society and the problem of religious indifferentism, the role of marriage and the family, the problem of creating a just society, and ideologies that militate against a Christian vision of society.

In modern times we are used to living in a secular society that exiles religion to the private sphere. “We don’t do God,” as a leading British political operative proclaimed some years ago. Nothing could be more opposed to the Catholic vision of society as enunciated by Leo, especially in his encyclical Immortale Dei. While the Church does not favor any one type of government, nonetheless all authority in society has its origin in God and is subject to the Divine Law.

While the Church and the State are two domains with separate functions, Leo states: “There must… exist between these two powers a certain orderly connection, which may be compared to the union of the soul and body in man…One of the two has for its proximate and chief object the well-being of this mortal life; the other, the everlasting joys of heaven.”

It is a terrible thing therefore for the Church to hold one set of values and the state to hold principles that are utterly opposed to those of the Church. In modern society, all religions are treated as equally true, false, or else indifferent. The Church’s view is radically different. Leo states that the obligation to follow the true religion is binding both upon individuals and on states:

the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both its teaching and practice—not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion—it is a public crime to act as though there were no God. So too it is a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit.

The modern state, says Leo:

believes that it is not obliged to make public profession of any religion; or to inquire which of the very many religions is the only one true; or to prefer one religion to all the rest; or to show to any form of religion special favor; but, on the contrary, is bound to grant equal rights to every creed, so that public order may not be disturbed by any particular form of religious belief…

To hold, therefore, that there is no difference in matters of religion between forms that are unlike each other, and even contrary to each other, most clearly leads in the end to the rejection of all religion in both theory and practice.

These teachings sound harsh to modern ears but they highlight an essential truth. Religion matters. The religion a person professes matters. The religion our rulers profess matters. It is not a purely neutral or private matter.

Equally unacceptable to Pope Leo is the practice—so common among modern politicians!—of expressing one set of religious and moral convictions in private and another in public. As if anticipating the existence of politicians like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, Leo writes that “it is unlawful to follow one line of conduct in private life and another in public, respecting privately the authority of the Church, but publicly rejecting it; for this would amount to joining together good and evil, and to putting man in conflict with himself.”

It is necessary that a state be based on solid religious foundations. But this is not all that is needed for a sound ordering of society. One of the cornerstones of any stable and civilized society is the family based on marriage. Leo’s encyclical Arcanum had as its goal the defense of the sacred nature of the marital union against the encroachments of a secular state that regarded it simply as a contract which can dissolved like any other. In Rerum Novarum, Leo would describe the family as a society older than the state, which “has rights and duties peculiar to itself which are quite independent of the State.”

In Arcanum, he calls marriage the basis of the family union, its “beginning” and “foundation.” Marriage, states Leo, “should exist between two only, that is, between one man and one woman… the marriage bond is by the will of God so closely and strongly made fast that no man may dissolve it or render it asunder.”

This statement may not have been overly controversial in 1880, but today Leo would be denounced for hate speech. Yet in an age of state-sanctioned “gay marriage,” and in which the American Psychological Association runs a Consensual Non-Monogamy Task Force, Leo’s words are more relevant and refreshing than ever.

Marriage is more than a contract, whose terms can be adjusted to suit modern preferences. As Leo says, “marriage is holy by its own power, in its own nature, and of itself.” He declares, “it ought not to be regulated and administered by the will of civil rulers.” Elsewhere, he warns: “Let no one, then, be deceived by the distinction which some civil jurists have so strongly insisted upon by virtue of which they sever the matrimonial contract from the sacrament, with intent to hand over the contract to the power and will of the rulers of the State, while reserving questions concerning the sacrament of the Church.”

Foreseeing the misery that liberal divorce laws would inflict upon society, Leo lamented that

it is hardly possible to describe how great are the evils that flow from divorce. Matrimonial contracts are by it made variable; mutual kindness is weakened; deplorable inducements to unfaithfulness are supplied; harm is done to the education and training of children; occasion is afforded for the breaking up of homes; the seeds of dissension are sown among families… Thus we see most clearly how foolish and senseless it is to expect any public good from divorce, when, on the contrary, it tends to the certain destruction of society.

We should heed these words as “no-fault” divorce laws become ubiquitous across the nations formerly known as Christendom.

True religion and the family founded on marriage both form an essential basis for a society that seeks the common good. Both religion and the family, however, are better nurtured within a socially just society. Today the term “social justice” conjures visions of aggressive leftists promoting a Marxist agenda that sees private ownership as an injustice. The Marxist or socialist vision of collective ownership is entirely contrary to that envisioned by Leo.

In his landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum, Leo asserted man’s basic right to own property, a right held under natural law. Yet he also makes clear that it is desirable that property should be distributed as broadly as possible and the more who are owners the better. Private property is necessary for the thriving of the family, and all families must acquire property to hand on to their children; Leo acknowledged, however, that in the modern economy the acquisition of property may not be easy and that for a man to obtain property it is necessary for him to be paid sufficient wages. Leo therefore urged employers to pay a just wage so that the working man may be able to sustain a decent living for himself and his family:

If a workman’s wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy… to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income… We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible…to become owners.

Leo adds:

Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them… That such a spirit of willing labor would add to the produce of the earth and to the wealth of the community is self-evident. And… men would cling to the country in which they were born, for no one would exchange his country for a foreign land if his own afforded him the means of living a decent and happy life.

In an age in which many find it difficult to acquire property of their own and in which there is mass migration between countries, Leo’s words are especially relevant for our time.

In Rerum Novarum, Leo articulated a vision of true social justice, but militating against this vision is the modern ideology of socialism. Socialists, emboldened by a false notion of equality, endorse the state seizure of property in the name of justice for all. Leo denounces this in no uncertain terms, writing that “neither justice nor the common good allows any individual to seize upon that which belongs to another, or, under the futile and shallow pretext of equality, to lay violent hands on other people’s possessions.”

Given that in 1891, the year Rerum Novarum was published, there had never been a socialist government, Leo’s prediction of socialism’s failure in the following passage is extremely prophetic:

it is only too evident what an upset and disturbance there would be in all classes, and to how intolerable and hateful a slavery citizens would be subjected… the sources of wealth themselves would run dry, for no one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his industry; and that ideal equality about which they entertain pleasant dreams would be in reality the leveling down of all to a like condition of misery and degradation.

Leo is similarly critical of laissez-faire liberalism, especially its hostility to the religious and moral needs of the working man.

In the 21st century, religion is regarded as irrelevant, marriage is reduced to a “lifestyle choice,” and social and economic conditions make the procuring of property ever more difficult while the ideologies of liberalism and socialism continue to assail the values of Christian civilization. In this context, we can do no better than to reconnect with the values articulated by Pope Leo XIII, which could form the basis for the rebuilding of our broken society and lay the seeds for a Christian counter-revolution.


  • Piers Shepherd

    Piers Shepherd is a freelance writer based in London. He has written for Catholic World Report, the Catholic Herald, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, The Wanderer, and other publications. A graduate of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, he works as a researcher for a trust defending traditional marriage and family in the UK.

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