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Rerum Novarum, §1-11: A natural law defense of private ownership

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As I start looking at Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII's famous 1891 encyclical, I'll first summarize/paraphrase what the encyclical says, paragraph by paragraph, then analyze the way Pope Leo presents his argument, and finally offer my own commentary on it. The first two focus on what is being said, and the last is my own personal response to it. This is a method I recommend to anyone who wants to give an important work a fair reading -- in fact, it's something  that I have always tried to teach my students: understand first, and withhold judgment until you are sure you really do understand.

This is the whole idea behind the 4-step method of reading with understanding that I’ve propounded elsewhere on this blog. Why start with summary? Because it forces me to boil down the argument to its essential parts — but I don’t want to oversimplify it, so sometimes my “summary” is really more of a paraphrase. I don’t want to skip over any really essential ideas. If you try this yourse…

Homer's Tardis: Literature is the best kind of time machine

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One of my favorite kinds of speculative fiction is the time travel tale, not the H. G. Wells sort of thing that takes you into a distant, purely speculative future, but the kind that takes a modern person and sends him (or her) into the past. The earliest piece of time travel literature that I can recall reading was an Classics Illustrated version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I read probably at age ten or eleven. (I had already been introduced to King Arthur several years earlier, through a Golden Book storybook based on Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.)

Imagining past livesTime travel stories allow us to visit the past in our imagination, but we are always conscious that we are visitors, outsiders — and therein lies the limitation of the genre. It is always more interested in commenting on (or even passing judgment on) the past, rather than showing it to us as it had been lived. When I was reading A Connecticut Yankee, I was more interested in th…

Rerum Novarum in context

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Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical Rerum Novarum at the end of the nineteenth century. The previous hundred years had seen a huge upheaval in the way people in the Western world lived and thought. Some changes happened so fast that, even after a hundred years, the world hadn’t yet figured out how to deal adequately with situations that were already a fact of life. One proposed “solution” to the problems of the Western world was set forth in The Communist Manifesto, written by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, but as Pope Leo saw clearly, not only didn’t the Marxist solution fix anything, it only made things worse. That’s the main reason the Holy Father wrote Rerum Novarum, which is perhaps the first papal encyclical that found widespread resonance outside the Catholic Church.

Linguistic context: The title Before we look more closely at the social, political, and religious context in which this encyclical letter was written, I’d like to say something about its title. The tradition in na…

Want a better world? Read Rerum Novarum

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Remember the Year of Faith decreed by Pope Benedict XVI? It began in October 2012, coinciding with the height of the political season here in the United States, as we prepared for national elections. I’ll admit I was, then as now, rather jaded about our national politics — we seem usually to have a choice between “bad” and “even worse.” At the time, I entertained a little pipe dream about a political party that would be founded on the principles of Catholic social teaching, emphasizing subsidiarity, solidarity, and the inherent dignity of the human person.
I still think it would be a capital idea. In fact, I think a lot of people, in addition to Catholics, could get behind a party that promoted these key principles:
Subsidiarity — the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or most local competent authority, beginning with the family itself, the nucleus of society. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central aut…

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