Acton Rerum Novarum Conference: Photo by Kasia Artymiak

FEATURE: Rerum Novarum: International Experts Explore Pope Leo XIII's Groundbreaking Encyclical

Marking 125th Anniversary of Encyclical, Acton Institute’s Rome Conference Looks at How Document Represented Beginning of Modern Catholic Social Teaching

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Experts from around the world gathered on April 20 in Rome to highlight the importance of and take on a dialogue about Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, marking the 125th anniversary of the first modern social encyclical.
The “Freedom With Justice: Rerum Novarum and the New Things of Our Time” conference was organized by the Acton Institute, an international ecumenical think tank dedicated to the intersection of the theology and economic, along with other co-sponsors, including Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a pro-life think tank based in Rome.
Experts on Catholic social teaching gathered at a private conference center below the Pontifical Gregorian University together to look at the groundbreaking encyclical. Among the speakers, mostly European, were Rev. Prof. Wojciech Giertych, theologian of the papal household; Bishop Dominque Rey, Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon, France; Bishop Kęstutis Kėvalas, Archdiocese of Kaunas, Lithuania; Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute; Dr. Rocco Pezzimenti, professor of political philosophy and history of political thought, LUMSA, Rome; Dr. Manfred Spieker, professor of Christian social ethics, University of Osnabrück, Germany.
Known for its strong stand against socialism, defense of private property, and affirmation of the legitimacy of trade unions, Rerum Novarum, the speakers agreed, also represented the beginning of modern Catholic Social Teaching.
But Pope Leo’s encyclical on ‘revolutionary things,’ many noted, also had much to say about the demands for freedom and social justice in the late-nineteenth century as increasing numbers of people became focused upon what was called “the social question.”
During the conference, many bishops and intellectuals from Europe and America addressed topics such as Pope Leo’s attempt to revive the thought of Aquinas, the continuing importance of religious, economic, and political freedom, the State’s role in a global economy, and socialism’s resurgence today.
Those present in the audience in Rome, and those watching online, had the opportunity to ask questions and actively participate in a lively discussion, not only of the encyclical’s historical importance, but of “new things” of our time. Some of these “things” discussed at the conference were new forms of religious persecution in America, Europe’s faltering welfare states and sovereign debt crises, globalization’s winners and losers, demographic deficits and migration challenges, malfunctioning financial systems, and the rise of economic populism. The conference participants explored various questions: ‘What does Rerum Novarum say to us today about the state of freedom in all its forms – political, religious, and economic – in developed and developing societies?’ ‘Have its insights into the demands of justice and the necessity of freedom been superseded by time and political and economic changes?’ ‘Or does the encyclical provide us with ways for strengthening the free society and all the dimensions of liberty while also helping the Church as it seeks to promote justice among the new things of today?’
President and founder of Acton, Fr. Sirico spoke to ZENIT about why it is so important to discuss this encyclical today, especially as religious freedom is being increasingly challenged.
“From the outset,” Fr. Sirico acknowledged, “Leo sees the ways in which business, economics, politics, the family, business and Catholic faith all cluster into a momentous set of questions that faced the Church in his day. It is remarkable how similar is the confluence of factors in our own time.”
He also shared with us another interesting observation. “The author of Rerum Novarum was also the author of Aeterni Patris, so it is no surprise that Leo’s treatment of property follows much of that of Aquinas.”
In the United States, in the late twentieth century, Fr. Sirico also lamented, the increasingly hostile climate toward genuine and robust religious liberty has been manifested.
“The following,” Acton’s president outlined in his intervention, “is but an abbreviated list of the ways in which the Church’s economic freedom—of which the right to dispose of property freely is one dimension—has been attacked and in the process her very mission and character have been threatened.

  • In Arizona, a Protestant pastor was arrested for holding bible studies in his home, authorities alleging that he thereby violated zoning laws that prohibit regular assemblies in residences.
  • In Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and many other places, Catholic dioceses with financial problems have been unable to manage their own properties responsibly due to opponents who use historic preservation codes to prevent the alteration, sale, or demolition of church structures.
  • In Massachusetts, Illinois, and other jurisdictions, Catholic agencies have been forced to abandon their adoption services in the face of mandates to place children with same-sex couples. These mandates have force because the state controls the licensure of adoption agencies.
  • In a case that continues to be litigated, efforts are being made to force the Little Sisters of the Poor—a religious institute devoted to providing care to the elderly and dying—to participate in the provision of health insurance which involves coverage of acts which violate Catholic moral teaching. This so-called HHS mandate is a provision of the health reform act passed under President Obama, which has given rise to a series of religious freedom threats. Christian-owned businesses, religious colleges, and other institutions have all challenged the HHS mandate on these terms.”

A common thread throughout the interventions and the Q & A was the impact of Pope Leo XIII, especially in his having inaugurated the Catholic social encyclical tradition. They agreed he was one of the great minds of his time, who was not afraid to examine the “new things” of his era, such as the Industrial Revolution, the emergence of an often radicalized working class, the collapse of old hierarchies, the ‘remorseless, seemingly unstoppable’ rise of capitalism, and the threats of Marxism and socialism.
This free conference, which offered simultaneous translations in English, French and Italian, was the fifth and final in the five-part series “One and Indivisible? The Relationship Between Religious and Economic Freedom.”

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

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