About 30 people gathered at St Benedicts in Garforth to hear Lyn Smith, a theologian who lives in New Zealand (but who hails from Yorkshire), talk about Catholic Social Teaching and particularly its origins in the document produced by Pope Leo XIII – Rerum Novarum.

Rerum Novarum was published in 1891 and many of its messages resonate just as much now as they must have done at the time of publication. He was particularly trying to address the issues of poor people and workers in industrialised countries:

  • The destitution of the masses and the wealth of a few
  • Decline of public morality
  • Workers exploited by greedy employers
  • Public authorities not protecting the rights of the poor.

group at St.Benedict's in GarforthWhilst the language used may be a bit different to the words we would use today, the issues are as real for us today as they were for the document’s original audience:

“The hiring of labour and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich people have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than slavery itself.”

The biggest difference today, it seems to me, is that there are no longer ‘teeming masses of the labouring poor’. However, it was only earlier this year that the Joseph Rowntree foundation was reporting 184,500 households experienced a level of poverty in a typical week last year that left them reliant on charities for essentials such as food, clothes, shelter and toiletries. This amounts to over one million people reliant on charity handouts. This in the 6th richest country in the world.

More than three-quarters of destitute people reported going without meals, while more than half were unable to heat their home. Destitution affected their mental health, left them socially isolated and prone to acute feelings of shame and humiliation. You only has to think of some of the stories to zero hours contracts to and the exploitation of migrant workers in the agricultural industries to know that the exploitative situations described in Rerum Novarum are still in existence today. Lyn directed people to think about refugees in the context of her talk. Many refugees are seeking asylum. The state imposes severe limitations on what these people are able to do whilst their applications are processed (which can take months, and in some cases, years). Most want to contribute positively to the country in which they find themselves but are legally prevented from doing so. I could think of many other examples where the public authorities are not protecting the rights of the poor. One example is. the new legislation which will increase the rent of people in social housing where earnings are above a (low) threshold – forcing many people to look for work elsewhere because they simply will not be able to afford to live near enough to carry on with their existing employment.

So, unfortunately, it seems that Pope Leo XIII’s exhortations – and their subsequent development in other Church documents (right up to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si)  – have not produced the societal transformations that are required to bring about a just and equal sharing of the earth’s resources.

There still seems to be a reluctance within church circles to comprehensively tackle these issues head on  (How many sermons have you heard in  the last year that referenced Catholic Social Teaching?) – they are too ‘political’ or might cause ‘conflict’ within church communities. The reality is that the Gospel of Jesus is very challenging – and we should not shy away from that challenge but embrace it.

It is only through dialogue with one another in our communities that we will come to understand what Jesus is really asking us to do in response to the situations in which we find ourselves. The answer will be different in each community – but I am sure that it will be more than just praying.