Roman republic had often come across the words 'rerum novarum cupidine' in the writings of Cicero, Sallust and Caesar, where they invariably meant that the 'mob' was often stirred up by a determination to overthrow the existing order. None of the authors of the encyclical had intended to conjure up visions of ugly mobs rising in revolutionary action, but the widespread impression persisted in hostile circles that Rerum Novarum was little more than a diatribe against socialism and communism. A translation closer to the original Italian and the official Latin texts is 'The burning desire for change, which for so long has begun to stir up the masses'.18
Like previous popes, Leo rejected socialism as a solution to the ills of the working class, but its condemnation is not the burden of the encyclical, although the inevitability of class conflict is portrayed as 'a concept so contrary to reason and truth that it flies in the face of reality'. Mindful of Henry George, several pages are devoted to defending the right to private property which stands beside an elaborate and careful analysis of the excesses of capitalism summed up in the trenchant words 'a monopoly of production and commerce has fallen into the hands of a small number of tycoons who have laid upon the teeming masses of the labouring poor a yoke little better than that imposed by slavery itself'.19 Leo objected to the manifold excesses of capitalism rather than to the system itself, but the reader is entitled to wonder what means were available, apart from the trade unions, then in their infancy, to civilise a system that often descended into heartless barbarism.
Throughout the encyclical, the misery of the poor, the disadvantaged and the oppressed is constantly before the reader. In a marked departure from previous popes and well aware that he was speaking to a wider audience, Leo regularly turned to the natural law when he pleaded that justice, combined with the teachings of the New Testament, be taken as the yardstick by which all people of good will must act in the interests of the disadvantaged. The pope and his collaborators were conscious of the need to lay down firm and abiding principles, so that Rerum Novarum is a moderate, prudent document revealing a reluctance to relinquish old forms of thought or to launch out too far into uncharted waters. To that end neo-Thomistic thinking, a development that had been led in Rome by Liberatore and greatly favoured by Leo, was easily adapted. Despite its innate caution, the burden of the encyclical demanded innovative teaching and Leo and Liberatore were equal to the task.
18 Molony, The worker question, p. 165.
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