The church had a long tradition to call on regarding the social question that dated back to Aquinas, who had touched on the issue of labour and wages in the thirteenth century. Others followed Aquinas, and in the seventeenth century the Spanish theologians Il Corduba, Vasquez and De Lugo held that a just wage must contain an element that provided for the family of the worker. Despite sporadic attempts to formulate social thought in the church, only in the nineteenth century did a true flowering take place and the foundations of Catholic social teaching were laid. Austria, Germany, France and Belgium were to the forefront, while England, as the anvil on which industrialisation was shaped, made a precious contribution. North America did likewise, but chiefly as a reaction to novel ideas on land ownership.

On a practical level, the Sorbonne university professor and learned historian of the middle ages Frederic Ozanam left an enduring legacy to the church by taking an 'option' to work among the Parisian poor in the 1830s. His students followed his example and, although Ozanam never developed any cohesive body of social teaching, his work lives on in the St Vincent de Paul Society and he would have accepted all that Rerum Novarum contained. Many new communities of nuns in the Catholic world, whether as teachers or nurses, gave their lives for the poor, while Edmund Rice, at Waterford, Ireland, founded the Christian Brothers to educate the male children of those numerous Catholics whose circumstances made their sons' education virtually impossible.

Surprisingly, Marx and Engels had little influence on the development of Catholic thinking on the social question, as did the growth of the early socialist movement, although there were reactions to socialist doctrines and especially to that of inexorable class conflict. Writing in the Vatican, where he had taken refuge from Mussolini, Alcide De Gasperi looked back in 1928 and decided that Vienna was the birthplace of the Catholic social movement and that Baron Karl von Vogelsang was its master. Vogelsang was convinced that the divisions within society could only be solved on a vertical level, which meant that owners and workers must be united in corporations serving their mutual interests and resolving their differences. Furthermore, he was convinced that the vitals of capitalism had to be cut by prohibiting usury. These ideas were rooted in the guilds of the Middle Ages and in the church's insistence until the eighteenth century on the evil of usury. The question of usury, however, was incapable of resurrection without the abolition of capitalism. It was difficult to envisage what would take its place except socialism, which Leo had repeatedly rejected in his previous encyclicals.11

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