The inviolable right to the innate dignity of the individual person was the principle underlying the whole encyclical. In magisterial tones Leo claimed that 'No one may outrage that human dignity which God himself treats with great reverence and insisted that 'man himself can never renounce his right to be treated according to his nature or to surrender himself to any form of slavery of the spirit'.20 With that principle, the church assumed the mandate to champion the oppressed and reject the pretensions of the oppressor. Perhaps more importantly, it could demand that those subject to oppression were not merely entitled to protest, but were obliged by their very nature to do so. To that extent Leo spoke to, and on behalf of, the entire human race.
As a corollary to the intrinsic rights of the individual, Leo insisted that the family is the basic unit of society. 'It is a great and pernicious error, therefore, to propose that the State can interfere at will in the sanctuary of the family.' He accepted that, in case of dire need or of 'a grave violation of mutual rights' within a family, the public authority should intervene, but he rejected that child care should be taken from parents by the state, because it is 'against natural justice and destroy[s] the structure of the home'. Leo furthermore insisted that the church had a special obligation to care for those for whom 'God himself has reserved a special love', namely the 'less fortunate and the poor', among whom the pope included the great mass of the workers in their 'depressed state'.21
When it came to the central thesis of the worker question, Rerum Novarum strongly asserted the right of the worker to humane labour conditions, especially for women and children. Although the encyclical accepted that the workers had a just cause to withdraw their labour when their hours of work were too long, their labour excessive or they judged their wages insufficient, the state should use its authority and influence to 'forestall and prevent' strikes. Liberatore had initially toyed with the possibility of a reversion to some form of guild system, or at least the development of corporate bodies comprising workers and employers. Ultimately an explicit decision was made in favour of trade unions, but the text, whether in Latin or Italian, fell short of using direct terminology. None the less, that trade unions were endorsed gradually becomes clear as the argument develops, and especially when their freedom from state intervention is demanded. It is evident that common sense prevailed in light of the fact that trade unions were already a widely accepted
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