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Rerum novarum: the eco­nomic and social doc­trine of the Catholic Church

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the first encyclical relating to Catholic doctrine on social and economic issues. Its name, Rerum novarum, means « of new things » and the document was a response to the industrial revolution that had been taking place since the 18th century, and the emergence of liberal and subsequently Marxist economic theories.

Leo XIII outlined a third way, in between these two theories, which asserted workers' rights, but opposed any notion of class struggle. Catholic doctrine reiterated the basic economic principles of Christianity, and notably affirmed the following: the right of property ownership, tempered by the duty to provide for the common good and to use that property for the benefit of others; a fair wage; charity towards the poor; freedom of association for workers. State intervention was permitted but had to follow the principle of subsidiarity, i.e. it should be restricted to matters that could not be settled by other competent authorities (family, associations, unions, local authorities).

Some problems could only be dealt with at international level, by the competent economic and social authorities. Since 1891, successive popes have published various updates to the Rerum novarum, dealing with issues such as international debt, the consequences of the collapse of communism, cross-​​border migration and financial crises.

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