The case of associations “ill-according with Christianity and the public well-being” (RN 54). Observations on a ‘minor’ element of Rerum novarum

Most Rev. Giampaolo Crepaldi


It is not always easy to distinguish between major and minor elements of a text. The perspective changes with the passing of time and what was considered major back then may well now be looked upon as minor, and just the other way around. On the occasion of the 125th anniversary of this important Leonine encyclical I would like to dwell on an aspect which, in my opinion, was considered a minor one, and precisely for this reason disregarded or forgotten. Many are the forgotten aspects of this encyclical by Leo XIII. They do not leap into the forefront of attention like many others, are unpretentious or ‘low profile’, and hence run the risk of being shunted aside. Moreover, at times they are set aside insofar as not really “correct” in the  mind of so many of today’s interpreters. In other words, aspects looked upon as minor because they are potentially troublesome. Perhaps this is what is happening to the aspect I plan to bring to your attention.


Worker associationism, and among Catholic workers in particular

I see one of these ‘minor’ aspects in the proposal Leo XIII made to workers, and Catholic workers in particular, to become organized in order to defend themselves from the “new things” (Res novae) brought into the picture by the industrial society and its driving ideologies. The closing paragraphs of Rerum novarum (48-61) are dedicated to this subject.

First of all, it is stated that the right of association is natural, and that associations among citizens precede the State. They are private by nature insofar as they pursue private ends, and public in nature if their aim is the common good (n. 51). The associations of the Church must also enjoy the exercise of this right, while the State often confiscates their goods and deprives them of legal personality, and these are attitudes Rerum noverum resolutely deprecates (53). The right of the Church is therefore also based on natural law, and not on an ecclesiastical privilege.

In passing, I would like to point out two interesting aspects on this point. Of great importance today is the distinction between private associations, whose aim is the good of the members, and social associations insofar as focused on the common good and hence endowed with public import. In the confusion reigning today between private right and public right[1], however, the borderline between the two is no longer crystal clear.  The family, for example, should be considered a natural society (and therefore ordered by its selfsame origin and structure to the common good and in need of political protection as such), while it is often considered a private social aggregation, thereby separated from any reference to the common good and hence without deserving legal recognition and political protection. Originating here as well is legislation regarding the legal recognition of same sex couples insofar as “social aggregation” (Article 2 of the current Italian Constitution), and not insofar as “natural society (Article 29). Leo XIII made this distinction on the basis of the concept of “end”: a public end or else a private end, but the selfsame concept of end, linked to which was the notion of right, has today been abandoned and replaced with that of individual and subjective rights, no matter what may be the end people wish to attain by availing themselves of these rights[2]. By taking a position not on ‘end’ but on subjective rights it becomes impossible to distinguish between public and private, and hence also between associations pursuing the common good and associations pursuing the individual good of their respective members.

The second aspect worthy of note in this passage of Rerum novarum is that the rights of Catholic associations and the Church itself stem from and depend upon the natural right of association. The Church belongs to civil society which, as the encyclical states, precedes the State as such. Certainly, the State can prohibit the exercise of these rights that precede it when they pose dangers for other public goods such as justice and peace, but it cannot take arbitrary action that violates the natural right of association of persons, families, and intermediary social groups. In many parts of the world the Church as well claims this liberty based on natural law and mounts opposition against the forms of State violence, discrimination and harassment against its associations. Nonetheless, this perspective must not confuse our thinking and induce us to equate the Church’s rights with respect to the State with those of those of any other association or religious confession.  This would be tantamount to downplaying the just claim of the Catholic Church. In fact, the Catholic Church has not only the right to be respected by the State within the ambit of civil society, but also the right to orient the State towards the true good of society insofar as it is the depository and custodian of the selfsame natural law to which it appeals in order to defend its own associations from interference on the part of public authorities.


Associations “in the hands of secret leaders and managed on principles ill – according with Christianity and the public well-being”.

Nonetheless, we have yet to reach the ‘minor’ aspect of interest to us. The formation of associations (associationism), continues Rerum novarum, had developed considerably among workers. This is legitimate and to be desired in itself, but Leo XIIX flags a danger: at times these associations are “in the hands of secret leaders and managed on principles ill – according with Christianity and the public well-being”, and he therefore makes this proposal: “Under these circumstances Christian working men must do one of two things: either join associations in which their religion will be exposed to peril, or form associations among themselves and unite their forces so as to shake off courageously the yoke of so unrighteous and intolerable an oppression. No one who does not wish to expose man’s chief good to extreme risk will for a moment hesitate to say that the second alternative should by all means be adopted” (RN, 54).

After having examined the characteristics workers’ associations must have in order to operate and attain their goals (RN, 57 – 58), Leo XIII returns to the subject of “Catholic associations” in paragraph 61 and sustains that alongside the solution of concrete problems, their ends also include evangelization: “And further great advantage would result from the state of things We are describing; there would exist so much more ground for hope, and likelihood, even, of recalling to a sense of their duty those working men who have either given up their faith altogether, or whose lives are at variance with its precepts”.

Here we have the two so-called ‘minor’ aspects of interest to us.

The first argues that when Catholics join together in associations and become engaged in society, they cannot collaborate with everyone, contrary to what is the general line of thought sustained nowadays. In fact, now prevailing is the idea that Catholics must be open to blanket cooperation, while in the mind of Leo XIII the risk entailed in such an approach would be collaborating in the pursuit of erroneous ends that are negative for both man and for the Catholic religion (and we ordinarily know very well that the two things go together). It does not suffice for an association to pursue some good ends alongside other bad ones to merit collaboration on the part of Catholics. Since good cannot be pursued by doing just the opposite, Catholics cannot become involved insofar as unable to separate the good ends from the bad ones.

I’d like to offer a few practical examples. In the realm of international assistance, Catholic NGOs cooperate with other NGOs and international organizations that do not share the same anthropology. The latter groupings understand commitment for human rights as including so-called reproductive health, which contemplates both forced sterilization and abortion. The United Nations has associated the Cairo Consensus to the renewal of the Millennium Development Goals for the period 2016 – 2030[3], including the extension of this concept of reproductive health to gender. This means that commitment for human rights (access to safe water, access of women to education, etc) will be institutionally linked to the promotion of abortion, including chemical abortion. It is clear that arising in such cases is the problem illustrated above: is it possible for Catholic NGOs to collaborate?

The problem arises in our societies as well. Catholics are convinced that it is necessary to promote the equal dignity of men and women, but cannot collaborate with associations that distort all this with overtones of ideological feminism or gender ideology. Catholics know they have to be engaged in the battle against HIV-AIDS, but cannot do so side by side with associations that want to wage war by handing out contraceptives – including those emergency ones which may prove to be abortive – thereby serving the interests of global pharmaceutical companies. Christian anthropology does not permit this to Catholics. It certainly is possible for a Catholic association to implement and manage a social programme on behalf of a municipality, but if this then involves supporting a city council whose policies destroy the family, this involvement becomes unlawful.  

As we can see, this warning by Leo XII continues to be of great importance, albeit widely unheeded today. This only appears to be a ‘minor’ aspect. I believe the change in perspective is due above all to the change in the Church-World relationship sustained by some theological schools of thought. This is not the opportune place for delving deeply into this point, and hence a brief reference will suffice. For some theologians who do not share the same philosophical and theological premises as Leo XIII, the world is the place where God reveals Himself in the journey of the history of humanity to which the Church as well belongs. Therefore, the Church must be fully in the world, learn from the world, and travel together with one and all, knowing that the truth in full will not be ours to see in this history. Along with this, there is an important complementary element: attention to the person. Since each person is a very complex reality and no one is 100% holy or sinful, white or black, good or bad, all persons have to be travelling companions, exercising dialogue in order to discern the ways to follow and the things to be done. I think it is for these two briefly outlined reasons that there are Catholics working together with radical oriented associations, and with them campaigning on one hand for justice in prisons, and on the other hand for abortion, without understanding the unlawful nature of this collaboration and actually projecting it as called for by the Gospel.  

Added to the above could be another aspect particularly evident today. Christians are active in numerous endeavors of solidarity and horizontal humanism without making their contribution to uplift them to the vertical and horizontal level. A case in point is Catholic militancy for the environment or for peace, also in forms of collaboration with other organizations that project a naturalistic version of the environment and a sociological version of peace, but not a spiritual one.  Should Catholics collaborate? It must be said that in some cases commitment for the environment and for peace is so overloaded with pantheistic, naturalistic, and biased political and ideological sense that collaboration is very difficult. In some cases collaboration is possible as long as Catholics, however, do not refrain from bringing their specificity into the picture. For the ecology this means speaking not about nature, but about creation, and for peace making it clear that this is not something the world can do on its own.  

Evangelization as the ultimate end

The second element of the excerpt from Rerum novarum seen above has to do with evangelization as an end. In this excerpt Leo XIII already presents both the Social Doctrine of the Church and social and political action inspired by it as “instrument of evangelization”, as John Paul II would later call it[4]. This is obviously not a matter of proselytism; that is to say mistaking the social solidarity to be afforded to all with embracing the Catholic religion, but rather bearing witness to and announcing the Catholic faith in all its demands within the ambit of social and economic endeavors. Interesting here is the way the Holy Father speaks about the moral repentance and religious repentance that Catholic workers could prompt in their fellow-workers, thereby keeping the two things united. Nowadays, in the wake of the so-called “anthropological shift”, no one says this anymore because it would seem that the Catholic faith was something making its own use of the human dimensions of existence, beginning from which the Catholic faith is then to be deduced, instead of just the other way around. This, however, was not the idea Leo XIII had in mind.

It would therefore be opportune to look a bit deeper into what we said about proselytism. Working in society for Catholics alone, providing assistance to Catholics alone, and inducing people to become Catholics in order to access assistance and benefits would be an unacceptable form of proselytism. If a Catholic association that provides meals to the homeless were to do so only for those who declare they are Catholics, this would be proselytism. Christian charity is not something practiced only for the good of “card-carriers” or “members”. This is true, but two things have to be clarified.

Being open to charity for all does not mean strict silence about being Catholic. That association giving meals to the needy must not hide the fact of being Catholic and offering this service insofar as Catholic; it must not remove symbols of Catholicism from the walls and once it has established a person-to-person relationship with its beneficiary-guests, it must not back out of bringing to their attention what we could call ‘the Catholic proposal’ not as a condition for continuing to receive meals, but as the fruit and development of an encounter.

The second clarification is a development of what was just said.  Thinking in terms of having an influence on the mores and laws of a society, on measures and political choices, is often interpreted as low-level proselytism, an attempt to corner portions of “Catholic” power, a yearning to plant one’s own flag on a given social ambit, as conquest rather than service. In these cases, as people often say, proselytism turns faith into ideology.

In more general terms, and returning to what was said above about the relationship between the Church and the World, people think that any claim on the part of the Church to bring light to the world, light not born of the world itself, is an expression of macro-proselytism towards the world, a conquest and not an announcement.

We know very well, however, that this is not how things stand because it is a matter of liberation. In the world there are many good things that are the fruit of creation, of natural law which orients all consciences letting themselves be guided, of the “seeds” sown by the Word in His wisdom in  humanity at large, also outside the official records of Church membership. But the world is also in the hands of the “Prince of this world”, and as such needs salvation more than being able to bestow it upon itself or give it to others.  Therefore, spreading the announcement of the liberation of Christ in the world is an index not of proselytism, but evangelization, with the Social Doctrine of the Church as its instrument and expression[5].



[1] Francesco Gentile, Intelligenza politica e ragion di Stato, Giuffré, Milan 1083, pgs. 7-14.

[2] Fudamental remains the work by Carl Schmitt on the dissolution of the Jus publicum europaeum in the wake of the process of secularization: Carl Schmitt. Il nomos della terra, Adelphi, Milan 1991; Ibid.,Ex capti vitate salus, Translation by Carlo Mainoldi. With an essay  by Francesco Mercadante, Adelphi, Milan 1987.

[3]Marguerite Peeters, La piattaforma e la strategia post 2015 degli attori del  Diritto alla salute sessuale e riproduttiva, “Bulletin of the Social Doctrine of the Church”, X (2014) 3, pp. 68-73; Ibid., Vent’anni di diritto alla salute sessuale e riproduttiva in Africa. Risultati ottenuti dagli attori transnazionali nelle istituzioni politiche dopo il Cairo. Sfide per la Chiesa, “Bulletin of the Social Doctrine of the Church”, X (2014) 3, pp. 68-73; Ibid., Il gender. Una questione politica e culturale, San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 2014.

[4] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus annus (1991), ns. 5, 55;  Encyclical Letter Sollicitudo rei socialis (1987) n. 41

[5] Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Vatican City 2004, pgs. 32-36 (ns. 60-71).