It is generally held that Catholic Social Teaching begins with Pope Leo XIII’s masterly encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891). That, as I’ve tried to show, is a dreadful mistake. Pope Leo considered it his duty to apply to current concerns the constant teaching of the Church and of the word of God. Like Thomas Aquinas, the study of whose works he promoted vigorously, he would have considered “originality” a vice, not a virtue.
Perhaps we are misled by the title, Rerum Novarum. In our anti-society of rapacious consumption of the “new” and “improved,” and the unease instilled in us by mass marketers and politicians who cry that if we do not act now we will be lost—“Awake, arise, or be forever fall’n!” cries the Prince of Politicians to his fellow devils in Milton’s hell—we are apt to credit Pope Leo with seeing the light of novelty. No such thing. The ancient Romans held the political innovator to be a plague. Res nova means revolution, and the “spirit of revolutionary change,” rerum novarum spiritus, writes Leo, has been disturbing the nations of the world.