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125 years after Rerum novarum


125 years after Rerum novarum

Ellen Van Stichel

15th of May 2016.  We’ve celebrated that 125 years ago pope Leo XIII published his encyclical Rerum novarum. Probably every Catholic community, within every country, maybe even every continent has its own way to remember this memorable fact. For (continental) Europe in general and for Belgium in particular, the importance and impact of the letter cannot be overestimated.  Rerum novarum shaped our civil society, with Catholic movements in different sectors (employees; employers; farmers) and different kind of members (men, women, youth) still being associated with it today; it shaped our political framework, with the close link between these movements – particularly the Catholic Labour Movement – and the Christian Democrat party. Every year the Catholic Labour Movement commemorates Rerum novarum on the Feast of the Ascension of Christ. Hence, this year was a special year, a year to reflect on what it still means today. Hence, the question came: “what is its relevance for Catholics today and what does it say about our ‘DNA’ as Catholic organizations?”

21st of March 2016, a day before the terror attacks in Brussels. I started reading The Power and Vulnerability of Love of Elisabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo. A day later, this quote gained even more pressing meaning and relevance.

How can we move beyond the anxiety surrounding personal, familial and national vulnerabilities to respond nonviolently to our own vulnerabilities and to care about and respond with compassion to the vulnerabilities of other human beings, all of whom are ‘some mother’s child’? When our own vulnerable lives and dignity have been harmed by injustice, violence and aggression, how can we move beyond the violation, heal our wounds and refrain from striking out in violence to wound vulnerable others in return? How can we transform our fear of the ‘other’ from violent scapegoating into compassionate solidarity with all of vulnerable and suffering humanity? (29-30)

These two very different events have been in my mind in the last months. Is there a connection? The more I think about it, the more I believe so, though I’m only hinting at it for now. It is theological work under construction.

Many things can of course be said on the timely relevance of Rerum novarum – and many elements are outdated because of how the world or our world views have changed. One of the most important and still relevant features of Rerum novarum was, I believe, its recognition of structural causes of the fate of laborers (despite its older view on charity which was also still present in the encyclical). At least pope Leo XIII recognized that poverty is not merely a personal matter, but has structural causes – something we easily tend to forget also today towards people who seemingly do not ‘want’ to contribute to society, let alone towards people who are calling upon our compassion and responsibility by knocking at our borders. While little Aylan found at the shores of Turkey could still raise a wave of solidarity, a few months later the tide has turned. The right-wing focus on personal blame for misery and poverty is convincing more and more people across Europe, in Belgium, of their analysis. The created false dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – be it the ‘lazy and unwilling unemployed’, the ‘migrants who had all the chances but did not take them and now have become our enemies as terrorists’, the ‘refugee’ or the ‘poor in the South’ – is breaking solidarity down and uplifting indifference instead. Because we are not responsible, so the argument goes. Aren’t we?




Here Gandolfo’s analysis of the link between vulnerability and privilege appears to be insightful. ‘Privilege is the product of human anxiety over vulnerability; it is a collective attempt to alleviate anxiety through control of vulnerability. It is an attempt to control assets for protection from and resilience to vulnerability. But privilege also produces heightened vulnerability and suffering because it robs entire populations of access to assets needed for coping with both natural and socially produced threats to their well-being,’ she writes (141). But these privileges are so self-evident and hidden, that indeed a right-wing politician can gain a lot of positive public opinion in stating that ‘I’m not responsible for Aylan.’ The ‘moral cost’ which ‘entrenches and implicates the privileged in global and local structures of dominance, oppression and violence’ (145) can easily be overseen.

The Incarnation, God being born in the same way as other human beings, and thus taking the risk of going through this vulnerable process, implies, still according to Gandolfo, that it is impossible to merely seek for invulnerability through faith (as if we could ever reach invulnerability, an impossible mission). Rather, she continues, ‘clinging to privilege as a bulwark against vulnerability is paradigmatically anti-incarnational and blocks our union with the One whose love renounces all privilege in becoming human.’ (234) Very strong language, that holding on to privilege is not only sinful but even ‘anti-incarnational’! ‘If even God incarnate embraces relationality and embodiment, along with the dependency and vulnerability that they entail, then who are we to attempt to eschew these human realities with assertions of autonomy and unencumbered self-control?’ (235). Quite the opposite, the Incarnation, with the Spirit, enables and empowers us to feel ‘compassionate solidarity’ with each other.

‘There will always be poor among you,’ Jesus said. Hence an invitation to keep on looking for ‘the poor’ in the margins of our (global) society, and to search for ways to include them and struggle for one society against the dichotomous tendencies. An invitation also to read societal issues not only through the lens of conflict, but also of our common vulnerability (which is not to say that struggle is not necessary and we just have to accept a consensus model of the powerful over the weak, but with Gandolfo I believe it changes the perspective if we start from common vulnerability). And to be aware of our own privileges – which help us to protect our own vulnerability but may increase the vulnerability of others instead – and to keep on criticizing them, both personally and structurally. (Challenging questions when having the luxury to plan my own work, being able to write this contribution from home, with a nice view of the spring garden in a lovely house, I must admit.) How nice and meaningful it would be if this would be the DNA of those Catholic movements, and of all theologians, in today’s civil society for the next 125 years…