RERUM NOVARUM – THE PLAY
(The text of this one act play is taken from Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Encyclical on The Condition of the Working Classes, Rerum Novarum. I have tried so far possible to be faithful to the Latin text and to approved English translations. When I have needed to modify anachronistic vocabulary or arcane grammatical structures, I have done my best to do preserve Pope Leo’s meaning and intent.)
The play is set in a college dorm room. The walls of the room are covered with posters. Among them, one reads, “Occupy Wall Street”; another, “Taxation is Theft”; a third “John 3:16”. Three students are comfortably seated on two chairs and a couch facing the audience and each other. As the curtain rises, they are already engaged in a conversation that is animated but genial and respectful.
Student #1 (seated in the middle): The elements of the conflict now raging are unmistakable: the growth of industry, the marvelous discoveries of science, changed relations between employers and employees…
Student #2: …the enormous fortunes of a few individuals and the relative poverty of the rest of us…
Student #3: …the increased self-reliance and solidarity of working people…
Student #1: …a general moral deterioration in society.
Student #2: Employees, isolated and defenseless, are subject to the callousness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. A small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the rest of us a yoke little better than slavery.
Student #1: All agree that some remedy must be found and found quickly for the misery pressing so heavily and unjustly on the vast majority of workers.
Student #2: The first concern of all must be to save workers from the cruelty of grasping speculators who use human beings as mere instruments for making money.
Student #1: Christianity teaches employers that their workers are not their slaves; that they must respect human dignity in everyone. It is shameless and inhuman to treat men and women as mere tools for making money.
Student #3: But to remedy these evils, some folks, exploiting envy of the rich, are out to destroy private property; they maintain that individual possessions should become the common property of all to be administered by the State.
Student #1: Divine law forbids us in the severest terms to covet that which belongs to another.
Student #3: When someone works for a living, the reason and the motive for that work is to obtain property and to keep that property as a private possession. Every person by nature has the right to possess property of his own.
Student #1: But the earth, divided as it is among private owners, must still provide for the needs of all… Nature owes all men and women a storehouse that should never fail to supply their daily needs.
Student #3: When someone uses his mind and body to procure the fruits of nature, he makes a portion of nature his own. It’s only just that he should possess that portion and that he should have the right to keep it without interference. Is it just that the fruit of a man’s labor should be enjoyed by another? It is just and right that the results of labor should belong to the one who has labored.
Student #1: It is one thing to have a right to possess property; it is another to have the right to use that property however one pleases.
Student #2: No one is required to give to others what is required for his own needs and the needs of his family; or even to give away what he reasonably needs to maintain his position in society. But then it becomes his duty to share what remains with folks less fortunate.
Student #1: It is a duty of Christian charity…not a duty to be enforced by human law, except in extreme cases.
Student #2: The laws of men must take second place to the laws of Christ.
Student #1: Money and the other things which men call good and desirable – we may have them in abundance or we may lack them entirely – it is no matter. The only thing that is important is to use them rightly.
Student #2: But it is also right that extreme need be met by public assistance; for each family is a part of the commonwealth. As the part and the whole are in a certain sense the same, so the part may in some sense claim what belongs to the whole. Men and women should not consider their outward possessions as their own but as common to all so as to share them without difficulty when others are in need.
Student #3: But it is clear that the idea of common ownership of all property must be utterly rejected for it would injure most those whom it is intended to benefit. The sources of wealth themselves would dry up. No one would have any interest in exerting his talents or his labor. That ideal equality of which so much is said would, in reality, be nothing more than the leveling down of all of us to a common condition of misery and dishonor.
Student #1: The great mistake is the idea that one class must naturally be hostile to the other, that rich and poor are intended to be at war. The exact opposite is the true. Classes should exist in harmony and agreement, because each requires the other; capital cannot do without labor, or labor without capital.
Student #3: To the State the interests of all are equal, whether high or low. The poor are members of the community equally with the rich. It would be irrational to neglect one portion of the citizens and to favor another…or else that law of justice would be violated which ordains that each shall have his due.
Student #2: It is certainly the prerogative of the State to benefit every class within society, but it is its special prerogative to promote to the highest degree the interests of the poor.
Student #1: It is only by the labor of workers that States grow rich. So it follows that whatever appears conducive to the well-being of those who work should receive favorable consideration. It will be to everyone’s advantage.
Student #3: The chief thing is the safeguarding of private property. Neither justice nor common good allows anyone to seize that which belongs to another or, under the pretext of futile and ridiculous equality, to lay hands on other people’s fortunes.
Student #1: The first duty of the State should be to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth, produces public well-being and private prosperity…and by State we do not mean any particular form of government but any government that conforms to right reason and natural law.
Student #2: When there is question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor have a claim to special consideration. Richer folks have many ways of protecting themselves; they have less need of help from the State. Workers should be especially cared for and protected by Government.
Student #3: Whenever the general interests of any particular class suffers, or is threatened with evils which can in no other way be overcome, the public authority must step in to meet them.
Student #2: If employers lay burdens on employees that are unjust or degrade them with working conditions that violate their dignity as human beings, it is right to call for help under the law.
Student #3: But the law must not undertake more, nor go further, than is required for the remedy of the evil or the removal of the danger. The State must not absorb the individual or the family; both should be allowed free and unrestricted activity as long as that activity is consistent with the common good and the interests of others.
Human society is older than the State; men and women possess the right to provide for the life of their bodies prior to the formation of any state. The family, a true “society”, is prior to every kind of state or nation, with rights and duties of its own, totally independent of the commonwealth.
Student #1: The family has at least equal rights with the State in the choice and pursuit of those things which it needs for its preservation and just liberty. Everyone has a right to earn by work and wages what is required in order to live; and compensation for that work must be enough to support the wage-earner in reasonable comfort.
Student #2: The employer’s great and principal obligation is to give every one that which is just. To make profit off of another’s need is condemned by all laws, human and divine. Civil laws, so long as they are just, derive their binding power from the law of nature.
Student #3: Private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law therefore should favor ownership and its policy should be to encourage as many people as possible to become owners. Many excellent results will follow from this: first of all property will certainly become more equitably divided, the gulf between vast wealth and deep poverty will be bridged. Plus, men and women always work harder and more readily when they work for that which is their own and so they add to the wealth of the community.
But these important benefits can be expected only on the condition that a man’s means is not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation.
Student #1: All citizens without exception can and ought to contribute to that common good in which individuals share so profitably.
Student #2: And do not suppose that all can contribute in the same way and to the same extent.
Student #3: But the right to possess private property is from nature, not from man; and the State has only the right to regulate its use in the interests of the public good, but by no means to abolish it altogether. The State is, therefore, unjust, if in the name of taxation, it deprives the private owner of more than is just.
All three students each in turn (to be spoken as one continuous thought): (1) The things of this earth cannot be understood or valued rightly without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will last forever. (2) Exclude the idea of eternity and the very notion of what is good and right would perish. (3) The whole system of the universe would become a dark and unfathomable mystery. (2) God created us, not for the perishable and transitory things of earth but for things heavenly and everlasting.
(1) Human society has been totally transformed by the teachings of Christianity. (2) Jesus Christ was both the first cause and the final purpose of this wonderful transformation; (3) for just as everything originates in him, so everything returns to him.
(1) The happy results that we all long for must be chiefly brought about by an outpouring of Charity, (2) that true Christian Charity which is the fulfillment of the whole Gospel law, which is always ready to sacrifice itself for the sake of the other, (3) and which is man’s surest antidote against worldly pride and excessive love of self.