May 3, 2011

Importance of Rerum Novarum Explored at Conference

Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies.

When Pope Leo XIII released Rerum Novarum in May of 1891, "it changed the world," says Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) & Catholic Studies at CUA.

On May 2, IPR sponsored the first day of a conference on the 120th Anniversary of Rerum Novarum: Church, Labor, and the New Things of the Modern World. The conference drew more than 170 people from labor groups, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), political actions committees, social justice ministries, and CUA.

The conference served as the last event in CUA's semester-long series of programs celebrating President John Garvey's inaugural year theme, Intellect and Virtue: The Idea of a Catholic University.

Rerum Novarum - "Of New Things" - "became the centerpiece for all modern Catholic social teachings," says Schneck, who organized the event.

In explaining the timeless importance of the encyclical, Schneck says, "It was Rerum Novarum that linked the teachings of the apostles to contemporary Catholic teaching that the same moral vision behind the Church's argument for the dignity of the human person extends to require preferential policy deference for the poor, for the justice of unions and collective bargaining, for understanding our goods as gifts from God that we are obliged to use in light of the common good, and for understanding government as morally obliged to provide care and support for humankind when non-governmental efforts are insufficient."

The conference explored the legacy of Rerum Novarum through 120 years, with attention on the Church's work on questions of labor, economy, justice, and government.

In opening the conference, Garvey said, "This moment in American history is not just an anniversary, it is a good occasion for reviving this important text. Many of the problems that concerned Pope Leo are problems that persist today. In the last few years alone, we have seen what happens when the effort to acquire wealth succeeds without the benefit of conscience."

In mentioning his inaugural theme of intellect and virtue, Garvey said, "we want to teach our students not just how to flourish in their intellectual lives and professional pursuits, but to grow in virtue during their time at The Catholic University of America."

President John Garvey, Harold Meyerson, and E.J. Dionne

The encyclical stresses the importance of virtue, he said. "Rerum Novarum says virtue is a common inheritance of many, equally within the reach of high and low, rich and poor, and that virtue and virtue alone will be followed by the rewards of everlasting happiness."

Garvey quoted from Pope Leo XIII's document, "If Christian precepts prevail, the respective classes are not only united in bonds of friendship, but also through those of brotherly love for they will understand and feel that all men are children of the same Father, who is God."

The conference also featured roundtable discussions addressing the impact of Rerum Novarum and how it relates to contemporary public policy and Catholic social teachings today.

CUA Professor of Politics David Walsh, a conference speaker, said, "There was something unique about this particular document [Rerum Novarum] that found a position for the Church in the modern world."

Walsh noted that Pope Leo XIII wrote many encyclicals, but "this one virtually invented Catholic social teaching and established a new role for the Church."

Tim Meagher, associate professor of history and curator of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archivist, and Maria Mazzenga, CUA archivist, also served as roundtable panelists at the conference.

Speakers from outside the CUA community included E.J. Dionne, professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute and Washington Post columnist; Harold Meyerson, editor-at-large, The American Prospect; Gerry Fogarty, professor at the University of Virginia; Rev. Cletus Kiley, director of immigration policy at Unite Here; John Carr, executive director, justice, peace and human development, USCCB; Kathy Saile, director, domestic social development, USCCB; and Alexia K. Kelley, deputy director, White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. John J. Sweeney, former president of AFL-CIO, served as the keynote luncheon speaker.

Schneck says he was pleased with the exchange of ideas and discussion that took place throughout the day. And reflecting on the importance of the 120th anniversary, he said, "Every pope since Leo has affirmed and enlarged on the message of Rerum Novarum; it's the map for the Church's moral engagement in the modern world."

Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, is scheduled to provide the main conference address at 7 p.m. on May 3.


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