Cardinal Manning and the origins of Rerum Novarum

English Cardinal Henry Manning (1808-1892) was probably a major inspiration for Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking Catholic Social Teaching encyclical, Rerum Novarum, argues writer Russell Sparkes in this week’s Tablet.

“Conventional wisdom holds that Rerum Novarum was a response to European campaigns for social reform from great aristocrats such as Bishop von Kettler in Germany and the Comte de Mun and the Marquis de la Tour du Pin in France” who argued for “a return to some kind of medieval guild system,” Sparkes observes.

However, Leo XIII “rejected this obsolete and completely unrealistic solution,” he notes, which raises the question of where did the pope find his inspiration?

He explains:

My answer to this question is Henry Manning, Archbishop of Westminster 1865-1892 (and a cardinal from 1875), whose massive contribution to the development of Catholic Social Teaching (and social progress in England) is unjustly overlooked.

The key date is 28 January 1874 when Manning went to the Leeds Mechanics Institute to lecture on “The Dignity and Rights of Labour”. Manning noted that industrialists were fond of quoting Thessalonians 2:10 – “If a man will not work, neither will he eat” – but that they ignored Luke 10:7 – “The labourer is worthy of his hire”. He made compelling arguments that capital without labour is worthless.

And Sparkes goes on to show the parallels between Manning’s recommendations, including a rejection of starvation wages, consideration of the family in setting wages, choice in employment for workers, recognition for “associations of working men,” i.e. trade unions, etc. Like Manning, Pope Leo also rejected “‘Socialism’ –meaning revolutionary Communism.”

Why then was Manning forgotten? One key reason he points to is his suspicion, which I share, “that the core works on Catholic Social Teaching have a continental European bias, which means that they tend to ignore the great English cardinal.”

Sparkes also recalls Manning’s role in the settling of the Great Dock Strike of 1889 as “the high point of his social activism.”

Ben Tillett / National Portrait Gallery UK

Cardijn and Ben Tillett

Here it’s interesting to remember Cardijn’s own extremely high appreciation of Cardinal Manning, who he cited as one of his early influences. During his trip to England in the summer of 1911, he met with union leader, Ben Tillett, who had led the Great Strike, recording that the latter “returns again and again with grateful insistence to Cardinal Manning.”

“Marvel of marvels ! Cardinal Manning soon became, in the best sense of the word, the guide and father of our movement,” Cardijn quotes Tillett as saying.

Indeed, Cardijn goes on to provide an extensive quotation from Tillett as follows:

One of the major forces in my life at that time was Cardinal Manning, although I was far from suspecting the role which he was to play. I had been ill in 1888 and was convalescing at Bournemouth, all due to the docker organisation. I had earlier already made efforts to win the influence of the Cardinal for organisational reasons.

The Anglican Bishop of London (Temple) had refused to help me, sending me a nasty letter full of insults to the dockers. I suppose that the violent tone of this letter contrasted so strongly that I became more than ever attached to Cardinal Manning.

I was sick to death, despairing of the movement, and I wrote to the Cardinal saying so and trying to justify my state of mind. I received a reply which sympathised with my suffering but which contained such a gentle reproof that it revived my courage and my confidence, a confidence that I have never since lost.

In effect, he thanked me for past courage and sacrifice and went on to define the sort of man required to take on the work of a real agitator. A strong man, he said, does not want to be an agitator who avoids risks, nor does he aspire to a crown without first having carried a cross. In his opinion, I was that man !

Oh ! How that letter scorched and ate at my being, and saved me from shipwreck in those first days! ……With crushed souls and very often black-and-blue bodies we fought ceaselessly against the scoffing and blows of a drunken paid mob. Those two years seemed to last for an eternity; they were longer than the 21 years that have elapsed since. The colossal work was really accomplished during those years!

What a tribute by Tillett to Manning, a tribute clearly endorsed by Cardijn himself.

Indeed, I am quite confident that Cardijn, who was not at all in the line of Count de Mun or the Marquis de la Tour du Pin, would have agreed with Russell Sparkes’ view regarding Manning’s influence on Leo XIII.

Stefan Gigacz


Russell Sparkes, Was Catholic Social Teaching made in Leeds? (The Tablet)

Joseph Cardijn, Worker organisation in England (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Joseph Cardijn, Visit to England (Joseph Cardijn Digital Library)

Henry Edward Manning (Wikipedia)

John Simkin, Ben Tillett (Spartacus Educational)