ReformedTheology & Spirituality

Christianity and Social Class: A Pope and Protestant Politician Engage Capitalism

In 19th century Europe, industrial capitalism was quickly reshaping economic and social relations, resulting in massive influxes of wealth to the capitalist class and leaving in its wake “the utter poverty of the masses.”1 Sociologist James Fulcher characterizes that time period as the stage of “Anarchic Capitalism,” in which those who owned the means of production faced little regulation from the state or pressure from organized labor.2 The Dutch poet Willem Bilderjdijk put the plight of the working class during this time,

“You sigh and languish in poverty and decay
While luxury defiantly feasts on the fruit of your own hands.”3

In response to this pervasive social problem, European Christians formed congresses and societies, many of them calling for the necessity of state socialism. “Christ himself is the prophet of socialism!”4 many of these societies cried out, demanding that the distress faced by the “least of these” be remedied by state ownership of property and distribution of goods and services.

In the year 1891, a Reformed politician and a Catholic Pope together argued against this socialist political theology, responding differently to the social question, “What should we, as confessors of Christ, do about the social needs [and social structures] of our time?” Both Abraham Kuyper, Calvinist theologian and soon-to-be prime minister of the Netherlands, and Pope Leo XIII argued for serious reform within capitalism, framing their arguments with compassion for the suffering and the oppressed. In what follows, I will be delving into Kuyper’s speech to the first Christian Social Congress of the Netherlands, The Problem of Poverty, as well as Pope Leo’s encyclical Rerum Novarum, in order to first distinguish the methods utilized by Kuyper and Leo, second to understand the unity between Reformed and Catholic social ethics on this issue, and third to outline the implications of their arguments for today.

First, Abraham Kuyper and Pope Leo differ in the methods utilized to address the social question. Leo’s go-to move is to argue from the basis of natural reason, seeing in nature a law that ought to govern human behavior. For example, Leo’s first major argument against socialism is the proposition that “every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.”5 He goes on to argue the truth of the proposition by connecting humanity with private property. “The brute,” Leo explains, has only the instincts of “self-preservation” and “the propagation of the species” governed by the senses. Man, on the other hand, is distinguished from the brute by virtue of its capacity to reason, and thus has the right to “hold [property] in stable and permanent possession,” enabling him to “link the future with the present.”6 Further, Leo argues against public ownership of property by arguing that though the earth is not in-and-of-itself apportioned to private persons, the fruits of the earth are brought forth in proportionality to the “mind and strength” of the individual humans that cultivate it.7

In responding to the relationship between capital and labor, Leo appeals to the “beauty of good order,” when the two classes are in “harmony and agreement.” It is not true, Leo argues against the socialists, that “class is naturally hostile to class,” and that “perpetual conflict” is the state of the human condition with regards to the relations between the classes. The Church’s role in promoting this social cohesion is to “remind each [class] of its duties to the other, and especially the obligations of justice.”8

Kuyper, by contrast, does not appeal to natural reasoning as the foundation for answering the social question. Instead of utilizing the natural law theory language of rights, duties, and justice, Kuyper appeals to Christian revelation in the gospel of Jesus Christ as the basis for response. Indeed, Kuyper begins his speech by proclaiming that the Christians in the audience “should feel ashamed and humiliated” at the current distress the Netherlands faces, and we are to listen to the Christ who calls, ““Come to me, wealthiest century in history, which is so deathly weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.””9

Jesus, seeing humanity fall into error and sin, entered into the world to be its Savior, bringing a “blessed promise not only for the future but also for the present life.”10 This blessedness comes particularly to the poor, for Christ always took sides with the suffering and oppressed when faced with the imbalance between capital and poverty.11 Faced with this divine compassion in God’s word, Christians are called to view their property not as absolute, but as “on loan from [God]; our management is only stewardship.”12 Kuyper thus does not advocate private property through the use natural law theory as in Leo, but instead advocates for private property on the basis of Scripture’s call to steward one’s property for the needs of our neighbors.13

Though the approaches of Rerum Novarum and The Problem of Poverty differ in response to the social question, the conclusions of the Catholic and Reformed thinkers stand in unity. First and most important, both Kuyper and Leo urge society at large and the company in particular to pay a living wage to the worker. Probably Leo’s most famous quote in the encyclical includes an appeal to “natural justice,” claiming that it requires “the wage ought not be insufficient to support a frugal and well behaved wage-earner.” Anything payed less to the worker, and he is “a victim of force and injustice.”14 Kuyper, appealing to numerous scriptures in the Old and New Testaments that call for the wage payed to laborer should be just, concludes similarly, “The worker, too, must be able to live as a person created in the image of God.” The worker, thus, must not be viewed as a “mere instrument” for profit, but as “man and father.”15

Second, both Kuyper and Leo believe that the purpose of their projects are to bring balance and relational harmony to the social classes. Kuyper calls for a change in relations between the classes, seeing society as fundamentally “a human organism,” a body that is “members of each other.”16 We are not a collection of parts that add up to a whole, but are ultimately dependent on one another for our flourishing. Leo also uses the language of “body,” seeing the role of the State to arrange the body politic, bringing the human frame into symmetrical alignment. Or, to put it more bluntly, “each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital.”17 Within this framework, Leo lays out principles for each of the classes to adhere to, calling for the capitalist to: Respect the worker, to view the work of the worker as dignified, give time for the worker’s religion and family, give them work that is suitable to age and sex, and give a fair wage, not to “defraud any one of wages that are his due.” The worker, in turn, is to: Faithfully work for what has been agreed to, not to destroy property and to have good relations to employer, not to respond in violence to employer, and not to interact with “men of evil principles.”18

In addition to these two major conclusions, both Leo and Kuyper believe in the primacy and authority of the family in society, both call Christians (not the State) to be the primary providers of relief for the needy (Kuyper going so far as to say “all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honor of your Savior”19), and both go to great lengths to explain how Christ’s life has implications for how societies are to be structured.

In looking at the powerful insights of Kuyper and Leo, we must not see them as addressing only the needs of 19th century Europe. The current state of capitalism does not provide a large portion of our society with a living wage, with many working multiple jobs in order to feed their families. Further, as a recent article in The Atlantic reveals, just under one-fifth of the U.S. workforce is subject to unpredictable work schedules (so called “on call scheduling”), the vast majority of which are low income. This results in a group of society that is confused, tired, and unable to plan for the future.20 In looking at the current balance of power between capital and labor (beyond the lack of living wages), we see corporations spending $34 on lobbyists for every $1 from labor unions and special interest groups.21 Moving beyond the discrepancies of dollars and cents between social classes, do we dare advocate for the still more difficult visions of “harmony” and “members of each other” that Leo and Kuyper see as possibilities for human society? Toward that end, maybe these days we ought to start looking more to Popes than protestant politicians.22

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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