Leo XIII and Kuyper on the social question
Religion & Liberty Online

Leo XIII and Kuyper on the social question

Makers Front Cover 10_19_16This year marks the 125th anniversary of two key documents in the development of modern Christian social thought: the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII and the speech “The Social Question and the Christian Religion” by Abraham Kuyper. To mark this anniversary and to commend these works to readers today, Acton Institute has recently released Makers of Modern Christian Social Thought: Leo XIII and Abraham Kuyper on the Social Question.

This volume consists of the texts of these two key sources, along with an introduction that provides some background on the social question in the nineteenth century as well as the thematic similarities and convergences between the two works. There is also some additional bibliography for further reading and research, making this volume an ideal resource for students and others interested exploring the foundations of modern Christian social thought in Roman Catholic and Reformed traditions.

One of the essential features of this edition is its inclusion of the full text of Kuyper’s published speech, complete with its extensive reference apparatus. Earlier editions have appeared in English and have served well to make Kuyper’s insights accessible and readable. These earlier versions sometimes omitted or elided Kuyper’s notes, however, which can obscure the depth and detail of Kuyper’s insights and his engagement with the literature of his time.

As an example of the difference, we can compare the text of a note as it appeared in an earlier version of the speech, published as The Problem of Poverty, and the full text of the note as it appears in the new edition. The very first note included in The Problem of Poverty reads thus:

We must admit, to our shame, that the Roman Catholics are very var ahead of us in their study of the social problem. Indeed, very far ahead. The action of the Roman Catholics should spur us to show more dynamism. The encyclical Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII states the principles which are common to all Christians, and which we share with our Roman Catholic compatriots.

So far so good. Kuyper introduces an occasion for his speech and uses it as a spur for future Reformed engagement with the social question. This note, however, is actually the third note in Kuyper’s original published text, and the much more extensive note (with some hopefully helpful editorial notation) appears below:

We must admit, to our shame, that the Roman Catholics are far ahead of us in their study of the social question — very far in fact. Although the school of Le Play — who in his well-known works La Réforme sociale en France, 2 vols. (Paris: E. Dentu, 1866); L’Organisation du travail (Tours: A. Mame, 1870); and L’Organisation de la famille (Paris: Téqui, 1871), more or less went his own way — is not identical with the Catholic school, still we do not ignore that men like Ketteler, Christoph Moufang, Claudio Jannet, Albert de Mun, Charles-Emile Freppel, Charles Périn and others have not only engaged in serious study of the social question but have also laid out the direction we should follow. La question agraire (Paris: Retaux-Bray, 1887), by Rudolf Meyer and G. Ardent; Le Patron: sa fonction, ses devoirs, ses responsbilités, and De la richesse dans les sociétés chrétiennes (Paris: Victor Lecoffre, 1861), by Périn; and to a certain extent also [a work by novelist] Arvède Barine, L’Oeuvre de Jésus-ouvrier (Paris: Fischbacher, 1879), provide many surprising insights into the practical ideas of these authors. But Catholic activity is even more impressive when we look at their frequent conferences, their periodical literature, and the associations they have founded. In particular the Unions de Patrons en faveur des Ouvriers [Employers’ unions for the benefit of workers] in Belgium, about which Rev. Pierson will give more details at our congress, is an excellent undertaking that deserves to be emulated. The clear pronouncements of Cardinal Newman are familiar enough, and although German and French Catholics are somewhat divided — the former lean more toward relying on the State, the latter more toward the Church alone — the encyclical of Leo XIII will probably soon bring them together. Thus Catholic activities should spur us on to show greater energy (although Catholics here at home are still mostly inactive) — all the more so since we Protestants can learn more from the Roman Catholics than from the Knights of Labor in America, who did start out under Stephens in 1869 by requiring an oath on the Bible but abandoned it already in 1878 at the order’s assembly in Philadelphia. At the assembly in Richmond in 1886 the entire order went over to socialism lock, stock, and barrel. The Christlichsoziale Arbeiterspartei, too, gave us less by comparison, both because it leans too much in the direction of state socialism and because it fails to penetrate to the fundamental principles involved. Precisely the latter was done by the encyclical, and what is more, it dealt solely with those principles that all Christians hold in common and that we too share with our Roman Catholic fellow countrymen.

For the Knights of Labor, see the informative work by Arthur Hadley, Socialism in the United States [Ed. note: Although Arthur T. Hadley commented widely on economic matters, including the Knights of Labor, efforts to locate a work by this title have been unsuccessful. Kuyper may have intended to refer here to the work of another prominent economist of that era, Richard T. Ely, such as Recent American Socialism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1885), and “Socialism in America,” North American Review 142, no. 355 (June 1886): 519–25], and Amédée Villard, Le Socialisme moderne; son dernier état (Paris: Guillaumin, 1889), 190. A good survey of the Catholic movement is Landelin Winterer, Le socialisme international; Coup d’oeil sur le mouvement socialiste de 1885 à 1890 (Paris: Lecoffre; Mühlhausen: Gangloff, 1890).

There are good reasons for preferring the former version to the latter, perhaps, including readability and accessibility. Earlier versions of this speech remain useful as reader’s editions, and in fact James Skillen’s editorial headings in the speech have been retained in this new version as an aid to the reader. But for those who are interested in engaging more deeply into the literature of the era with which Kuyper himself was engaged, this complete edition, newly translated by Harry Van Dyke, will be indispensable.

Kuyper’s “The Social Question and the Christian Religion” will also appear in a forthcoming volume On Charity and Justice in the Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.