May 15, 1991, marks the centenary of Roman Catholic social teaching. One hundred years ago, then-pope Leo XIII took up the cause of working people in his ground-breaking letter Rerum Novarum (literally About New Issues; papal letters carry as their titles the first words of the Latin text). With his defense of workers' rights, including that of striking for better wages and working conditions, Leo inaugurated a facet of Roman Catholic life that has come to be known as its social doctrine. Fully 11 similar documents have followed Rerum Novarum during this century, issued either by popes themselves or in collaboration with Catholic bishops throughout the world, and dealing with divergent subjects.
The uniqueness of this often-described "new grace" in the church lies in the fact that in our century, the Christian vocation is seen as including concern for the way societies are structured. No longer can God's Word be understood and lived only in individualistic terms. Whatever impacts on the human person -- be it economics, government, law, labor, international relations, politics -- all stand under a gospel judgment as either enabling or deterring fully human lives for all.
Looked at from the vantage point of 1991, this expanded understanding of Christ's call to his followers and to all men and women of good will may not strike us as novel. However, had one enjoyed foreknowledge a century ago and seen the ever-growing list of societal questions that would be studied in the light of scripture during the next 10 decades, the appellation "new grace" in the church would not have seemed exaggerated. So it is that in Roman Catholic and many other circles, heartfelt celebrations of the centenary are taking place.