Rerum novarum in the Anglosphere: An interview with Alice Gorton

Author: Philip Byers

Gorton Headshot
Alice Gorton

Alice Gorton is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, where she specializes in modern British social and cultural history. She won a Research Travel Grant from the Cushwa Center in 2021 for her project, “Ethics and Industry: Rerum novarum and Catholic Social Teaching in the Anglosphere.” During her research visit to campus, Philip Byers sat down with Gorton to learn more about her project.


Philip Byers: Your project, “Ethics and Industry: Rerum novarum and Catholic Social Teaching in the Anglosphere,” examines a cohort of Catholic journalists and lay theologians who sought to apply an encyclical’s social teachings while operating “outside of traditional governing channels.” Who were these Catholics, and why did they work on “the political fringe”?

Alice Gorton: The project pays particular attention to English Catholics who played an instrumental role as conduits for translating and disseminating Rerum novarum’s core ideas in the Anglosphere. Taking a genealogical approach, I trace how a series of thinkers interpreted the broad principles of the encyclical to create specific solutions suited to their own national contexts. Looking at the English case, the place to begin is with Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, a pre-eminent convert well known for his commitment to labor issues. Manning published a brief bulletin in The Dublin Review heralding the publication of the encyclical in 1891 but after his death in 1892 the writers Hilaire Belloc (a mentee of Manning), G. K. Chesterton, Father Vincent McNabb, and those in the “distributist” circle became perhaps the most vocal advocates of the encyclical’s teachings. As these ideas were taken up in new ways during the Edwardian period, Catholic activists did indeed begin to work more on the political fringe than Cardinal Manning had when he was alive. Whereas Manning had been an Oxford graduate, a close friend of Prime Minister William Gladstone, and a key figure in labor politics, this later coterie of thinkers fixed on the encyclical’s criticisms of centralized and state-based solutions, emphasizing the importance of the local community and the family over the state. Sometimes these thinkers worked on the fringe by their own design and at other times by virtue of their position as relative outsiders in a country with a large Protestant majority. As a result of this social placement, English Catholics did not yet have a robust associational life, as their co-religionists in Europe had, but their position at the edges of mainstream politics also reflected a genuine disdain, present in Rerum novarum as well, for centralized solutions to contemporary social concerns. After exploring the English context, the dissertation turns to examine how co-operative and distributist ideas were taken up and repackaged once more by Catholic intellectuals in North America, looking at figures such as John A. Ryan, Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and others who sought to apply the broad parameters of Catholic social teaching to their own local circumstances. 


PB: Your grant proposal describes how these Catholic activists “used and altered” the teachings in Rerum novarum. What were some of the ways they adapted the encyclical’s message, and what factors prompted those adaptations?

AG: The bulk of the dissertation focuses on Catholic activists’ desire to blend and implement the encyclical’s teaching in states with long-established parliamentary or liberal traditions. Rerum novarum opposed both laissez-faire liberalism and socialism but did not provide directives tailored specifically to any given national setting. The intellectuals that I am interested in experimented with what it would mean to introduce a platform that championed the principle of subsidiarity (localized decision-making) in countries moving ever closer toward centralized social reform. In these places where the move toward universalizing policies was strong, the encyclical lent itself best to anti-statist, decentralized, and experimental back-to-the-land movements, blending with a longer tradition of anti-modern protest represented by the arts and crafts movement and symbolized by craftsmen like William Morris.

We see a similar process, if not a similar outcome, of adaptation happening in a variety of predominantly Catholic states, such as Ireland, where, as Rose Luminiello has demonstrated, the Irish laity drew upon the Thomistic philosophy present in Rerum novarum in ways almost entirely at odds with Pope Leo’s original intentions in the years following the Land War. My dissertation contends that the encyclical’s teachings were similarly adapted in Protestant-majority nations in the Anglosphere, though to different ends. 


PB: You situate “distributism” within the context of broader resistance to 19th-century laissez-faire liberalism. What distinguished the distributists—both in the nature of their critique and in their suggested solutions—from other contemporary movements such as the Fabian Society?  

AG: In some ways, all the social movements that emerged in this period resembled one another in their diagnoses of the ills of laissez-faire liberalism: things could not continue as they had been in the 19th century. Whether it was the Social Democratic Federation, the Fabian Society, or the distributists, all were keen critics of the society in which they lived, but their proposed solutions were often fiercely, even diametrically, opposed. The Fabians believed that change should be made gradually, technocratically, using educational and state-based means. Though they too were interested in how best to redistribute wealth and property, their solution was top-down and gradualist. The distributists slotted into this landscape of social reform in a slightly different way, as their aims were at once radical and conservative. In one sense, the twin poles of their programme followed an intellectual genealogy back to St. Thomas Aquinas, who argued that private property was essential to securing the common good, through to Pope Leo XIII, who made private property a key tenet of Rerum novarum. Evidently, this embrace of private property differentiated the distributists from contemporary “new” liberal and socialist movements, which encouraged more universalist and collectivist legislation in both housing and labor policy. By contrast, the scholar Julia Stapleton has shown that though the distributists were critics of the inequalities wrought by laissez-faire liberalism, their solution mirrored some of that ideology’s chief platforms, insofar as they advocated for private property ownership and minimal state intervention. The distributists believed that the problem with which they grappled began with the Reformation rather than the industrial revolution. Though they criticized and responded to industrial capitalism, they also argued that the unequal distribution of property brought about by enclosure was a root cause of many contemporary social problems.


PB: Your project aims to direct attention “beyond the borders of Christian Europe.” Why have analyses of Rerum novarum tended to fixate on the continent, and what benefits are there to examining the encyclical’s reception in North America?

AG: One reason why analyses of Rerum novarum have fixated on the continent is that often Catholic social teaching was given more space to grow as an accepted part of the political discourse in Europe, making its way into mass social movements and constitutional politics in a range of states. Analyses of Rerum novarum have flourished in places with large Catholic lay populations, and this makes sense. My project asks what kinds of political possibilities were available in states that lacked such an institutional structure, places where Catholic activists had less of an entrée into politics and unions than they did elsewhere. Modern European historians agree that the end of the 19th century saw the rise of Catholic social movements all across Europe, many of which coalesced into political parties. By and large, these groups emerged to combat a similar set of issues: from the 1870s, Catholic and Christian revival movements cropped up in a bid to protect disenfranchised peasant smallholders, defined as prototypically Christian, and guard against the erosion of tradition in the face of liberal free trade and transformations in global agricultural markets, but they took on particular characteristics in each place. A handful of excellent recent analyses has shown that this was true in France, Poland, Hungary, Ireland, Germany, and elsewhere. What these studies reveal is that grassroots Catholic social movements looked remarkably different on the ground in each place, but comparatively few of these existing examples have looked in detail at what happened when Catholic social movements emerged in Protestant-majority states such as England, the United States, Canada, or in Britain’s settler empire.    

One of the benefits of examining Rerum novarum’s reception in these places is that the most prominent English-speaking Catholic intellectuals in this period were English and American converts. Rather than growing up in the Church and writing for the Catholic community, these convert intellectuals tended to write for a more general audience, hoping to persuade others to follow their lead and convert to Catholicism. Examining Catholic social thought in these Protestant-majority states provides a unique optic for understanding the relationships between the Catholic community and the general political landscape in each place.  


PB: Tell us about a particularly revealing source you identified during your visit to the Notre Dame Archives. What did you learn from the source?

AG: The archives at Notre Dame are home to so many illuminating primary sources that it’s hard to choose just one, but I’ve been going through some photographs I took of The Game, an occasional magazine helmed by Douglas Pepler and published by the Ditchling community in Sussex. I’d never been able to access this periodical material before but what I love about this print run is just how clearly it demonstrates the bridge between Catholic social teaching and the arts and crafts movement, which is something I hope the dissertation will really bring out. The set of pamphlets betrays a clear commitment to redefining work in a moment when “the social” was at the top of the political agenda. The magazines provide a clear illustration of how English Catholics had sought to redefine work and worship while emphasizing the authority of the family, the workman, and the Church over the state, which they believed should be retrenched.

The methodology that I work with attempts to reconstruct a social world. What is so useful about the collections at Notre Dame is how they provide a glimpse not only of my historical subject matter’s life-worlds, but also the worlds of those scholars after them who have attempted to grapple with their lives and legacy, including for example Chesterton’s biographer Maisie Ward.


PB: We know that completing your dissertation is object number one, but after that, where do you imagine taking this project?

AG: It’s true that, for now, I’m focusing on the dissertation, but I think part of what I want to do with the project as I move forward is to think through what sorts of relevance these thinkers have in the present. This of course includes grappling with English-speaking Catholic intellectuals’ writings on gender, women, Judaism, immigration, and so on. But I am also interested in how their commitments to local and especially rural politics are again becoming relevant in an age of climate catastrophe, and how many of the themes touched on in their writings—about the nature of work, the ethics of consumption, and our responsibilities to the land—are more relevant now than ever.


Philip Byers is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center.