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The Industrial Revolution

Agrarian societies were relatively stable from a socieconomic point of view. The Industrial Revolution, by drawing masses of unskilled laborers to urban centers during the late eighteenth century, presented complex new social problems. These laborers included women and children, working under very unhealthy conditions, and 14 hour workdays were common. Following the thought of Scottish economist Adam Smith, there was a widespread belief that the economy would regulate itself, but laws were finally passed in the English Parliament protecting factory workers between 1802 and 1833.[1] Comparable laws were passed in France during the 1840's.[2] Reactions in the American continent were slower.


Part of the reluctance in the United States to address the problems resulting from the Industrial Revolution stemmed from a pervasive attitude of "individualism": "Governmental acts are thought of as restrictions upon individual liberty. Government and its operations come to be regarded as little better than necessary evils... [and limited to]  preserve order, enforce contracts, and punish crime."[3] John Ryan blames some of this attitude on "the natural  individualism of a pioneer people inhabiting a land of exceptional opportunities."[4]

As a result of this attitude, leadership in seeking social solutions in the United States, was mostly assumed by religious leaders. Washington Gladden, for example, was an influential Congregational minister and social activist. Father John Ryan, quoted above, was a Catholic priest and sociologist and he endeavored to apply Catholic social teaching to conditions in the United States.

In his preaching, Gladden  seeks "the establishment and maintenance of sound and fair social conditions; so that there should be no oppression nor injustice, but a square deal for everybody; so that the strong  should not be permitted to prey upon the weak."[5] The first Catholic social document (encyclical Rerum novarum, 1891) of Pope Leo XIII teaches: "The foremost duty, therefore, of the rulers of the State should be to make sure that the laws and institutions, the general character and administration of the commonwealth, shall be such as of themselves to realize public well-being and private prosperity. ...since it is the province of the commonwealth to serve the common good."[6]

Washington Gladden
Photo source: © pbs.org

Gladden points out that modern democracy creates a new form of social responsibility, and governments should be seen as an agent of the will of the voters: "the men to whom you and I preach are sovereigns, the sovereign people; voters in this country are 'the powers that be'; they are ordained of God to organize and administer civil society..."[7]


As indicated above, it took legislation to eliminate many of the abusive labor conditions that resulted from the industrial revolution, such as child labor. John Ryan puts legislation in a positive light:

A conception of governmental activity as almost entirely restrictive and coercive is false and misleading. In the first place, modern governments perform very many functions which are not restrictive, even in form. Such are the maintenance of schools, a health service, a life saving service, fire departments, roads, parks, etc., and the operation of a great number of scientific bureaus and other centers of information and advice... In the second place, a great deal of restrictive or prohibitive legislation is negative only in form... For instance, child labor legislation increases the opportunities and welfare of children; anti-monopoly laws are calculated to increase the opportunity and welfare of the majority of the population. When men denounce industrial regulations of this sort as restraints upon individual freedom, what they really demand is that one class of persons should be left free to oppress another, usually a larger, class of persons.[8]

John Ryan

The Principle of Subsidiarity

As stated above, government is not a necessary evil; it is one of the many group functions in which human beings participate, and it can be small and local like a village or large as a nation. In implementing a proper order in a civil society, a very useful organizational principle has been termed the Principle of Subsidiarity. It is attributed to Wilhelm von Ketteler (1811-1877), bishop of Mainz, Germany:

My ideal is expressed in the simple formula: the individual has his own rights which he may exercise. I do not look upon the state as a machine, but as a living organism with living members, in which each member has his own right and his own free life. Such members are the individuals, the family, the community. Each inferior member has freedom of action in his own sphere and enjoys complete autonomy. Only when an inferior member of the organism is no longer in position to attain to its goals alone, to overcome a danger threatening its development, does the higher member take over the responsibility and the inferior member must concede to the superior whatever portion of its freedom this latter needs to attain to its goal.[9]

Bishop von Ketteler developed the principle as a result of his experiences dealing with sociopolitical issues in Germany, and the concept became an essential component of the Catholic social encyclicals. This principle affirms that it is preferable to handle problems at a lower level, that is at the individual or local community level, before resorting to a higher level, such as a state or federal level. This great practical rule seeks the most freedom of action and autonomy possible for the individual and the smaller communities, placing the solution of problems at the closest level to the problems, where they may be best understood, but resorting to the next higher level when it becomes necessary. At the same time the opportunity for the individual to develop his sense of responsibility and creativity is maximized, fostering his or her moral growth.

[1] J. Wesley Bready,  Lord Shaftesbury (New York: Fran-Maurice Inc., 1927).

[2] Parker Thomas Moon, The Labor Problem and the Social Catholic Movement in France (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), 48-49.

[3] John A. Ryan, "Erroneous Theories Concerning the Functions of the State," in The State and the Church, John A. Ryan and Moorhouse F. X. Millar, S.J., eds. (New York: The Macmillan Company,1922), 209.

[4] Ibid., 209-210.

[5] Washington Gladden, The Nation and the Kingdom (Boston: American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1909), 4-5.

[6] Pope Leo XIII, Rerum novarum  (1898), Paragraph #32.

[7] Washington Gladden, Social Salvation  (Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press, 1902), 21.

[8] John A. Ryan, "Erroneous Theories Concerning the Functions of the State," 213.

[9] Wilhelm von Ketteler in William Edward Hogan, ed., The Development of Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel Von Ketteler Interpretation of the Social Problem, 260.