While researching the origins of Rerum Novarum (1891), probably Pope Leo XIII’s best-known encyclical, we came across something that needs a little explanation, especially in the twenty-first century. No, we’re not talking about how Leo XIII’s careful analysis of the evil of socialism and mandated alternative of widespread capital ownership was transformed by vested interests into a condemnation of capitalism.
That’s self-evident from seeing the ecstatic praise heaped these days on socialism in some Catholic and all liberal quarters, and the hysteria about the satanic nature of capitalism. For the record, we do not endorse capitalism, but even at its ugliest — and it’s hard to make it even look pretty — it beats the glamor of socialism, albeit by a tiny margin.
Plus, it must be noted that the Catholic Church condemns socialism flat out, no qualifications, while it “only” condemns the evils of capitalism, not capitalism itself. That may come across to many as a difference that makes no difference, but socialism is directly contrary to natural law, while capitalism “only” grossly distorts it. The end results may be indistinguishable for all practical purposes for most people, but it’s a difference that actually makes a great deal of difference.
|Pope Gregory XVI|
No, today we’re looking at some condemnations of the “new things” contained in Pope Gregory XVI’s 1834 encyclical, Singulari Nos, “On the Errors of Lamennais.” As far as we can tell, Singulari Nos marked the first use of the term “rerum novarum” in connection with alleged truths found only outside the Catholic Church. It’s in § 8 of the encyclical, if you’re interested.
Now, it must be understood that the Catholic Church claims a “fullness of truth,” not a monopoly. That means that all truth, wherever found, has a place in the Catholic Church, which assumes as a given the first principle of reason, “That which is true is as true, and is true in the same way, as everything else that is true.” Church folks might have to argue for a few centuries or so to decide if something really is true, but once it has been determined to be true, then it is accepted.
Thus, while the Catholic Church does not claim to have the cosmic totality of truth, or to be the sole repository of truth, it does declare necessarily false the idea that there is any truth that can be found only outside the Catholic Church. According to the Catholic Church, if it’s true, the Church accepts it. If it’s false, the Church rejects it.
|Lamennais, Founder of Neo-Catholicism|
Now, who was “Lamennais”? He was the Abbé Hugues Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854). As a young man fresh from his reconversion to Catholicism from rationalism, he had vowed to defend the Church from State encroachment and the scourge of rationalism. He demanded the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a democratic theocracy with the pope as the final arbiter in matters both civil and religious. Largely because he espoused the sovereignty of the people, he quickly became possibly the most popular priest in France. He is revered today as the forerunner of liberal or social Catholicism.
Unfortunately, de Lamennais’s political and religious philosophy was based on his “theory of certitude.” According to Lamennais, only the collective has reason. Individuals must accept the collective wisdom of humanity as dictated by the Catholic Church on faith; individual human reason is an illusion. (After Lamennais left the Church in 1833 and founded his own religion he replaced the Catholic Church with the collective will of the people in his system.)
|Charles Fourier, Founder of Associationism|
De Lamennais’s theory of certitude is substantially the same as the socialist, modernist, and New Age principle that natural rights — which are discernible by individual human reason — reside only in the collective (and are therefore not discernible by individual human reason), and are doled out to actual human beings as deemed necessary or expedient. Most forms of Christian socialism trace their origins to de Lamennais, or to his predecessors, François Marie Charles Fourier (1772-1837), and Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), all three of which left the Catholic Church and founded their own religions.
There is thus no mystery surrounding Gregory XVI’s condemnation of the “new thing” that had just begun to be called socialism. Interestingly, Pierre Leroux, a socialist and follower of Saint-Simon, coined the term socialism in 1833 or 1834 as a pejorative.
Very quickly, however, “socialism” (socialisme) became the term covering all forms of “democratic religion” (démocratie religieuse) that took sovereignty away from individuals and vested it in the collective. That is why Karl Marx insisted that communism and socialism, which share the same fundamental principle (the abolition of private property in capital), are “really” different things. All socialism prior to Marx was “religious socialism,” even though the “religion” might get pretty far fetched and, frankly, weird — check out “Éliphas Lévi,” if you want to see where one branch of de Lamennais’s “Neo-Catholicism” ended up. (See, e.g., Dr. Julian Strube, “Socialism and Esotericism in July Monarchy France,” History of Religions, July 2016.) (When de Lamennais left the Catholic Church, of course, he declared that he was no longer the Apostle of the Catholic Church, but the Apostle of the People; Lévi's aberrations used de Lamennais's Neo-Catholicism instead of his secular humanism as the starting point for his version of socialism and the new universal religion — of which many were popping up all over the place in the first half of the nineteenth century.)
|Saint-Simon, Founder of the Church of Saint-Simonism|
One of the other things Gregory XVI condemned, however, sounds like a serious mistake to modern ears: freedom of conscience. Seeing that, we had to take a second look. Then a third. Then we decided to find out what the pope meant. After all, we’ve seen in fairly recent series on this very blog that terms can change meaning over time. “Progressive” used to mean something good. Plus, many people have the habit of assuming that what they mean by something is what others mean by something, even if it is clearly something different; they tend to judge others by their own principles, not with the principles of the others.
It turns out that in condemning “freedom of conscience,” Gregory XVI was not saying people should not be free from coercion in religious matters, or that the State should enforce religious law or practices. No, it turns out that “freedom of conscience” had a different connotation, similar to the way “free love,” another term coming into vogue at the time, didn’t quite mean what it sounds like it should mean.
Shouldn’t love be free? Of course, or it isn’t love . . . except that most people know that “free love” is a euphemism for unbridled sexual promiscuity, which Charles Fourier (though not the bulk of his American followers until the twentieth century) advocated, along with treating gluttony as a virtue.
|Éliphas Lévi's Neo-Catholic Baphomet|
Similarly, “freedom of conscience” as it was being used in the early nineteenth century had nothing to do with religious freedom. Rather, it meant that people should be able to believe anything they liked and act on it, whether or not it is true, contradictory, or even nonsense, as long as they are able to get other people to go along with it. In the context of the times, “freedom of conscience” meant that might makes right, all truth is relative, and that there are therefore things that are true in one set of circumstances or at one level of consciousness that are not true in another set of circumstances or at other levels of consciousness. (See E.F. Schumacher, Guide for the Perplexed, 1979.)
In short, what Gregory XVI condemned when he anathematized “freedom of conscience” was moral relativism, the “triumph of the will.” This always leads to totalitarianism, at least according to people like Heinrich Rommen, Mortimer Adler, and Pope John Paul II.
So it turns out that the “conservative” Gregory XVI was actually more truly liberal than the liberals by insisting that truth was, well, true. Anyone doubting that might want to check out In Supremo Apostolatus, his 1836 encyclical condemning slavery . . . which the Catholic bishops in the southern United States where there might have been a few Catholics who owned a slave or two, hastened to assure their flocks did not really apply to them, and which some Catholics even today think meant something other than a condemnation of slavery.
And wait until you find out what Gregory XVI really meant when he condemned “separation of Church and State” . . . .