The purpose of these encyclicals was to restore respect for the dignity of each human person, manifested by rebuilding and restoring the institutions of the social order in a manner consistent with the sovereignty of the individual under God. Unfortunately, most people read their own opinions into the encyclicals, and constructed a private interpretation based in large measure on personal faith and a private system of morals. Consciously or unconsciously, they edited out anything that contradicted their deeply held beliefs, especially in the area of politics and economics. As Emmanuel Mounier noted in A Personalist Manifesto,
The moralizers are no less dangerous. Like the doctrinaires they are strangers to the living reality that is history [that is, the institutions of the social order, inextricably rooted in the past as well as existing in the present], and they oppose it, not by a rational system, but by moral demands of the widest generality. They do not try to influence living history by means of a strong spiritual structure which could give rise to a program of definite action through a profound knowledge of the needs and the techniques of the present day [a reference to "Catholic Action" as restructured by Pope Pius XI]. Instead they are content above all to spend their energies in a vigorous eloquence that is as full of good will as it is ineffective. Some of them try to go beyond moral preaching. They launch upon a sharp spiritual critique of the evil forces or tendencies. But when they enter upon a constructive technique, they seem to think of nothing but moral weapons and above all only of individual moral efforts. They harmonize the purest suppositions in a most naïve manner. They properly exhort individuals to cultivate the virtues which give strength to social life. But they forget that historical forces [institutions], freed from submission to the spiritual [the natural moral law], have created collective structures and material necessities [i.e., institutions and our social duties] that we must inevitably reckon with insofar as "the spiritual itself is embodied in flesh." Such men are a constant source of danger, since they tend to lead the spiritual forces, which we should like to inject into history [i.e., into our institutions], above or around the historical happenings without coming to grips with them. (Emmanuel Mounier, A Personalist Manifesto. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1938, 4-5)Keeping in mind these common assumptions, it should come as no surprise that with the issue of Rerum Novarum ("On Labor and Capital") in 1891, many people assumed that the pope was doing something new and different. Blind to the fact that there are no teachings in Rerum Novarum that did not already appear in other encyclicals, most people seem to have missed the obvious point that the only difference between Rerum Novarum and previous documents is that Rerum Novarum gives an explicit remedy for the perceived conflicts in society: widespread direct ownership of the means of production. As the pope clearly explained, "We have seen that this great labor question cannot be solved save by assuming as a principle that private ownership must be held sacred and inviolable. The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners." (§ 46)
The first sentence in this quote contains no surprises. It simply restates what was said in previous encyclicals and stressed almost to the point of redundancy in Rerum Novarum itself. The cause of so many problems in the world is the rejection or redefinition of the natural moral law, particularly with respect to the institution of private property, one of the primary natural rights.
The second sentence, however, contains the "radical" part of Rerum Novarum. Previous teachings had simply exhorted the rich to distribute a measure of their surplus wealth to alleviate poverty. Now, however, here was an explicit command — not a "prudential suggestion" as some panic-stricken commentators, socialist in all but name, characterize it! — that it is not enough to distribute alms. The rich, the whole of society acting through its chief agent for the care of the common good, the State, is to reorganize itself so as to promote not simply the alleviation of poverty, but its elimination. How? By somehow opening up democratic access to the means of acquiring and possessing private property in the means of production so that ordinary people can participate to the fullest extent possible in the economic common good.
In the same paragraph, however, Leo XIII made a fatal error — or (at least) other people have fatally misunderstood just how far the pope's teaching authority and infallibility extends, and where an infallible teaching leaves off and prudential matter begins. The paragraph begins, "If a workman's wages be sufficient to enable him comfortably to support himself, his wife, and his children, he will find it easy, if he be a sensible man, to practice thrift, and he will not fail, by cutting down expenses, to put by some little savings and thus secure a modest source of income."
That is, the pope appears to be telling us how capital formation is financed: cut consumption, save, then invest. This is, indeed, the manner in which the British Currency School claims is the only way that capital formation can be financed, and assumes as a given that "money" is correctly defined as a purchase order issued or authorized by the State. This understanding of money, as we have already seen, when taken to its logical conclusion effectively abolishes private property and is thus inconsistent with the natural moral law.
Fortunately (at least for those readers sufficiently astute to realize that the pope can be wrong on matters of science, even social science, without compromising his infallibility in matters of faith and morals), the important part of this paragraph is the goal of widespread ownership of the means of production, not the means by which it is achieved. As long as the means does not contradict the natural moral law, any program that assists the great mass of people in becoming owners of the means of production is legitimate. It is only a question as to which is the most effective and best suited to a particular time and place.
Setting aside for the moment the question of how best to assist ordinary people to become direct owners of a moderate stake of income-generating assets, we need to look at Leo XIII's vision of the best arrangement of the social order with respect to its political institutions. In what many people will no doubt regard as a shocking, possibly even blasphemous statement, Leo XIII appeared to see in the political institutions of the United States something unique and special. In possible agreement with the assessment of de Tocqueville and Brownson, Leo XIII seems to have concluded that the social order in America was based on a fundamental consistency with the Thomist understanding of the natural moral law.
There was a problem, however. Patriotic Americans, especially Catholics, had a tendency to want to extend the application of their democratic principles to every aspect of their lives, including their religious beliefs and practices. While the desire to apply democratic principles is a laudable ambition, even necessary when limited to the political and economic spheres, certain democratic principles tend to come into serious conflict with religious principles and teachings. Acceptance of revealed truth, for example, is not something that you can subject to a popular vote. You either accept it, or you don't. If you accept what the Catholic Church believes to be revealed truth in its fullness, you can honestly call yourself a Catholic. If you do not, you are not a Catholic, and cannot honestly call yourself one.
Consequently, in 1899 Leo XIII wrote an Apostolic Letter, Testem Benevolentia, "Concerning New Opinions, Virtue, Nature and Grace, with Regard to Americanism," to James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, the head of the Catholic Church in America. As Leo XIII explained the situation,
The underlying principle of these new opinions is that, in order to more easily attract those who differ from her, the Church should shape her teachings more in accord with the spirit of the age and relax some of her ancient severity and make some concessions to new opinions. Many think that these concessions should be made not only in regard to ways of living, but even in regard to doctrines which belong to the deposit of the faith. They contend that it would be opportune, in order to gain those who differ from us, to omit certain points of her teaching which are of lesser importance, and to tone down the meaning which the Church has always attached to them.This is clear and straightforward. Unfortunately, a great many people even today see papal disapproval of something called "Americanism," and conclude that everything American — especially the quintessential American characteristic of exercising democratic initiative and organizing for the common good — has been condemned for all time. This is similar to the way that condemnations of liberalism (the belief that all religions are equally true) and modernism (a synthesis of ancient positivist heresies dredged up and given a new label) are condemnations of everything liberal and modern.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As Leo XIII took great pains to explain, "if by this name [Americanism] are to be understood certain endowments of mind which belong to the American people, just as other characteristics belong to various other nations, and if, moreover, by it is designated your political condition and the laws and customs by which you are governed, there is no reason to take exception to the name."
In other words, at least as far as Leo XIII was concerned, the United States appeared to be in material conformity with the precepts of the natural moral law. There was no reason to condemn or criticize American civil society, only the inappropriate application of those necessary democratic principles, described in Immortale Dei, "On the Christian Constitution of States," to religious society. Keep in mind that the Catholic Church does not claim the authority to endorse any specific system of government, economics, or anything else outside religious society. A pope who declares that "there is no reason to take exception" to the American civil system is thus giving a virtual endorsement as far as it lies within his competence to do so.
The only question that remains is, at a time when the Catcholic Church was faced with extremely serious problems all over the world — notably the rapid spread of modernism, the "synthesis of all heresies," and the virtual abandonment throughout the world of the natural moral law as the foundation of the civil order — why would the pope take the time to correct what could reasonably be thought of as a relatively minor problem in one of the few countries that still conformed its essential institutions to the precepts of the natural moral law and explicitly promoted the dignity of the human person in its founding documents?
We can't know for certain, of course, but the following suggests itself. While "Americanism" in the Catholic Church was, all things considered, a relatively minor problem, Leo XIII, in common with subsequent pontiffs, seems to have assigned America a special role to play in the restoration of a global civilization solidly founded on the natural moral law. Thanks in no small measure to George Mason, and as analyzed by Alexis de Tocqueville and Orestes Brownson, the federal government of the United States was (and remains) the only government on earth that acknowledges the sovereignty of each person, and thus built respect for individual human dignity into the very foundation of the State.
There were and still are flaws in the application of the principles that underpin the "political condition and the laws and customs" of the United States, but the essential fact of respect for the dignity of the human person is explicit, both in the founding documents of America and in the institutions of the common good. There was, however, a constant danger that the United States, the only example of a human society built on explicit and inherent respect for human dignity, might fall prey to false notions of democracy. As de Tocqueville warned in the conclusion to the second volume of Democracy in America,
I am aware that many of my contemporaries maintain that nations are never their own masters here below, and that they necessarily obey some insurmountable and unintelligent power, arising from anterior events, from their race, or from the soil and climate of their country. Such principles are false and cowardly; such principles can never produce aught but feeble men and pusillanious nations. Providence has not created mankind entirely independent or entirely free. It is true that around every man a fatal circle is traced byond which he cannot pass [i.e., the natural moral law]; but within the wide verge of that circle he is powerful and free; as it is with man, so with communities. The nations of our time cannot prevent the conditions of men from becoming equal, but it depends upon themselves whether the principle of equality is to lead them to servitude or freedom, to knowledge or barbarism, to prosperity or wretchedness.Thus, in common with Orestes Brownson, evidently the popes, too, saw a special mission for America: as a model for how to structure a society so as to respect the dignity of each person, and at the same time protect and maintain the common good. This was evident nowhere else in the world, making the United States, for all its admitted faults and flaws, humanity's last chance to build a world based on a solid foundation of the universal truths of the natural moral law.
One question, however, remained. Thanks to such astute commentators and analysts as de Tocqueville, Brownson, and Leo XIII, we now knew what: a society that embodies the four essential pillars of an economically and politically just society. These are, 1) a limited economic role for the State, 2) free and open markets as the best means for determining just wages, just prices, and just profits, 3) recognition and protection of the rights of private property, and 4) widespread direct ownership of the means of production. We also knew why: respect for the sovereignty and dignity of each human being.
What we still didn't know was how. Even the United States was having problems with maintaining the four essential pillars of an economically and politically just society. Within forty years, however, another pope would develop a social doctrine that embodied a profound breakthrough in moral philosophy that addressed this very issue. We will start to look at this breakthrough in the next posting in this series.