Man proposes, the internet (or at least email) disposes. We were going to have a posting continuing the saga of John Henry Newman, the Oxford Movement, and the act of social justice for today. At the last minute yesterday, however, we got an email from a faithful reader in Canada alerting us to a book he came across on Catholic social teaching . . . sort of. As the book was published a few years ago and is not very well known, we decided not to review it.
|Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais
We did, however, decide to correct a few of the facts and misimpressions in the book. Because the errors are pervasive, we won’t name the book or the author. It would do no good to hold up either to ridicule or criticism, especially since the author has no opportunity of self-defense, and — as noted — the book is obscure, anyway, and people would wonder why such a fuss is being made over something nobody seems to care about particularly.
At the top of the list of facts to be corrected is the widespread belief that Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum was the first “social justice encyclical.” “Social encyclical” is the more usual term, but that is an extremely minor quibble. The simple fact is that Rerum Novarum was not the first social encyclical. The label Rerum Novarum (the title is “On Labor and Capital” in the current official English translation) actually references the second social encyclical from 1834, Singulari Nos (“On the Errors of Lamennais”) which condemned the social theories being spread by an apostate priest, Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854), who had repudiated his priesthood, renounced Christianity, and attacked the pope in print.
|Pope Gregory XVI
Not by coincidence, the first social encyclical, Gregory XVI's Mirari Vos (“On Liberalism and Religious Indifferentism”) attempted to correct the errors of de Lamennais and others without naming anyone specifically. Part of the problem, of course, is that there are at least three distinct meanings of “liberalism,” one which is condemned, one which is criticized, and one which is approved:
French or European Liberalism/Democracy (condemned): the abstraction of the collective is sovereign and vested with all rights. Actual human beings only have such rights as those who control the collective choose to give them. This is the liberalism underpinning all forms of socialism, yes, “democratic socialism,” too.
English Liberalism/Democracy (criticized): while everyone technically is sovereign and has all rights, only an élite, whether economic, political, social, whatever, has the ability or capacity to exercise them properly (“properly” meaning the way people with power want them exercised). This is the liberalism underpinning all forms of capitalism (as defined by the socialist Louis Blanc), even “democratic capitalism” or any other form that keeps ownership and thus power concentrated in the hands of the few.
American Liberalism/Democracy (approved): every individual is sovereign under God and is vested with all natural rights. Any rights the collective as the collective or an élite as an élite have are theirs by delegation from actual human beings, not by nature. (N.B.: European and English liberalism are so unacceptable that the term “liberal” is not even used in Catholic social teaching to refer to the American system. It is also important to note that “American liberalism” describes the way the system was set up to operate under the Constitution, not the way it operates today.)
|Equality, French style.
This raises the question as to why Rerum Novarum is considered the first social encyclical. It’s pretty obvious once you know what was going on behind the scenes, so to speak, that is, the history that most people today simply don’t know.
The simple fact is that after the Industrial and French Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars society was in chaos. The old economic, social, political, and especially religious institutions appeared to be completely inadequate to address the new conditions.
In desperation, people began turning to new theories that purported to be more relevant to the world than the old, outdated institutions. While initially known by many names, such as “the New Christianity,” “Neo-Catholicism,” “Associationism,” “the democratic religion,” and so on, by the time the Revolutions of 1848 rolled around they were lumped together under the common name of “socialism.”
The principal difference between socialism and everything else is that, consistent with the principles of European liberalism, rights came from society, they were not inherent in the human person. That being the case, life, liberty, and private property became prudential or expedient, and could safely be redefined, suspended, or abolished outright if deemed so for the greater good.
Not that capitalism/English liberalism was much better. It paid lip service to the theory that all human beings are as fully human as all other human beings, but in practice denied this by restricting capital ownership to a relatively small élite. Thus, capitalism was harshly criticized, while socialism was condemned.
|Human dignity, American style.
It did not, however, do much good, nor did any of the other early attempts at social reform. For example, In Supremo, Pope Gregory XVI’s 1837 encyclical condemning slavery in the United States, was simply ignored by slaveowners in the American south. The Latin referring to dealing, trafficking, owning, or having anything to do with slavery was translated into English as condemning the slave trade . . . which was immediately twisted to mean the importation of new slaves. Since the importation of new slaves had been illegal for many years by 1837, the Catholic bishops in the American south assured their flocks that the encyclical did not apply to them . . . when they were the whole reason for the encyclical in the first place!
Even Leo XIII’s first social encyclicals fell on deaf ears — and they were social from the very first, reinforcing Gregory XVI’s and Pius IX’s condemnations of socialism, modernism, and the New Age (which wouldn’t be called that for another twenty years or so, but that’s what it was). Clearly what was needed was a change in tactics . . . and that’s exactly what the world got in 1891.
It did not happen overnight, however. What seems to have triggered the issuance of Rerum Novarum was (believe it or not) the 1886 New York City mayoral campaign. The agrarian socialist Henry George ran for mayor of New York on a platform of instituting utopia by abolishing private property in land. He was supported by a renegade priest, Father Edward McGlynn, also a socialist.
George did not win the election, and it’s unclear exactly what he would have done had he won, but the confusion spread by George and McGlynn over what the Catholic Church really teaches regarding private ownership of land or anything else made it clear that previous condemnations of socialism had been ineffective.
Because all they did was condemn socialism and criticize capitalism without offering any alternative. From his long political experience, Leo XIII knew that the only way to counter the “new things” of the modern world — socialism, modernism, and the New Age — is widespread direct ownership of capital, whether land or technology.
So what seems to have started in late 1886 as just another encyclical condemning socialism became transformed over the course of four years into a new kind of social encyclical. Instead of just condemning, Rerum Novarum offered a specific solution to the evil of socialism and the corruption of capitalism. As he declared,
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. Nature itself would urge him to this. 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. (Rerum Novarum, § 46.)
|Pope Leo XIII
This was a phenomenal breakthrough in how the Catholic Church presented its teachings. Instead of just condemning, it gave a specific thing to do: work for widespread capital ownership.
Unfortunately, Leo XIII left a loophole large enough to drive a paradigm through, and that paradigm is one that has crippled economic and social development for thousands of years. It allowed Catholics and everyone else to avoid the real point of the encyclical, which was to enhance human dignity by securing the means to personal empowerment: ownership of capital as well as of labor. This was similar to what had happened with In Supremo, which by a translation that inserted vagueness allowed slaveowners to ignore the condemnation of slavery.
Leo XIII’s unfortunate choice of words was to make a specific suggestion how widespread capital ownership could be financed: increase wages. Increasing wages, however, has quite a few problems . . . which we will address when we again look at this subject.