By Fr John Flynn LC
CATHOLIC social teaching can often be misinterpreted and therefore we need to return to its first principles, Anthony Esolen, author of a recent book on the subject, says.
Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching: A Defence of the Church’s True Teachings on Marriage, Family and the State, addresses fundamental issues such as God, human nature and society.
Mr Esolen based his reflections on the writings of Pope Leo XIII.
The most fundamental truth about our human condition, Mr Esolen explained, was that we were made by God, in the image of God.
Ignoring our connection to the eternal would mean that we would lose our notion of what was good and right, he said, quoting Pope Leo XIII.
People who believed in God and a natural order would be able to see that human life was sacred, that marriage was a contract between a man and a woman and that children belonged to their parents, he said.
“Reason without faith is crippled at best and grows deformed and monstrous at worst, animated by the pride and passion of man,” he said.
Mr Esolen continued by deliberating on what human liberty really meant.
Our liberty is meant to help us achieve our perfection.
“Freedom is the unimpeded capacity to fulfil our God-ordained end,” he said.
Religion also helps keep the state in place, which is subordinate to our higher destiny.
On the subject of marriage, Mr Esolen said even Aristotle admitted the family and the household came first and was the foundation for the state.
Society in turn should protect and promote marriage and the family.
By contrast laws that weakened marriage damaged civil society and the Church.
“Good laws assist us in the difficult pursuit of virtue. Bad laws thwart that pursuit and encourage vice,” Mr Esolen said.
A bad law, Pope Leo said, that allowed divorce, was like a rotten tree trunk from which only “worthless fruits” could come.
As well, individuals who turned their backs on Church teaching regarding the family were being anti-social and self-centred.
An anti-society of self-will and divorce would inevitably damage the sense of civic responsibility and the love of neighbour.
Mr Esolen likened the role of families in society to that of bones in a human body.
He said you couldn’t talk about a real society, about the economy or poverty, about sexual ethics, without involving the family.
Mr Esolen also considered the teachings of Pope Leo XIII on work and private property.
The right to private property was not founded on the laws of economics, but on human nature and the need to provide security for a family.
“Only persons can own, because only persons seal their creations with the stamp, not of their labour merely, but of their persons, the very selves that dwell in and beyond time,” Mr Esolen said.
“Human labour must be honoured not because it is labour, but because it is human.”
He considered a number of consequences that arose from this, including the need that companies should treat their workers as humans and not be unjust and that workers should be paid a fair wage.
“It is always shameful to treat human beings as if they were mere machines,” Mr Esolen said.
He also said Pope Leo XIII had in mind a society in which the poor and the rich were not separated from each other.
It was not enough that the rich paid taxes to help the poor; instead what was needed was a mutual interest and love.
Mr Esolen decried how in more recent times in some parts of the world the state had squeezed the Church and charitable associations out of schools, hospitals, adoption agencies and other activities.
The state, instead, Pope Leo explained, should foster objective moral law and self-restraint.
He also referred to what was now known as the principle of subsidiarity, that is, the state should respect the role of families and associations and local communities.
Mr Esolen insisted on the central role of religion and in particular the Eucharist.
“A sincere devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, Pope Leo says, will bring unity among men again by fostering three virtues: faith, patience and charity,” he said.
In some of his criticism of contemporary society Mr Esolen’s comments bring to mind the content of Robert Bellah’s book, Habits of the Heart, or Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.
Both of these books noted the fragmentation of society, the breakdown of local communities and a growing individualism.
Mr Esolen certainly provides a good overview of the social teaching of the Church, as contained in the writings of Pope Leo XIII, but it would have been interesting to also consider some of the subsequent documents in the following century or more – perhaps he will deal with this in a future book.