Defending Catholic social teaching against the cultural current can make one feel like a hamster on a wheel—spinning in circles and getting nowhere fast. Truth and logic are rejected up against arguments that spring from a faulty foundation. Just as altering a sail does nothing to fix a sinking ship, and redecorating a house can’t improve a rotting infrastructure, likewise, logic will not arise from corrupted assumptions.
For instance, try to defend life, traditional marriage, and a nuclear family. Your opponent will counter that choice, equal opportunity, and alternative lifestyles are superior. Why? Because it sounds good. And for no other reason, because below the surface there is no truth.
Catholic social teaching, however, is anchored in eternal truth. It is there that logic takes root. Anthony Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, often writes on Catholic teaching, applying those truths to contemporary society. In his new book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, he explains that the Church’s teaching on marriage, family, and the state provide an understanding for the confusion plaguing society. His book not only confirms the truth that we believe in, but it explains why we’ve been feeling so much like that hamster of late.
A Wrong Can’t Lead to a Right
Esolen begins with principals and human realities, because if one ignores common sense, traditions of the ages, and the evidence around him, “he not only may get everything wrong: he must get everything wrong.”
Truth is unattainable with false principals. Esolen uses the example of combining boys with risk-taking. Those two things fare very differently within the Boy Scouts as compared with street gangs. Or the difference between pornography and Michelangelo’s nudes painted all over the Sistine Chapel. In both cases, he says that there are nudes, but the results are radically different. “Michelangelo lifts up and liberates. The other suppresses what is most human and enslaves.”
Esolen points out that in this age of cultural polarization, we cannot both be right. “If the Catholic Christian view is correct, if man is made by God in His image for the enjoyment of the very life of God,” he writes, “then any society built upon other premises will be radically deficient.” And so it is. Apart from God, he states that we sink into the tedium and disappointment of pleasures, or the hectic excitement of wickedness. “He is wholly and intimately present in every smallest measure of space, in every shortest blink of time. There is no life but from God.”
Pope Leo XIII
Esolen concentrates extensively on the writings of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) who is considered the father of Catholic social teaching. Pope Leo warned that if we banish God from society, then we annihilate our moral sense and take away the truth of God our Creator. In such a case, Pope Leo said that society rejects laws and ultimately denigrates into vices. But today, Esolen points out that we no longer call them vices. “Instead, we proclaim that we seek such things.”
By taking God out of the mix, Esolen says that we lose the proper definition of freedom.
Pope Leo made this argument in his encyclical Libertas praestantissimum (On the Nature of Human Liberty): “If freedom meant the capacity to choose anything at all, including evil, then God and the blessed angels would not be free.” So sin, Pope Leo contended, is mere slavery and human liberty is based on God’s eternal law.
The Heart of the Matter
In our times, innovation is seen as the desired end, but Esolen asks the reader to consider that if a man really loves his wife, he will not continually try to change her. The same is true with the Church according to him. “If I am faithful to Holy Mother Church, the last thing I’d wish is to see her trumped up with gaudy new fashions to suit the political taste of the day.”
Esolen points out that there needs to be a respect for order and tradition lest we sink into disorder. “We do not live only in the times we are breathing,” he says. “The past is present to us still and we will be present to our descendants yet to come.” By drawing on Pope Leo’s encyclicals that were written over 100 years ago, Esolen proves that very point.
Just as truth extends through history and into the future, Esolen explains that the reach of Catholic social teaching leads from the good of each individual into society and ultimately leads to Jesus Christ. “The source of our union does not lie in our will, our cleverness, our political machinery, even our virtues, such as they are,” Esolen writes. “It lies in Christ.” And then Esolen comes to the heart of Catholic Social teaching as Pope Leo revealed to us—the Eucharist.
One of Pope Leo’s last encyclicals at the end of his life, Mirae caritatis (On the Most Holy Eucharist), speaks as clearly to our times as it did to his. “A sincere devotion to the Blessed Sacrament will bring unity among men again by fostering three virtues: faith, patience and charity.” Esolen explains that Pope Leo encouraged frequent and reverent veneration and reception of the Eucharist. He also taught that the Eucharist is the expression of Christ’s divine love and the cause of divine love within us.
It is perhaps reassuring that Pope Leo confronted many of the same social issues that we confront today. He provided us with the truth of Catholic Social Teaching and as Esolen presents to us, it is a truth that can transform our society. He reminds us, however, that we must be centered on the Eucharist, because it will ultimately be Christ, not us, that does the work.