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Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching

Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching

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.

ReclaimingCatholicSocialTeachingCatholic 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.

Editor's Note: This post was first appeared in “The Integrated Catholic LIfe”. Used with permission.

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About Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press's Amazing Grace Series. Her newest books are: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families, a collection of stories to inspire family love, and Dear God, I Don't Get It and the sequel, Dear God, You Can't Be Serious, children's fiction that feeds the soul through a fun and exciting story. Patti's Blog Facebook. Twitter.

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  • Jane

    Until the bishops and priests get out of their silos and start proclaiming Catholic Truth in the public square, the world will continue its downward spiral. The typical Catholic leader’s response to every assault on Truth is…crickets. If the leaders aren’t emboldened to proclaim it publicly, then don’t expect the pew-sitters to be emboldened in their proclamation. As go the leaders, so goes the flock. Pray for, yea, demand, a bold, public witness of the beauty of Catholic Truth from your leaders! And then we can be emboldened to follow their lead in our own spheres of influence.

    • LizEst

      There are a good many that do proclaim Catholic truth in the public square…contrary to what the secular media would have one believe.

      • Patti

        I second, Liz’s comment. Our leaders are often ignored or attacked for proclaiming the truth. We need to arm ourselves with the truth and do our best to live our faith and understand it’s depth. Yes our leaders are a very important piece. We must pray for them.

  • Charles Fisk

    This is a good article. I noticed that the links to the encyclicals have an error.
    I was trying to get pope Leos works by using google (as the link had failed) and I stumbled upon a st Joseph catholic church in mi that spoke about pope Leos prayer to st Michael being excluded in the second Vatican council. And adding that it is a sin to attend the new mass. I had never read anything like this before and felt it may need discussion. Is our church dividing?

    • LizEst

      Hi Charles,
      Thanks for your comment. The links were fine when we set up this article. Then, yesterday, our site was hit with an electronic attack. The links have been fixed and go directly to the documents on the Vatican site, to which they originally went.

      As to the comment about “it’s a sin to attend the new mass”, it’s an old canard. I’ve heard/read this, and worse, many times. To be sure, division is a sign of the evil spirit, unity – a mark of the Church and the Holy Spirit. No, our Church is not dividing. The gates of hell will never prevail against her. It’s fine to attend the traditional Mass. It’s not fine to tear the rest of the Church down. All saints have been obedient to the Pope and what the Church believes and teaches (in fact, St. Paul himself warned people not to follow false teaching). We have an excellent series on site titled “Mysticism and Magisterium” here: You may want to read those posts.
      God bless you, Charles!

      • Charles Fisk

        Reply thank you I am an avid reader every day of Dan’s Spiritual Direction it is of great help to me. God Bless the work you all do.

  • ThirstforTruth

    Is there a possibility that these wonderfully informative blogs be set up so it would
    be easier to print the article w/o all the advertising, etc? I would often like to do so
    to help in my evangelizing friends, acquaintances, especially former Catholics, but
    it is difficult with all the extraneous material. Thanks and God bless. I will wait for an answer.

    • LizEst

      Yes, there is a way!
      At the bottom of the post, above the author’s picture, there is always a green oval (or rectangle) that says “Print Friendly”. Click on that. Another screen will come up without ads. At the top of the page (on the left) you will see 3 options: “print” “pdf” “email”. Click on the one you want. Now you are ready to print, etc. That’s it! If you want to remove the pictures that are part of the article itself, also at the top of the page (on the right side), there is a box next to “remove images”. Click that box.
      Hope that helps, ThirstforTruth…and God bless you!

      • ThirstforTruth

        Dear LizEst..
        I must be blind as a bat! I looked all over for some sort of icon
        for a print option….and you are right! There it is plain as the nose
        on my face! What an epiphany for me. If only proclaiming the Word of God to those who are “blind” were as easy. God bless and thank you as I found to work well as do the other options you pointed out.

        • LizEst

          Our pleasure! To God be the glory!

  • John

    In the modern era the Church is losing the battle of proclamation. We stop at writing “documents” (long ones such as Encyclicals) or ‘books’ written by translators of such documents and fail to get the message out through modern media in terms the average person can digest including the most important medium of the last 65 years – television. The message (assumptions, logic, evidence) of culture has come in the form of movies, shows, commercials, commentary, etc. delivered over decades. The Church itself does not even have an official television presence and relies on “grass roots” efforts such as EWTN and formats that only the elderly and core constituency will connect with. Then we wonder why “truth” and “true freedom” are not understood? Where is it? Who can find it? The greatest Church on earth cannot even understand how modern man communicates.

  • Joseph F Spadafino

    This book is incredible! I devoured it in just a few sittings and then passed it on. I never had any idea of the depth of Pope Leo XIII’s thought processes on a whole host of issues. I’d heard of Rerum Novarum, of course, but didn’t know how much more than “as Catholics we have to support labor unions” (in spite of their head-bashing, etc., etc.) it was. It is about the equal dignity and responsibilities we share as children of God and the natural inequality that results from the different talents He gives each of us, how we use them, and how those differences complement each other. Not everyone is a Tom Monaghan (founder of the Dominos Pizza empire, impetus behind Ave Maria U, and staunch Catholic), but he couldn’t have operated thousands of stores or delivered a gazillion pizzas by himself, either. BTW, you can listen to Leo’s Great Encyclicals by downloading mp3s of them at Dcn Joe, Phoenix/Mesa, AZ

    • LizEst

      Thank you for your comments, Deacon Joe! God bless you.

      …and, here is the oldest known video of a Pope (his voice, too), Pope Leo XIII from 1896:

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