Rerum Novarum (1891) begins with this sentence: “That the spirit of new things [revolutionary change], which has long been disturbing the nations of the world, should have passed beyond the sphere of politics and made its influence felt in the cognate sphere of practical economics is not surprising.”
Since the French Revolution, Catholics had been rethinking the social order—chiefly with regard to the relationship between the Church and the new states, but also in what pertained to “practical economics.” When Pope Leo XIII was elected in 1878, “social Catholicism” was flourishing, despite a paucity of magisterial teaching on the subject. This was the era of Catholic circles and associations, led by such luminaries as François René de La Tour du Pin, Léon Harmel, Albert de Mun, Emmanuel von Ketteler, Frédéric Ozanam, and Adolph Kolping. The Fribourg Union, established in 1884, was the first international organization of Catholic social thinkers. Its representatives urged Leo in 1888 to teach from on high about the cluster of social issues related to economy.
He did so in Rerum Novarum. It is not surprising that the opening sentences of that encyclical should refer to the French Revolution. Rerum Novarum was written in 1889–1890, during the revolution’s centennial celebration. The main celebration was in Paris, of course, where some 32 million visitors found their way to the Exposition Universelle. Its organizing committee accepted architectural drafts for an enormous Centennial Tower. After rejecting several submissions, including a plan for a 300-meter tower in the form of a guillotine, the committee awarded the contract to Gustave Eiffel. Reckoned the tallest building in the world, the Eiffel Tower celebrated French science and economic prosperity. American celebrities like Thomas Edison and Buffalo Bill attended the Hall of Machinery and the Colonial Exhibition, which portrayed the fruits of science and money—especially the mastering of lands and peoples beyond the seas. More than half the funding for the exposition was supplied by a private investors’ guaranty association, which yielded a healthy profit. Welcome to modernity: the French Revolution brought to you by Goldman Sachs. The theme song of the exposition included the line “I have destroyed the old laws, I bring hope.”
Until the rise of the totalitarian movements in 1917, the French Revolution provided the social vision against which Catholic social thinking sought to define itself. Leo referred to the revolution as the “Great Conflagration,” like an event out of the Book of Genesis that had destroyed an original order of things. The revolution had indeed effected a major reorganization of society. Even in its decadent eighteenth-century estate, French Catholic society had been a culture of vows. In 1789 and the years following, that culture swiftly capsized.
In 1790, the revolution issued decrees prohibiting monastic vows, then solemn vows, and in their place required a clerical oath to the Civil Constitution of the Church. In 1791, marriage was made only a civil contract, and celibacy for the secular clergy was relaxed. In 1792, two further decrees finished the reorganization of society: The first provided for unilateral and no-fault divorce; the second abolished the monarchy. Thus came about the demise of the two great vows of the laity, that of husband to wife and king to the realm.
Revolutionary change soon spread to the colonies and former colonies. Pope Pius IX played the role of Cassandra, issuing the Syllabus of Errors (1864), which included the infamous condemnation of the proposition that “the Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism, and recent civilization.”
Leo issued no Syllabus of Errors. Instead, he asked a question that was at once more philosophical and more practical: How do we civilize this situation? What is our proposal for social order? What can we work with in social matters, and how do we measure what’s been lost and what might be regained? He remarked: “Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is.” The paradigm of Catholic social teaching formulated by Leo resisted the temptation to utopianism, so seldom resisted elsewhere in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Leonine paradigm for social analysis was simple and sturdy. It was a neo-Aristotelean effort to put the “spirits” of the age into perennial wineskins.
Our framework in social matters should be the three “necessary” societies—that is, societies necessary for human happiness. They include domestic society (marriage and family), polity, and Church. Pius XI, who developed Leo’s vision, states: “Now there are three necessary societies, distinct from one another and yet harmoniously combined by God, into which man is born: two, namely the family and civil society, belong to the natural order; the third, the Church, to the supernatural order.” There are other associations that enjoy a truly social principle as well. But they are more transient, revisable, and subject to the free designs of human ingenuity. Should these societies wither, we would have social problems. A demise of the necessary societies would mark a social calamity.
To revise the Aristotelian dictum: The human person is a domestic (matrimonial-familial) animal, a political animal, and an ecclesial animal.
Upon his election in 1878, Leo turned immediately to the question of where we stand with respect to these three societies. In Quod Apostolici (1878), he argued against the position (of what he took to be socialism) that society can be reduced to equal or self-same bits of the same society. He thus began by establishing that there exist plural societies with quite diverse modes of “membership.” He then proceeded to teach about the three necessary societies in turn. In Aeterni Patris (1879), he portrayed the Church as a house of wisdom, nourished by philosophical science and divine revelation. In Arcanum Divinae (1881), he issued the first formal and synoptic teaching on Christian marriage since the Council of Trent. In Diuturnum (1881), he examined the origin of political authority. Leo’s simple paradigm of three necessary societies would be used intelligently, flexibly, and effectively by the social magisterium for nearly a century.
In Arcanum, Leo argued that it is in the mutual interest of polity and Church to preserve whatever helps persons to live “well and happily.” Crucial to the good and happy life is the health of the first necessary society, the domestic order founded upon marriage. Although Rerum Novarum includes an important argument for the liberty of voluntary associations, the encyclical’s major concern is the rights and obligations of wage-labor pertaining to the support and perfection of the family. To be sure, the dignity of wage-labor reflects the human person as the image-bearer, as Thomas Aquinas said, capable of providing for himself and others—a person who transcends animal instinct, who does not just produce but does so on the basis of rational foresight. And who thus has a right to have at his disposal stable property, as well as an obligation to provide even for social life beyond his natural lifespan. The basis for this case, however, is not a “state of nature” scenario, but rather the rights and obligations of domestic society. It is the right and obligation of political society to respect and protect the social form and ends of marriage and family. It is the right and obligation of the ecclesial society to sanctify and teach its members. In Rerum Novarum, Leo emphasizes the importance not only of the sacramental bond of matrimony, but of the wisdom of using material goods rightly sub specie aeternitatis: “The things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will know no death. Exclude the idea of futurity, and forthwith the very notion of what is good and right would perish; nay, the whole scheme of the universe would become a dark and unfathomable mystery.”
To summarize, the necessary societies have in common (analogically) these properties:
- Their respective forms and ends are not purely voluntary—not in the fashion of a societas arbitraria that can be created, variously reshaped, or dissolved according to transient circumstances. In the case of marriage and Church, the form and ends of the society are instituted by nature or by supernature. Polity is somewhat different, because although its end is given by nature, it has more than one legitimate form (rule by one, rule by a few, rule by many—or what is more likely, a mixed form).
- They are not disposable platforms for lifestyle. We are to dwell or to live in them. (One of Leo’s favorite verbs is inhabitere.) This property of “dwelling in” is analogical. We live in a marriage, a family, a polity, and a church in different ways. Yet they have in common a social principle, let us say a social intention in the strict sense of the term, which is to participate in the union. The union itself is loved. A true society is not an aggregation of exchanges and distributions, even if such divisible things need to be properly exchanged and distributed. We live in societies, not in social movements, political parties, field hospitals, Starbucks, or in Euro-style cultures without boundaries.
- They are subsidiary to one another. This follows from the very meaning of necessary societies. Under normal conditions, members who dwell in one society dwell also in the others: Those living in the domestic society are also members of the French Republic and of St. Rita’s parish. This principle has been called “hierarchical complementarity.” Society is made up of different social orders, among which are relations that are “truly mutual.” The different orders need each other, and one cannot replace the others. They exist in themselves as true societies, but exist also for the other dignified orders. It is not sufficient for human happiness to dwell in only one society.
During the Leonine era, which reached into the middle of the twentieth century, the chief problem (anarchists and Bolsheviks put to one side) was not outright rejection of the necessary societies. The problem was getting the right balance according to the complementarity principle. The nation-states insisted that the state had the first and last word in this matter.
Therefore, we should not be surprised that the most persistent concrete issue—both in Europe and in the New World—was the schools. The church historian Roger Aubert has called the school issue “the classic battleground,” for the school was the locus of competition between the rights of parents, Church, and state. All three of the necessary societies are, in their own way, nurseries of formation. When Pius XI asserted that “the family is more sacred than the state,” his attention was focused chiefly on the issue of education.
What would the Leonine popes—Leo through Pius XI—have considered a calamitous social scenario? It would have been the demise, or something approaching the demise, of the three necessary societies. Such a demise might be instigated from above or from below.
The scenario from above was easily imagined by the Leonine social magisterium. After all, the Church had experienced it during the French Revolution. The rise of the totalitarians after World War I provided another frightening instance. On the scenario from above, all three necessary societies, including the political, would be removed from everyday life. Perhaps some aspect of these societies would remain, but only as outsourced emanations of the collective: for example, aspects of administrative authority, aspects of domestic order for breeding purposes, aspects of religion suborned by the collective. Perhaps even well-intentioned states could get halfway down the field of dystopian precarity by overplaying their subsidiary function in times of emergency. This is the gist of Quadragesimo Anno (1931). In a condition of perpetual mobilization, the state would absorb the life of the other societies, without formally or legally forbidding their existence. Thus, the principle of subsidiarity was framed as a limit on distributive justice: The polity should respect the unique social forms and ends of Church and family.
As for the scenario from below, one example of demise made more than cameo appearances in the letters of Leo and Pius XI. It is the “liberal” utopia, in which the three necessary societies are reduced, in Leo’s words, “to the genus of commercial contracts, which can rightly be revoked by the will of those who made them.”
Leo comprehended the nucleus of the liberal ideology, especially in its relation to marriage and domestic life. Social forms like marriage and family might be determined either by the state or, more likely, by private contract with state sanctions—a societas arbitraria whose form is stipulated. Traditionally, distributive justice presupposed a social form, according to which “we” (the polity, the family) owe something to our “members” on the basis of merit or need. But suppose that the net aggregate effects of what has been privately exchanged (at any given point in time) count as the virtue of distributive justice. The right thing could get into the right person’s hands, but it would be completely accidental to a social principle. In a family, for example, the medicine would be not distributed so much as exchanged—let’s say, to the child who had saved enough money to buy it.
This warning against liberalism was sounded almost always in reference to reforms of marriage and family law. Again, suppose that there be no (recognized) matrimonial form or ends. It would seem to follow that there are plural forms of matrimony that can be determined by private contract, as Pius XI wrote in Casti Connubii.
Some confidently assert that they have found no evidence of the existence of matrimony in nature or in her laws, but regard it merely as the means of producing life and of gratifying in one way or another a vehement impulse; on the other hand, others recognize that certain beginnings or, as it were, seeds of true wedlock are found in the nature of man since, unless men were bound together by some form of permanent tie, the dignity of husband and wife or the natural end of propagating and rearing the offspring would not receive satisfactory provision. At the same time they maintain that in all beyond this germinal idea matrimony, through various concurrent causes, is invented solely by the mind of man, established solely by his will.
Hence, what the state cares about in marriage is reproduction, from which follow its political and legal interests in eugenics, demographics, and the like. The rest, including the form and ends beyond reproduction, can be left to private contract. “Some men,” Pius XI averred, “go so far as to concoct new species of unions, suited, as they say, to the present temper of men and the times, which various new forms of matrimony they presume to label ‘temporary,’ ‘experimental,’ and ‘companionate.’” This sounds like news from a few months ago.
This dystopic revolution from below was imaginable, but unlikely, between 1878 and Pius XI’s death in 1939. Even in the case of matrimonial and family law, where the social implications of homo economicus surfaced rather sharply, Pius blamed disruptions on overreach from above (albeit abetted by liberal ideas). A true revolution from below would depend on great numbers of people who—from utopian enthusiasm, or perhaps from moral fatigue—truly wanted to abandon the perennial and necessary social forms. Or, what is more likely, it would depend on people who wanted the moral obligations of membership in various societies to be removed or mitigated by law. Such abatements might be justified by theories that the perennial social forms are constructed and may be changed arbitrarily—that they are immanent systems without transcendent grounding. But these justifications would have little purchase unless people had experiential reasons for not wanting to inhabit, enjoy, and fulfill the obligations of being political, domestic, and ecclesial animals.
That prospect was not a likely one when Leo and Pius wrote their social letters. State-formation and various species of nationalism were robust. Wars and economic crises kept European humanity (and the rest of the world touched by it) in an almost continual state of mobilization. From the onset of the wars of the twentieth century through the era of postwar recovery in the 1950s, the principle of hierarchical complementarity was intact in practice, even if the social ontology and metaphysics of it were weakened. Simply put, people needed each other, and they needed sustained cooperation among the societies necessary for human flourishing.
The Leonine paradigm had traversed some very choppy historical waters. The social magisterium understood that a social order founded on the three societies could be upset from above or from below. But in retrospect, it is odd that the magisterium (though not Catholics in general) did not give more attention to the “spirit of new things” from below. Competent thinkers, from the Jesuit social theorist Heinrich Pesch to secular economic historians like Karl Polanyi and Joseph Schumpeter, had pointed out that the social relations ensuing upon market competition would tend toward constructed, stipulated, and transient social forms. But from the perspective of what Pius XI called his pontifical “watchtower,” the historical and social scene was distinguished by the Church’s eking out its ecclesial, social, educational liberties, not to mention its very properties, from states. This admittedly “clerical” experience influenced the Church’s general social view, with its emphasis on protection or disruption from above. The social view was not wrong in itself. But it was part of a habit of thinking that would be difficult to break, once the main disruptions came from below.
The wisdom of this paradigm seemed to be confirmed by the deep and sustained cooperation of social institutions after 1945. Notwithstanding what my old friend Richard John Neuhaus said, the “Catholic moment” happened in the decades following World War II. The postwar recovery produced significant economic development and signs of social health. This was the heyday of the so-called trente glorieuses, the marvelous down payment of wealth, education, and social energy given to the baby boom. The model of social cooperation at work in Western Europe was given prominence in magisterial and conciliar documents (Pacem in Terris, Populorum Progressio)—and recommended for the progress of the developing world: social markets without socialism, nation-states without chronic wars, development as “another name for peace.” The magisterial optimism of the postwar era did not foresee anything like a post-national (much less post-matrimonial or post-ecclesial) future. It was naively expected that the “friendly hands” of social cooperation could (would?) tame nationalism and overweening ecclesiastical authority without prejudice to the necessary societies situated within an international framework.
Then two revolutions came, which the popes in their “watchtower” had not expected.
In 2004, Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, presented the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Five years of painstaking work (including on a topical index of 150 pages) had produced a beautiful volume. The authors had compiled several hundred chunks of magisterial texts, sorted according to principles, topics, and applications. There is a vast array of material, running from the Book of Genesis to the Holy See’s intervention in Kyoto on the occasion of the Third World Water Forum. The bulk of magisterial texts (pontifical and curial) are drawn from the years between 1958 and 2004. The notable thing is that these several hundred blocks of text are simply juxtaposed under topical headings. There is no argument, no philosophical synthesis, and no historical narrative.
I have had the subversive thought that this enormous compilation, lacking philosophical or historical vectors, represents a tradition that is either sublimely confident in itself, or so overwhelmed that it can only give authoritative blessing to a series of juxtaposed responses to crises—a tradition awaiting synthesis.
What had happened to deprive Catholic social doctrine of its Leonine coherence?
Since the Leonine era ended, we have undergone two revolutions from below. Neither was instigated by higher ruling powers, though political and social authorities surely accommodated them. The revolutions probably had no single cause, but they are interrelated in origin and cumulative in impact. Each is utopic. Each has emerged in real social life. I do not need to describe them in detail, because even if we do not comprehend all of the causes or the future course they might take, we know quite well what the revolutions are.
First, the cultural revolution of the 1960s—not the one in China, but the spirit of new things that sprang from the West and manifested itself internationally. It had a generational focus but by no means a generational limit. To put it bluntly, the three necessary societies were deemed unendurable by the better part of two generations. In a paradoxical acknowledgment of the complementarity of the three societies, domestic, ecclesial, and political society were perceived as a single repressive hierarchy in cahoots—the establishment, as it were. I am prepared to admit that this perception was not entirely mistaken. Perhaps the social and institutional authorities had the same thought, because they soon reconfigured themselves as permissive hierarchies.
The Church after Humanae Vitae (1968) began to counter the “spirit”of sexual and moral revolution. Pope John Paul II tried to show that marriage and family are not repressive, and as a corollary that polity and Church should not be merely permissive. John Paul was compelled by events to address domestic society—but he had a deeper reason, too. Marriage and family are not only the most vulnerable society, but also the most important one to get right. Whoever shrinks from that society is not well-prepared to live in the other two. John Paul came to believe that the crisis of the twentieth century was anthropological, meaning that we are not dealing merely with sporadic spirits of distemper with respect to institutions. The distinctive mark of the age is what John Paul’s friend Rocco Buttiglione aptly called negative anthropology. This crisis is manifest in the ready affirmation of what man is not, combined with a deep-seated reluctance to affirm normative anthropological content.
I will not rehearse all of the theological anthropology that informed John Paul’s diagnosis. Let one remark suffice. As pope, he spoke to the Roman Rota (the highest Roman court on matrimonial cases) of anthropologies that regard the “human,” given by nature, as raw data, a prolepsis or outline of what man might be when he is made “specifically human” in the “historical and cultural sphere.” Behind these anthropologies lies the myth of a proto-man who awaits humanization through the efficacy of culture, a sphere of freedom in which a multiplicity of forms can be imparted to the proto-humanum. This myth has made possible a calamity from below.
In our modern times, we can imagine polity, marriage, and Church as merely optional—not normative and formative institutions in which we live a life and achieve perfections over generations, so much as instruments we can use to live a life of our own choosing. Negative anthropology construes the three great institutions of human happiness as platforms for self-revision, not for the perfection of a nature.
Prior to the cultural revolution, the Church had been accustomed to aim its complaints about social order to governments. That custom now needed to be modified. Unlike the law of no-fault divorce legislated by the revolutionary government in France, which was truly a top-down and unilateral act, our cultural revolution was not a creature of the state. Instead, governments permissively accommodated the spirit of the revolution piece by piece. Such governments, by and large, do not think that they have authority to dismantle the cultural revolution. The permissive hierarchies of the post–World War II era do not necessarily intend the destruction of domestic, ecclesial, and political life, so much as they wish to preserve each according to the most minimal normativity.
The second revolution is techno-economic, to use Pope Francis’s term. Sometimes it is called neoliberalism, but I doubt that the ideology satisfactorily matches the realities of globalized and financialized markets, or the dynamisms of global communications. In late spring of 1992, Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered his famous line about the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Three months later, Deng Xiaoping proposed an answer to the “meaning of life” that is much less abstract: “To get rich is glorious.” Deng explained that there is only “one thought,” “one firm rule [hard truth],” namely economic development as it is understood in the West. Some get rich; others lose. But, in the aggregate, people will be happier.
Deng did not invent the expectation that, on the whole, a hot, global, heavily financialized, and speculative economy would be worth the social costs. Despite the fact that almost every nook and cranny of the social order—pensions, university endowments, family savings—is deeply invested in Deng’s “one hard truth,” few people would be able to describe in concrete social terms what that truth “is.” What does it mean that the average duration of shareholding in a company amounts to four months? That the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 is less than fifteen years? That banking assets in a given nation could exceed 500 percent of GDP with only the flimsiest underlying real assets? When allegedly social entities like corporations have lifespans shorter than those of one’s pets, to whom do we assess social costs?
In his book Modern Social Imaginaries, Charles Taylor argues that in modern times, economic life was the first social imaginary to achieve an identity independent of the political sphere. It is a new “normal order” of mutual enrichment that is at once profoundly social and, let us say, interactive all the way down, but not easily classified under the usual rubric of collective action. A market is social to the extent that it is semiotical, a set of signs regarding prices. Agents reciprocally affect one another in some systematic way, yet the beneficence of the system must be evaluated in light of a concatenation that happens “behind their backs.” So imagined, economic life is in tension with the other two modern social imaginaries, the “sovereign people” and “civil society”—for, being based on competition, the economic sphere seems to lack either the collective action of political life or the many modes of benevolence (however transitory) of voluntary associations.
Taylor is onto something important. Unlike the corporate company towns of yesteryear—Eastman Kodak, Phillips Petroleum—in which diverse people with different skills lived, usually for more than fifteen years, many or most firms today have no obvious social locus. They might treat themselves as having legal personality, but they destroy, and allow themselves to be destroyed, through mergers and acquisitions and such processes. It is hard to see how firms of this type count, on Taylor’s view, as either political or civil societies, much less as one of the necessary societies on Leonine terms.
If we are to judge contemporary corporate entities, we need to know something more about them than their effects, be they good or bad. In intrinsic terms, what kind of societies are they?
Since Vatican II, social ontology has included various descriptions and emphases. Gaudium et Spes asserts that only the work or labor is human, and all other factors have the nature of tools. John Paul II likewise refers to the necessity of distinguishing work from mechanisms. Economic mechanisms that are not regulated by a juridical framework so that they serve human freedom “in its totality” cannot be approved. This does not exactly answer the most important question, which is whether such things are true social entities gone rogue or mere tools inadequately socialized.
On balance, John Paul II and Benedict XVI have suggested that at least some contemporary economic phenomena genuinely belong to the category “civil society.” Hence the use of the term “business economy.” Terms like “free” and “market” are appropriate to business, which is thought of as a social solidarity of entrepreneurs and employees who create and distribute real goods and services. Business, in this view, is not one of the necessary societies, but it is an “expanding chain of solidarity” that has social depth.
The 2008 financial crisis made this assignment of “business” to civil society harder to sell. Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate was a major advance toward recognizing the “new things” in the financial sector. Indeed, it names many things that require our serious attention. For the first time, if I am not mistaken, the distinction between a “real” and a “financial” (or “speculative”) economy is explicitly addressed; so, too, the problem of aligning short-term and long-term investment, even the problem of no investment at all; also the difference between phantom wealth and disordered growth in contrast to integral development. Caritas in Veritate recognizes that the financialized economy has evolved into a system of extraction rather than investment.
Even so, there is not much space given in Caritas in Veritate to describing, defining, or analyzing the “new things” that are named. Magisterial teaching continues to neglect certain important concepts. For example:
- What is the “real” economy, and how does it differ from the “financial” economy? What are the areas of overlap between the two?
- What is “speculation”? What are its proper and improper vehicles?
- What is “debt”? This question not only has roots in revealed theology but also stands at the center of the financial crisis in domestic and global economies.
- Perhaps due to the decline of the older scholastic frame of thought, there is little attention now to what Aristotle called chrematistics, the so-called art of making money divorced from the prudence of household (or other social) management.
The first three can be considered under the category of social tools that are not adequately civilized. The latter, however, raises the spectre of an association that perverts even its own social principle.
When Pope Francis was elected, he took as his motto, from Bede’s homily on the Gospel of Matthew, Vidit ergo Jesus publicanum, et quia miserando atque eligendo vidit, ait illi, “Sequere me” (Jesus therefore saw the tax collector, and since he saw by having mercy and by choosing, he said to him, “Follow me”).
To my knowledge, Francis is the first pope to speak explicitly of international capitalism as a “global system.” It is a system that renders familiar institutions empty shells of technocracy in the service of the “empire of money.”
As many others have noted, Francis almost always speaks of processes rather than institutions; movements rather than political parties; the praxis of those who live and suffer, rather than the boundaries and obligations set by law; and a direct engagement with the people, rather than policies drawn from the abstract models of standard economics. Whereas previous popes emphasized the importance of nation-states and their moral-juridical relations to one another, in Francis’s “global system” the nation-state has been suborned, its agency and efficacy compromised.
We have come a long way since Leo XIII’s way of proceeding—namely, moderate adjustments of institutions keyed to the three necessary societies. Indeed, in his two magisterial documents, Francis never mentions Rerum Novarum. He applies a hermeneutic of suspicion to all intellectually framed social categories.
His hermeneutic of suspicion begins with the Church itself—canon law and curial bureaucracy, doctrines compiled by scholars rather than those purely and simply lived. We are dealing now, to invoke the metaphor of Francis, with field hospitals in which the ministers are not so different from the patients.
The field hospital is an apt metaphor for ministry to a people who cannot live in Leo’s three necessary societies. Everyone, to paraphrase Dorothy Day, suffers the precarity of a migrant. Francis seems eager to describe a world in which the three necessary societies are crippled—a dystopia marked by a pervasive sense of homelessness with regard to family, work, nation, and even mother nature.
It is hard to interpret Francis with confidence. Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si’ evince a prophetic and poetic and rhetorical ambience that is unique to him. That ambience is meant to move the heart. It is neither philosophy nor policy. Francis does not stand in the pontifical “watchtower,” at a distance from the social phenomena he evaluates.
Leo said that “Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is.” Leo and his generation needed the better part of a century to assess what was broken in the aftermath of the “Great Conflagration” and to decide what could be fixed. Francis likewise looks at what is broken in the world system after our two revolutions. To see this world as “it really is” requires stepping into the precariousness of the broken, which truly is quite different from what Leo saw in the late nineteenth century. It is one thing to have a theory of institutions, and quite another to know how to live when institutions are decadent. It is something else again to give a properly integrated narrative about these “new things” and to teach how they should be measured by Catholic wisdom.
The insight that I attribute to Francis—that we must learn concretely and humbly, without regurgitating truisms—by the same token suggests the need to go slowly, to learn patiently from the experience of others, and to resist assembling too hastily an overarching doctrine about “signs of the times.” The two revolutions from below are still alive, imprinted on the pages of our time like ink that is still wet. The social magisterium does not need to invent a new doctrine, much less to replace the essential features of Leo’s paradigm. But it is a great mercy to learn how to experience and understand social problems afresh.
At the beginning, I pointed out that prior to Leo, nineteenth-century Catholic social thinking on the ground evinced a creative ferment of social theories and experiments in response to the revolutionary disruptions of their times. Perhaps we are re-entering such a revolutionary time, albeit under rather different circumstances. Leo’s magnificent teaching from on high depended on the mind and work of the early associations that embodied social Catholicism. He saw clearly enough the dead ends encountered by some of his predecessors, which more often than not were caused by well-intentioned but precipitous teachings and policies. Leo’s “paradigm” came from on high, but it summarized and clarified the currents and eddies of social Catholicism in light of a non-negotiable principle. That principle—that we are domestic, political, and ecclesial animals who achieve perfections by rightly dwelling in the perennial societies—is simple enough to understand. But sowing and harvesting the daily bread of this social principle remains a difficult labor.
Russell Hittinger is Warren Chair of Catholic Studies and Research Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa.