In my latest essays I’ve noted that there cannot be a “social teaching” unless we know what a society is. Pope Leo XIII, in his many social encyclicals, expresses the constant wisdom of the Church when he affirms the reality of society—neither a numerical aggregate nor a collective—and when he sees this reality as rooted in man’s nature, created by God. For it is God, writes Leo in Libertas praestanstissimum (1888), “who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others.”
Leo is thinking not only of material goods, as needful as these may be, but of moral and spiritual goods. For the laws that men enact cannot oblige us simply on utilitarian grounds. “Authority,” he writes, “is the one and only foundation of all law,” and authority is of God. Laws that enjoin good and forbid evil “by no means derive their origin from civil society; because just as civil society did not create human nature, so neither can it be said to be the author of the good which befits human nature, or of the evil which is contrary to it.” This principle provides a check against the whims of ambitious men, whether they rule as monarchs, or as party leaders in a democracy. We do not create law; we recognize it: “Laws come before men live together in society.”
Law is the prerequisite for genuine freedom. Leo’s reasoning is plain. If freedom meant the capacity to choose anything at all, including evil, then God and the blessed angels would not be free. But whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin (Jn. 8:34). When man acts according to reason, “he acts of himself and according to his free will; and this is liberty. Whereas, when he sins, he acts in opposition to reason, is moved by another, and is the victim of foreign misapprehensions.” Freedom is the unimpeded capacity to fulfill our God-ordained end. Even the pagan philosophers understood the principle. There is no freedom apart from justice and virtue. The conclusion: “The eternal law of God is the sole standard and rule of human liberty, not only in each individual man but also in the community and civil society which men constitute when united.” True freedom does not consist in doing as we please. That, in whatever arena we choose, the economic, the sexual, the political, the personal, is license, and license is slavery. True freedom consists in doing as we ought.
The laws of the Gospel, says Leo, have raised men to “a state of holiness unknown to the ancients; and, bringing man nearer to God, they make him at once the possessor of a more perfect liberty.” What was the greatest reproach of the heathen nations, if not slavery? Yet that slavery, practiced universally, could not finally stand against the teachings of Jesus, who first asserted “the true brotherhood of man,” which the apostles echoed “when they declared that in future there was to be neither Jew, nor Gentile, nor Barbarian, nor Scythian, but all were brothers in Christ.” But liberalism, Leo implies, introduces slavery all over again, by confusing license with liberty, and then by denying any reference to the divine law, that “most effectual barrier being opposed to tyranny.” A vicious, profligate, and licentious “society” is no society at all, but a corral of slaves, regardless of their wealth or of such mechanical devices as the vote.
Now then, how shall we ameliorate the lot of the working classes? I’ve written that one cannot enlist Belial to put down Beelzebub. One must not hire a slave driver to defeat a slave driver. The working classes must be free. But freedom is far more than a negative against others. Freedom comes from God and finds its flourishing and its end in God. Law—the eternal law—is the precondition for human freedom. And just as grace perfects nature, just as the preaching of the Gospel elevated the culture of the ancient pagans so that ordinary men and women attained to a heroism of holiness that the very imaginations of such worthies as Pericles and Cicero could not reach, so too the law of the Church exalts the relation between labor and capital, between working man and owner. We are not talking here about political leverage, or about some abstract formula for the disposition of income. We are talking about human beings, and the righteous Judge they must one day face, to give a reckoning of their deeds, good and evil. “Exclude the idea of futurity,” writes Leo in Rerum Novarum, to which I turn for the remainder of this essay, “and forthwith the very notion of what is good and right would perish.”
Freedom apart from law is a delusion, and law originates in God. What, then, does religion teach the workman? He should deal honestly and fulfill all fair contracts. He should not damage the owner’s property, or threaten his person. No riots, no disorders, no communion with men of evil principles. And the owner? I’d like to cite this passage in full, and mentally include all political leaders, teachers, advertisers, social workers; all who derive their livelihood from the work of the lower classes, or from their fealty, or their debility:
Religion teaches the wealthy owner and the employer that their work-people are not to be accounted their bondsmen; that in every man they must respect his dignity and worth as a man and as a Christian; that labor is not a thing to be ashamed of, if we lend ear to right reason and to Christian philosophy, but is an honorable calling, enabling a man to sustain his life in a way upright and creditable; and that it is shameful and inhuman to treat men like chattels to make money by, or to look upon them merely as so much muscle or physical power. Again, therefore, the Church teaches that, as Religion and things spiritual and mental are among the workingman’s main concerns, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings. Furthermore, the employer must never tax his work-people beyond their strength, or employ them in work unsuited to their sex or age. His great and principle duty is to give everyone a fair wage.
To deny a fair wage—to deny a workingman a wage fit to support his family in a way becoming to a human being—is a “crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven.” Now, to detach this sentence from the whole of Leo’s moral and social vision is to commit the very sin of the nineteenth century liberals who justified low wages on utilitarian grounds. It is to forget what man is. It will not do, then, for a government to hand money to some people, confiscated from other people, without taking any account of the ends for which we are made. What Leo is trying to do here is to bind owner and workman together in bonds that are personal and religious; something that mere human law cannot do. It will not serve to cure somebody of typhus if you are then going to infect him with pneumonia, scarlet fever, and tetanus.
The Church instructs us to avoid the near occasion of grave sin. We’d then have to avoid almost every workplace in our land. Convenience stores sell smut. Instructors in public schools teach it. Men and women in the army are thrust together in close quarters, with no regard to their moral welfare, or the welfare of their families. Whole industries feed upon the weakness of the flesh; that includes the poverty industries. Far from encouraging continence before marriage and chastity and fidelity within, the entertainment industry scoffs at such things, and thus steals from the poor their main source of capital—which is not monetary but metaphysical and moral.
The Church casts a cold eye on the farming of jobs out to sweatshops in distant lands; and a cold eye on the sweaty stews in lands whose wealth is wasted on vice and folly. We must learn again to treat one another like the fully human beings we are, or should be. What that means for the rich, I’ll turn to in my next essay. And by rich, I do not mean only those with fat bankbooks. That would let too many of us off the hook.