Leo XIII Decried the Pernicious Impact of Divorce

In my first installment, I looked at Pope Leo XIII’s early encyclical Inscrutabili (1878), on the evils affecting modern society, wherein the Pope decried the state’s displacement of the Church’s institutions established for charitable work and the education of youth.  I kept in reserve Leo’s severe condemnation of new laws regarding marriage.

The issue is not incidental.  Pope Leo never speaks about economics without directing his steady gaze at the household and the family, the love of man and woman bound in holy matrimony, and the children they raise.  It isn’t that a society is made up of families as a factory is made up of bricks.  It’s rather that each family is in itself a society, and each Christian family is a domestic Church.  When Saint Paul said that wives must reverence their husbands and husbands must love their wives, he wasn’t just giving practical advice on how to maintain harmony under the roof.  He was affirming the real analogy in being, between Christian marriage and the union of Christ and the Church, which is the perfect society, the perfect fellowship of love.  Therefore laws that strike at the holiness of marriage attack the heart of the Church and of civil society.

The laws allowing for divorce in Leo’s time were far less irresponsible than ours, but Leo already sees their corruption at work:

When impious laws, setting at naught the sanctity of this great sacrament, put it on the same footing with mere civil contracts, the lamentable result followed, that, outraging the dignity of Christian matrimony, citizens made use of legalized concubinage in place of marriage; husband and wife neglected their bounden duty to each other; children refused obedience and reverence to their parents; the bonds of domestic love were loosened; and, alas! the worst scandal and of all the most ruinous to public morality, very frequently an unholy passion opened the door to disastrous and fatal separations.

Good laws teach, and so do bad laws.  Good laws assist us in the difficult pursuit of virtue.  Bad laws thwart that pursuit, and encourage vice.  The bad law that allows for “disastrous and fatal separations,” that is, divorces, is like a rotten trunk, Leo says, from which only “worthless fruits” can come.  The disease that breaks out within the home spreads its “cruel infection to the hurt and injury of individual citizens.”  When domestic life is Christian, the members of that society of the hearth will learn the habits of piety and obedience and mutual service, “to the restraint of that insatiable seeking after self-interest alone, which so spoils and weakens the character of men.”

We’d do well to think hard upon that last sentence.  The secularists among us, of both right and left, have nothing whereupon to build their vain dreams of society, but “enlightened self-interest,” which the Pope has just nailed as a contradiction in terms.  It’s as if one were to talk about “responsible vice” or “humane cruelty.”  He has drawn a connection between selfishness and selfishness.  The self-styled innovator who conceives of civil society only in material terms is the same man who will not abide Christian marriage.  Both ways does he spoil the character of the people; and we now see this spoiling among the materially wealthy and the materially poor, alike destitute of the riches of a Christian home, alike alienated from their fellow men and from God.

Let me put it as bluntly as I can.  Divorce violates the Social Teaching of the Church.  Laws that facilitate divorce are socially destructive.  If that is true, then all the more may we say that concubinage and fornication violate the Social Teaching of the Church.  Laws that encourage such things are socially destructive.  To train young people in “safe” concubinage and fornication is to plant the seeds of the cancer in the very heart.

Here Pope Leo ventures a medicament for the illness:

To this end it will certainly help not a little to encourage and promote those pious associations which have been established, in our own times especially, with so great profit to the cause of the Catholic religion.

We will see this theme again and again in the Pope’s thinking.  He sees, parading under the name of Socialism, the destruction of the social, and, parading under the name of Liberalism (which might now be called conservatism in some quarters), the destruction of liberty.  Therefore he turns to free associations of men and women.  For the encouragement and the support of Christian family life, he turns to those pious societies that in his day were the muscles of a Catholic parish.  We still retain a few of these, here and there: The Holy Name Society, The Altar and Rosary Society.  Most of them, however, were washed away in the name of progress, and their place remembers them no more.

These small societies were both supernatural (they were watered by the grace of God, and were directed toward worship) and natural (they helped to fulfill the longing of the human person for friendship, with both God and man).  We will find this double orientation too throughout Leo’s letters.  It is why, for example, in Aeterni Patris he urges all bishops to set the work of Saint Thomas Aquinas at the center of a seminarian’s education.  We might well sum it up in Thomas’s dictum that grace perfects nature, and consider that the whole of Catholic social teaching is rooted in that relationship.  It is grace and grace alone that perfects nature, so that a radically secular society—or radically secular agencies for the amelioration of some social ill—must fail, just as a plant must wither and die when you pull it up by its roots.  Catholic Social teaching requires a vigorous relationship between civic life and the Church, lest civic life itself grow diseased and die.  We may also read the dictum in the other direction.  It is nature that grace perfects.  In particular, Catholic Social teaching blesses the natural good that is the love between man and woman.

I’d like to end this essay with an illustration.  It comes from nature, not from the Church.  I know that Norman Rockwell is an easy target for contempt, but, just as I have not managed to acquire a taste for the hideous, the squalid, the perverse, the chaotic, and the stupid in art, so have I not trained myself away from an affection for the man’s paintings.  I have in mind now one of his Four Seasons illustrations.  It features a boy and a girl, about ten or eleven years old, just when the attraction of the opposite sex is awakening, but while it is still largely expressed in the innocent play of children.

In winter they’re on a sled, the boy in back, hollering for glee, the girl in front, both feet stuck out to keep the sledding fast, while a goofy dog chases them, barking.  In summer they’re on a swing hung from a tree, both of them barefoot, the dog in the girl’s lap, the boy standing in back, the girl with her mouth making an O as they sweep into the air, as carefree as babies.  In fall they’re walking to school, he still barefoot, looking just a little morose, while the dog follows behind.  But the spring picture is the sweetest of the four, and, as always when Rockwell is at his best, it suggests a whole world of natural but profound human feeling.

The boy and girl are barefoot.  He’s wearing his straw hat, which casts his countenance in a suggestive shadow; and he’s looking intently at the girl, while he holds a buttercup under her chin.  She leans forward, arms behind her back, her eyes shut.

We know, without being told, that this scene is right.  The boy and the girl are for one another.  They are alone in all four pictures, but they are not alone.  They are a part of the good and lovely world of trees and snow and weedy flowers and dogs.  They go to school, so they are part of that social world also.  But in their seedling love, they too form a society, a world.  Rockwell won’t allow us to make light of this.  He never uses children for superficial sentiment.  Indeed, he forbids us to overlook them, as we are wont to do.

This is the nature that grace is given to perfect.  Rockwell was a tenuous Christian, and that, rather than his refusal to indulge in filth for filth’s sake, marks the limitations of his art.  But what he does see, he sees well.  To understand why it is not good for the boy and girl to be alone, to understand their toddling steps into the land of marriage, each sex completed by the other, is to begin to understand Catholic Social Teaching.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    “Divorce violates the Social Teaching of the Church. Laws that facilitate divorce are socially destructive. If that is true, then all the more may we say that concubinage and fornication violate the Social Teaching of the Church”
    The ‘Seamless Garment of Life’ crowd in the Church hate that abortion is considered first among the ‘social justice’ issues. Now what will they say when divorce and fornication must also be considered among those acts which violate social justice? Yikes!

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  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Portalis, a Catholic who had suffered for his faith during the Revolution and one of the leading draftsmen of the Code of 1804, was ambivalent on the subject of divorce.

    He observed that “Christianity, which speaks only to the conscience and guides by grace the little number of the elect, forbids it. The Mosaic law, which was the civil law of the Jewish people, permitted it.”

    The reprobate, he once remarked, can only be restrained by force, “as God does the devil.”

  • Briana

    Your example of the Norman Rockwell painting reminded me of something that happened this past weekend. I’m 23, and one of my high school classmates got married this past weekend. I wasn’t invited to the ceremony since he and I were never that close, but it’s hard to describe how I felt seeing pictures of the bride and groom’s first dance at the wedding reception. Just looking at them and seeing how madly in love they were, there was that purity and innocence that you described about Norman Rockwell’s work, and yet there was maturity, too. It was the type of manhood and womanhood between the two of them that wasn’t spoiled by vice, or by being jaded or disillusioned or crude. It just was a beautiful thing to see. 🙂

    • Briana

      Oh..forgot to mention, if anyone wants to send up some prayers that their marriage is long, happy, and blessed, you are more than welcome to do so! 🙂

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  • Ford Oxaal

    Marriage requires two consenting adults — that’s the problem. Adulthood is in short supply in a society that worships ‘self’ and fixates on ‘sex’. When husband and wife start fighting, it sounds like spoiled teenagers. It would be great if the values of ‘self’ were really true, because the adolescent-like breakup of marriages would be laughable. Unfortunately, society is interconnected — a broken marriage sends waves upon waves of tragedy throughout the whole of society, sometimes over many generations. We can’t see the things that might have been — if we could, we would not behave so poorly. Yet, I see so much good in the younger generations — there is great hope for the future in spite of the past.

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  • Mariana T

    Presently, the problem goes much deeper than divorce. It is not news that most couples who marry today are not virgins. Many even have other partners before their marital partner. The more serious problem that currently exists is that couples partake in “conjugal unity” before they recite their marital vow, thus, the marital vow has become an after thought, or simply a document necessary for appearance sake so the couple may begin the child bearing process. And many couples copulate in the very early stages of their relationships before they really know each other. Many young people today seek fulfillment in another person instead of truly finding out who they are personally. In other words, many do not even know themselves.

    Self-mastery, self-possession, and self-determination are essential qualities for man to be “the author of genuinely human activity,” as JP II says. One must first possess oneself before one is able to give oneself to another. In order to do so, one must first forge a relationship or partnership with God. Otherwise how can we form any authentic subsequent relationships? This is why divorce is such a problem today…not because couples are giving up, but because couples are not consulting God before they decide to bond. This is why there is a legitimate invalidity of marriage on a grand scale.

    • Guest

      The result being that man is only dividing what God never joined together in the first place.

    • Mariana T

      The result is that man winds up dividing what God never joined together in the first place. What needs to be restored today is for man to seek a personal relationship with his Holy Father so he may prayerfully discern God’s will in his choice for a lifetime partner. Only then will we have less marriages ending in divorce. The problem today with marriage is not the church’s leniency on divorce, it is our lack of faith, period.

  • Elise Ehrhard

    Mr. Esolen, you are brilliant. Your articles are always a joy to read.

  • J G

    As a canonist I always remind myself that one of our primary duties is to defend the sacrament of matrimony and not just grant annulments. Yes, annulments are granted. Yes, there are many invalid marriages out there. Yes, we need this kind of message sorely in our hedonistic culture. Why hasn’t Pope Leo been canonized?