Catholic Social Order: What has been can be
February 07, 2020
Last Sunday I wrote about the typical life of a Benedictine monastery as an example of human community life ordered around the Lord’s Day.
Since the subject is social justice it is worth noting that in the Middle Ages, the monasteries pretty much served as the ‘social assistance network’ for the poor. Monasteries could be found everywhere, in the city and the countryside. The poor could find at a monastery a handout, a meal, or a bed for the night.
The monastery clearly reveals the praise and worship of God as the ultimate purpose of all human activity in this world, from the simplest and most mundane to the most elevated and sophisticated. In this way, the monastic life sheds light on the whole social order.
There is a famous 19th century painting by the French painter Jean-François Millet called “The Angelus”. The painting shows two peasants, husband and wife, at the end of a day of work in the field bowing together in prayer, with the parish church in the distance. They are hearing the ringing of the Angelus and saying the prayer.
The monastic life is set up to foster a life of contemplation and praise of God. Ordinary human life of marriage and of work, while given by God, does not by itself lead back to God in any obvious way. Nevertheless, the very simple and beautiful painting shows those two poles of ordinary human life, marriage and work, brought back to God, in worship, through prayer. The worship that takes place in the church reaches out to the activity in the field, performed together by the married couple, and together they bring that activity back to the church by their prayer.
Now, if we consider the village of Fatima in Portugal, in 1917 shortly before the apparitions of our Lady, the life of the villagers, represented especially by the families of seers, ebbed and flowed from Sunday Mass in the parish church. They were mostly peasants who worked in the fields, kept sheep, and tended to their homes and families. No doubt there was at least a miller, a blacksmith, and shoemaker in the village. Their activity took its meaning from the Sunday Mass and the hope of heaven. Even the celebrations from Sunday dinner in the home, to the celebration of baptisms and weddings, to the village festival in honor of St. Anthony, revolved around the Mass. Through family prayer and private prayer they extended the Mass into their daily life and brought their activity back as an offering to God in the Mass.
Because their actual life fell short, because of their daily sins like gossiping, complaining, lying to one another, and engaging in petty conflicts with each other, the people of Fatima also regularly confessed their sins.
The life of the village was materially poor, filled with much suffering, but also blessed with sufficiency of what was needed, and rich in faith and trust in God. Further the poor but devout families like Sr. Lucia’s always had something for those who were poorer than they were.
That basic pattern of Catholic social life that existed in Fatima in 1917, has existed in many times and many places, not just in small villages, but also in cities and towns.
The point is that just as the ordinary human activities of monks in a monastery are taken up and ennobled by being incorporated into a life ordered to the praise of God, the same is possible in a different measure, when the social life of a community revolves around the Sunday Mass in the parish church.
In a similar vein we could consider the building of the great cathedrals of Europe, like the now burnt out Notre Dame of Paris. These were not the products of forced labor. These beautiful edifices rose up from the faith of the people to the glory of God. All the work – not just their work on the cathedral itself – of the architects, stone masons, sculptors, painters, and other craftsmen and laborers, was ennobled by their contribution to the building of the cathedral.
Now, ordering human life around the Sunday Mass does require a basic simplicity of life, a true spirit of poverty.
Unfortunately, John Horvat II in his book “Return to Order” accurately characterized the fundamental impulse of modern life as ‘frenetic intemperance’, a mad desire for ‘more’, for ‘the latest’, for ‘innovation’, for ‘excitement’, that knows no bounds.
If we consider scientific fact (as opposed to interpretation, questionable theory, and conjecture) there is nothing opposed to the Catholic faith. If we consider technology, it is hard to point to any single device and declare, “It is morally evil”. If, however, we consider the scientific and technological culture as a whole, we see the radical disorder of frenetic intemperance, which denying all limits denies God himself. As a result, the culture tears people away from God and blinds them to the reality of God. Human life itself is then disvalued and discarded.
Because we live in such a disordered human society we need a real positive will and determination to impose godly limits upon ourselves, to make the commitment to Sunday Mass the first fundamental limit and acknowledgement of God in our life, and to order our life around that fixed reference point, and, insofar as it lies in our power to do so, build our communities around that fixed reference point.
The first community is the family.
Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.
March 20, 2020