From the Lord’s Day to Social Teaching

Last Sunday I brought my considerations of the Lord’s Day to a conclusion by noting that Sunday observance is not just a religious issue, but a social justice issue, indeed the key issue for true social justice. I wrote: “Social justice means nothing if it does not involve the right order of society; if social justice is reduced to merely economic issues (or environmental issues) it completely misses the larger question of the right order of society. A rightly ordered society would put the observance of Sunday first and the good of the family second, while all work, production, and economic matters would be subordinated to these two human goods.”

In the weeks to come, I hope to pursue this line of thinking. This will mean considering the social teaching of the Church in a way that has scarcely been followed since Pope Leo XIII’s foundation social encyclical “Rerum Novarum”, written in 1891.

First, though, it is important to note how badly the social teaching of the Church has been received, even by Catholics.

For example, in Pope Francis encyclical “Laudato Si” the most important part, which really governs everything else, is his presentation of the theology of creation. People don’t care much about theology; we are very practically minded. So the result has been that the theology of creation is ignored and the value of the encyclical is judged by the Pope’s stance on things like climate change and the practical course of action that he suggests. In other words, the small part of the encyclical in which the Pope actually speaks within the scope of his papal teaching authority, is ignored, whereas the larger part of the encyclical, in which the Pope’s voice is only one opinion among many, gets the attention.

So also, with Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” many people might think of that encyclical in terms of his approval of labor unions. Few paid much attention what he thought labor unions should be like.

Still, when Pope Leo XIII was writing in 1891 the modern process of secularization (which will necessarily involve eliminating the Lord’s Day from the public life of nations) had already begun, but it was still possible for the Pope to call people to return to the Christian foundations of society. This means that the Pope is able to write more simply and directly about how things should be.

In recent decades, Catholic social teaching has been framed in the context of radically pluralistic societies and a radically pluralistic world. This have forced the Church to frame her teaching in the context of that pluralism. This has often had the unfortunate consequence (precisely because people look to the practical programs, not the underlying principles) that people begin to regard pluralism as the way things should be, as the social ideal.

If we really think about what pluralism means then we will see that it is truly an evil to be tolerated, not an ideal to be proclaimed. It must be tolerated because it cannot successfully be overcome by force.

Nevertheless pluralism is an evil, because in the end pluralism simply means that different people have radically different underlying views of God, man, the meaning of human life, and about right and wrong. Yes, there are common elements in these different views, but those common elements take on very different meanings precisely because they are set in very different contexts.

For example the negative form of the golden rule (“Do not to others what you would not have them do to you”) is quite universal, but is also quite vague. The so-called ‘second table’ of the ten commandments, those that deal with our relations with other human beings, are also fairly universal – at least before the 20th century.

Everyone accepts, “Thou shalt not kill”, in some form or another. Nevertheless, the precise meaning and scope of the commandment very much depends on the underlying view of human life, which in turn depends on the underlying ‘worldview’. This will in turn have an impact on how people view matters like war, capital punishment, and self-defense. The debates in these matters bear witness to underlying world views that in our practically minded world are rarely examined or discussed.

Pluralism then does not unite people but sets them in conflict. The life of a pluralistic community revolves around the question of how to manage these inevitable conflicts.

That is challenge enough when it is a matter of a pluralism of groups such as Christians, Muslims, and Jews in the Crusader Kingdoms of the Holy Land in the Middle Ages. What we have today, however, might be called the hyper-pluralism of individuals.

Even when individuals combine in larger groups, those are viewed, finally, as purely voluntary associations. In theory, at least, people are free to come and go as they please. Which means that even in religious groups the unity of worldview is more a matter of coincidence of worldviews, rather than true unity. In other words, we are together because we happen to think alike, not because there is anything real that actually unites us. That we might say is the ‘worldview’ of pluralism.

The attempt to set forth the social teaching of the Church in this context is subject to immense challenges and readily leads to major distortions.

That makes it worthwhile going back to look at the principles and order of an encyclical like “Rerum Novarum” that was written before vast civilizational destruction that took place in World War I.



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.

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