Pope Leo XIII: “Rerum Novarum” – Paternal Authority, Part I

Entering into the foundational principles of Catholic social teaching I began, last Sunday, to summarize the key points from Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum”. I left off highlighting the importance of the neglected place of the family in the scheme of private property.

When we read what Pope Leo XIII writes here it goes quite contrary to what have become the underlying principles of our contemporary culture. I would say it is our contemporary culture that is wrong, not Pope Leo XIII.

In what follows, it is important to realize that if Pope Leo XIII is right, then it lays bare the depth and extent of our present social disorder but does not exactly show us how to right the situation. Likewise, in my own comments on the Pope’s teaching, if I criticize any present reality, my intent is not to say, “Go out and change it right now.” Still, if we gain some glimpse of right order, then it makes sense that we move in that direction, the best we can, given our actual circumstances and limitations.

The Pope writes: “It is a most sacred law of nature that a father should provide food and all necessaries for those whom he has begotten; and, similarly, it is natural that he should wish that his children who carry on, so to speak, and continue his personality, should be provided by him with all that is needful to enable them to keep themselves decently from want and misery amid the uncertainties of this mortal life. Now, in no other way can a father effect this except by the ownership of productive property, which he can transmit to his children by inheritance. A family, no less than a State, is, as We have said, a true society, governed by an authority peculiar to itself, that is to say, by the authority of the father. … Paternal authority can be neither abolished nor absorbed by the State; for it has the same source as human life itself.” (13, 14)

Today we have become so dominated by feminist thinking, with its rejection of any special paternal authority, that we have come to take its principles for granted. Feminist thinking, however, fundamentally rejects the family as the keystone of human social life and builds everything on the isolated individual. Feminist thinking is built on the presupposition that we are all, by nature, equal and distinct individuals, who have the right to advance ourselves and fashion our lives as we wish. On this view sexual differences are wholly secondary and quite irrelevant. Family remains an option that some might choose, if they wish, but what becomes primary is the pursuit of a job and career path that will serve individual fulfillment. Men and women are seen as having completely equal rights and capacity in this matter and family roles must take second place.

This way of thinking, as widespread as it has become, is quite arbitrary, artificial, and against nature. It is we could say destructive of the fundamental structure of human ‘ecology’, the family. In the end it reduces human beings to being nothing more than interchangeable cogs in the vast machinery of production.

The difference between male and female remains an irreducible fact of human life, but, as Pope Francis has often observed, we no longer know how to treat of the difference. This has produced immense confusion and arising from the confusion untold personal damage. Finally, we can only find our identity, our purpose, and our fulfillment in life through our masculinity and femininity. Not as undifferentiated ‘humans’.

In stark contrast to modern feminism, the teaching of Pope Leo XIII is openly patriarchal. “Patriarchy” should not be a dirty word. It really speaks to the fundamental principle of all rightly ordered human social life. If the authority of the father is rejected, as it has been today, there can be no true social justice.

The claim, which in the time of Pope Leo XIII would have been fairly uncontroversial, at least among Catholics, might seem intolerably extreme today.

If we are going to speak in a positive way of patriarchy, then it is absolutely essential to distinguish authority from raw power.

Power, we could say, is simply the ability to act, whether for good or ill. Authority, however, is power that is ordered and legitimized through hierarchical subordination that has its ultimate source in God, the ruler of all, the supreme authority, whose power is always exercised with wisdom and justice. Authority, then, when it is possessed by intelligent creatures, is always received from a higher authority, always limited in its scope by that higher authority, and always accountable to that higher authority. When, one possessing authority exercises power beyond the scope of his authority, it becomes an abuse of power, lacks authority, and cannot bind the conscience of his subjects. In the end, the subject must always obey the higher authority, rather than submit to the abuse of power by the lower authority; it is necessary to obey God, not man. (cf. Acts 5:29)

There is more to be said on the subject in order to clarify what patriarchy does and does not mean, but that will have to wait until next week. (To be continued)



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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