Pope Leo XIII: “Rerum Novarum” – Reveals the Radical Disorder of the Contemporary State

I will not enter too much into what Pope Leo XIII has to say about the State. The reason is that the Pope’s teaching here refers to “the State as rightly apprehended … any government conformable in its institutions to right reason and natural law.” (32) I don’t know that there exists such a government in the world today. Here again, the current expression of the Church’s social teaching has become rather contorted by the attempt to address a radically distorted situation, while this contortion is readily mistaken for the ideal situation.

The Pope makes reference to an earlier encyclical he had written “On the Christian Constitution of the State” (Immortale Dei) in which he teaches that because man is obliged to offer right worship to God, not just individually, but socially and publicly. As a result he teaches: “It is a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, would hold in honour the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favour religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety.” (Immortale Dei 6)

In other words, right social order today gets off on the wrong foot by denying the foundational role of the father in the family and the foundational role of religion in the State. Instead, the State, dismisses religion as an unimportant merely private matter, while it tends to take over the whole of human life. The State, recognizing no ‘upward’ limit as regards religion and no ‘downward’ limit in the family, tends towards totalitarianism, even if it be the soft totalitarianism of modern democracy about which Alexis de Toqueville warned. (cf. “Democracy in America”) Where the State does not acknowledge God, the State tends to substitute itself in the place of God. Where Caesar does not render God his due, he claims all as due to himself.

So consider what Pope Leo XIII writes about the State in “Rerum Novarum”: “A State chiefly prospers and thrives through moral rule, well-regulated family life, respects for religion and justice, the moderation and fair imposing of public taxes, the progress of arts and of trade, the abundant yield of the land – through everything, in fact, which makes the citizens better and happier.” (32)

Today, however, the political, economic, and social order, instead of being built around the right worship of God and the protection of the family hearth and home, is directed to the extension of material prosperity to more and more individuals (at least that is the ideal). This order of individual material prosperity requires a massive bureaucratic State so as better to achieve the goal without in any way requiring that people actually be good, just, or virtuous. Quite the contrary, the current order of things forms people to be consumers of products, produced by machines. It is an order not of persons, but of machines, delivering products to consumers. On one side, man, as worker, is just a cog in the vast machinery, on the other side, man, as consumer, is the supposed beneficiary of the machinery.

Unfortunately, the Church today, while she has raised her voice against materialism and consumerism, and while she has raised her voice to protest in favor of those who end up cast aside and discarded by the machinery of production, has in practice yielded to the secularization of society, which is inherently atheistic and anti-family, and the root of the whole current disorder.

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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.