The Catholic Thing
Born for Combat Print E-mail
By Todd Hartch   
Thursday, 03 February 2011

Pope Leo XIII is best known for his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the Catholic Church’s response to industrialization, class conflict, and the growth of capitalism. Famously, Leo defended both private property and the right of the workers, while critiquing both Marxism and unbridled capitalism. Major social encyclicals of later generations, Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno and John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, honor Rerum Novarum not only by commemorating its fortieth and hundredth anniversaries but also by reinforcing and developing its most important teachings. 

Beyond the Vatican, the prescience of Rerum Novarum has been revealed in the concrete acts of history. Marxism, as Leo said, was merely a different sort of exploitation of the workers that could not fulfill its promises and that was ultimately overthrown in the pivotal Polish case by the workers themselves. In the same vein, almost every advanced society on earth has adopted restrictions on the market to ameliorate the inhuman aspects of capitalism.

But Rerum Novarum was not Leo’s first or only social encyclical. In fact, from the first year of his papacy, 1878, until his last encyclical in 1902, Leo devoted much of his magisterium to social issues. While Rerum Novarum continues to be celebrated today because its wisdom has been proven and its advice put into practice, another social encyclical, Sapientiae Christianae, issued one year earlier, has largely been ignored, with devastating consequences for the Church and the world. 

In Sapientiae Christianae, Leo defines the duties of Catholics in civil society that are more basic and thus even more important than those described in his more famous encyclical. He emphasizes that Catholics need to obey God, even if that brings them into conflict with civil authority. If civil law clearly contradicts divine law, “then, truly, to resist becomes a positive duty, to obey, a crime.” Unfortunately, he finds, societies are more and more frequently instituting exactly the sort of legislation that contradicts divine law. To be able to discern which laws must be resisted, Leo says that Catholics “should make a deep study of Catholic doctrine.” Once imbued with this doctrine, it is their duty to defend the truth, publicly. 

      Leo XIII, pope from 1878 to 1903

Both commands – to learn doctrine and to proclaim it – have too often been ignored by Catholics, especially in the last fifty years. At the very time when the Second Vatican Council provided a detailed blueprint for the Church, many Catholics lost any distinctive sense of Catholic identity; then, when the Catechism of the Catholic Church provided a detailed and accessible compendium of all that Catholics must believe, many Catholics stopped teaching and learning doctrine. 

This might not have been the tragedy if the past fifty years had been an age of faith and tradition, but clearly it was the very opposite, an era of change and deep challenges to the most basic Catholic moral teaching. In the face of the sexual revolution and the rise of no-fault divorce, abortion, contraception, and overt homosexuality, indifference and retreat have been the default responses of most Catholics who cite “prudence” and a desire not to lose credibility with the world around them.

Leo, however, has no patience with silence. “To recoil before an enemy, or to keep silence when from all sides such clamors are raised against truth,” he warns, “is the part of a man either devoid of character or who entertains doubt as to the truth of what he professes to believe.” The only ones who win when Christians stay quiet, he says, are the enemies of truth. The silence of Catholics is particularly disturbing because frequently a few bold words would have vanquished the false ideas. 

“Christians are,” Leo continues, “born for combat.” It is part of their nature to follow Christ by espousing unpopular ideas and by defending the truth at great cost to themselves. One of their main duties is “professing openly and unflinchingly the Catholic doctrine”; a second is “propagating it to the utmost of their power.” As many today insist, they should preach the Catholic faith through personal example; at the same time, though, they should also preach the faith “by open and constant profession of the obligations it imposes.” A negative reaction from the public, far from being a sign of mistaken ideas, can serve as evidence of exactly the opposite fact. “Jesus Christ,” the pope points out, “has clearly intimated that the hatred and hostility of men, which he first and foremost experienced, would be shown in like degree toward the work founded by him.”

In short, before Leo XIIl spelled out the important social doctrine of Rerum Novarum, he outlined some even more basic truths about how Catholics should live. If Catholics can rejoice that much of Rerum Novarum has been fulfilled in the West, they should lament that Sapientiae Christianae remains virtually a dead letter. Many of the social problems in the West today would not exist if Catholics had taken this encyclical seriously. It is not too late. Today, through the great blessing of the Internet, Catholics can learn doctrine more easily than ever before. The next step, “open and constant profession,” is more difficult, but it flows directly from accepting that we are indeed “born for combat.”

Todd Hartch
 teaches Latin American history at Eastern Kentucky University.  He specializes in World Christianity, missions, and the religious history of Mexico.

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Comments (15)Add Comment
written by Catholic Tide, February 03, 2011
“Christians are,” Leo continues, “born for combat.”
Thank you so much for this reminder of our call to duty.

It is so easy to allow the battles to pass us by.

Press us forever we pray into the heat of battle!
written by Bill, February 03, 2011
Mr. Hartch, are you aware that Ex Corde Ecclesiae was preceded by an encyclical entitled (check me) Sapentiae Christianae which was to instruct Catholic universities and colleges as to how they were to comport themselves? That came out in the 1970s. Both of these encyclicals were D.O.A. and ECE has only recently been revived(?). Fr. Chas. Curran at Catholic U. for years as the U.S. bishops would not force him out. Pro-abortion Fr. Robt. Drinan served in Congress for years and the bishops could not force him out!
"Born to Combat"? When my wife and I were bringing our seven children into this world, there was no Church to support us. We were anomalies in the 70s and 80s and we were derided and scorned. I see effeminates and chuckleheads in the pews. They bought into the Spirit of Vatican II hook, line and sinker. I have not been in a parish in twenty-five years, yet my family and I attend Mass every Sunday and frequently partake in the Sacrament of Penance. My father, trained in a seminary, cited parts of Rerum Novarum by heart, but that was when the Church was still Catholic.
written by Yezhov, February 03, 2011
We are born for combat, but Bill mentions the IED's in our path. Hopefully most of these guys have self imploded, but they have left a lot of casualties in their wake, lost souls and spiritually walking wounded. And they, "insipientes", did not even have the prospect of 72 virgins!
written by Ray Hunkins, February 03, 2011
Mr. Hartch, a most impressive contribution to the Catholic Thing. Thank you for taking the time to teach those who wish to learn. Your column reminds me of a quote that has stayed with me over the years though I can't offer attribution: "Courage is the most important virtue because it is the one upon which all others depend" Thank you to the author and/or the editors for the wonderful tool of immediate access to the mentioned encyclicals. What a wonderful teaching tool.
written by Lee Gilbert, February 03, 2011
Yes, we are born for combat, and especially at our Confirmation become soldiers of Christ. However, there is a problem with the ex opera operantis side of things, for we don’t know how to tap into the graces of that sacrament.

Essentially we suppressed the Holy Spirit when he tried to teach us and lead us into the charisms, the gratiae gratis data, in the 70’s. We weren’t buying it. There was a lot of elevated and irrelevant chatter about Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm and about Montanism by the intelligentia of the Church, and with that we essentially threw His gifts back in His face.

But tongues and prophecy are a school for holy speech and would have rendered learned men sharp weapons in the hands of the Lord, as they did Saul of Tarsus. As it was, for the most part only the lowly and the uneducated (those, for example, who did not subscribe to the Wanderer, America, Triumph and National Review) were humble enough and docile enough to accept these graces.

We have no possibility of prevailing in our many struggles unless we allow the Holy Spirit to strengthen and guide us. Thorough-going catechesis by itself does not make a soldier of Christ nor strengthen him for combat, nor inspire him to fight, for that matter.
written by Louise, February 03, 2011
Dear Mr. Hartch, Thank you for an excellent, inspiring essay. And I thank the commenters for their insights and for sharing their experiences. Are we seeing the remnant emerge right before our eyes? God bless all of you and all the writers and commenters on TCT.
written by Todd, February 03, 2011
Dear Mr. Hartch I grew up in the 70's and 80's in a time when in California our priest had the people saying parts of the Eucharistic prayer, alter girls befor the Vatican ever even considered it and said so many things aginst the church I don't even like to remember. The amount of spiritual damage to me personally and my brothers was incredeble. To this day one of my brothers still doubts the existence of God. But Thanks to organizations that have taught and explained the faith so many of us "walking wounded" have learned and are stronger in our faiths than ever before. We now have taken letters like sapientiae christianae and are back in the "fight" attempting to teach others and love others as we were called to do by our Holy Father and not by the world. Hopefully our Bishops and priests will see the light and start doing the same because I still see so many trying to copy the ways of the world. may God protect and guide us in this fight for our Catholic Church Pax Cristi
written by Albany, February 03, 2011
Thank you for this post; its timing couldn't be more perfect for me. I have struggled to discern my responsibilities as a Catholic Christian in the midst of the current civic landscape.

If God allows all authority, he surely allows the current situation, with its abhorrent legislation and funding prerogatives? Does God expect obedience from me to all authority in all situations, even to an 'unjust master'? I struggle with this so much, oscillating between conviction that I am just to mind my little life's immediate affairs (for the sake of simplicity and peace) on the one hand, and conviction that I am to be speaking out, participating in the public square for what is right and good (to much disruption in mine and my family's lives) on the other.

Thank you for pointing me to this edifying encyclical; I need all the help I can get right now in finding some clarity.
written by Matt, February 03, 2011
Unfortunately, the poison is so thick in the Church today that even if these encyclicals were better known, their true meaning would be undermined by mealy-mouthed bishops and chancery staffs, and especially by the USCCB. This has already happened with Rerum Novarum, which I have seen, oddly enough, trotted out in support of the execrable healthcare reform legislation and the monstrous DREAM Act--legislation which Leo XIII would have commanded us to commit to the flames (and yet which is sadly, unaccountable, supported by virtually the entire college of US bishops). The modernists have taken the citadel, the enemy is inside the gates; and there is no benefit to be had from reading encyclicals if we're just going to misinterpret them. Perhaps before tackling the social encyclicals we should all be required to read Pope St. Pius X's Pascendi Dominici Gregis, which describes the Church today with prescient lucidity.
written by Achilles, February 03, 2011
What a wonderful article and excellent comments! My wife and I just completed a catechist training program loaded with modernism, multiculturalism, feminism and paganism. Matt is right on, the enemy is inside the gate. Father Amorth said “the anti-christ” is inside the Vatican. Our duty is clear and these posts give me great heart, but how many sheep are lost?
written by lIBERTAS, February 03, 2011
The author recognizes Pope Leo XIII's denunciation of Marxism in Rerum Novarum, but oddly fails to mention his categorical denunciation of socialism as well. As such, his mention of Catholics rejoicing that much of Rerum Novarum has been fulfilled in the west seems curiously premature. Both aside, it looks like a thorough reading of Sapientiae Christianae is certainly in order and we've got some big shoes to fill as good Catholics. Thanks for the insights.
written by TeaPot562, February 03, 2011
Query: I read somewhere that Leo XIII initiated the "Prayer to St. Michael" that used to follow the reading of the Last Gospel in the pre-V II Mass (St. Michael, the archangel, defend us against the slings and arrows of the Devil, etc.)
Is this attribution (to Leo XIII) correct?
written by Robert Royal, February 04, 2011
Yes, the prayer is Leo XIII's and goes like this:

Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle;
be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray:
and do thou, O Prince of the heavenly host,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan and all the evil spirits
who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.
written by Allan Alquinto, February 04, 2011
Amen to this site. Now more than ever, Catholics are called to the front lines of the Spiritual Warfare that goes on every single moment. The enemy has already snared so many Catholics into believing they are "enlightened" and therefore capable of going against Church Teaching in the name of intellectual freedom. The attacks on our Holy Mother Church is no longer merely external. It now comes from within. "To learn doctrine and to proclaim it" humbly, charitably and selflessly is what we all need to do instead of complaining and blaming each other.
written by Billybfrom, June 03, 2013
This is coming from someone on the "outside" who gets looked at as a criminal everyday. I go to church and get bad looks, some might even cough and make me feel uncomfortable in church and in public.. My options are limited because of what a group mindset does to those they don't understand. I want to believe that people are not this blind as to the effects they have on others while feeling they are a "member" and somehow elevated I've people who have been the victim of these groups of people that stalk harass and destroy others lives. It's great to see young members of groups mindset but in so completely to group mobbing innocent people. I really hope you walk in my shoes one day. This is for the groups of people that feel like they're helping the community by destroying people they don't understand. If you overtly autistic, they will be nice, but slightly and then your possessed. Good times

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