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.“