Yet it is also this same Catholic social teaching that I feel is the least understood. Whenever the issue is discussed, I always question people as to what the purpose of Catholic social teaching is. Several recent blogposts here at Common Sense Catholicism have attempted to answer these questions using two sources: the papal encylicals of Leo XIII as well as John Paul II's Wednesday Audiences Man and Woman He Created Them. (Also known in Catholic circles as the Theology of the Body.) In a previous installment , I argued that this purpose was for man to find union with God. In the next part of the series, I laid out the case that man is called out to live in society as a way of finding God, since as God said "it is not good that man be alone."
Knowing that we are called to live in society, how should we do so? It is this one question that Catholic social teaching concerns itself with the most. When discussing these very things, Leo XIII makes the following point in the apex of Catholic social teaching thus far, Rerum Novarum:
The rights here spoken of, belonging to each individual man, are seen in much stronger light when considered in relation to man's social and domestic obligations. In choosing a state of life, it is indisputable that all are at full liberty to follow the counsel of Jesus Christ as to observing virginity, or to bind themselves by the marriage tie.
When reading an encyclical that condemns socialism (as well as viewing an unrestrained capitalism a flawed economic model), one might find it a little odd that Leo XIII begins by discussing celibacy and marriage. Considering the small amount of time he spends on the subject in this encyclical, an answer is not readily at hand. While one can search elsewhere throughout the works of Leo for an answer (I would suggest reading Arcanum), I believe special insight is provided by Pope John Paul II in his Wednesday audience:
The human body, with its sex, and its masculinity and femininity seen in the very mystery of creation, is not only a source of fruitfulness and procreation, as in the whole natural order. It includes right from the beginning the nuptial attribute, that is, the capacity of expressing love, that love in which the person becomes a gift and—by means of this gift—fulfills the meaning of his being and existence. Let us recall here the text of the last Council which declared that man is the only creature in the visible world that God willed "for its own sake." It then added that man "can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself"... From this aspect, it is indispensable in order that man may be able to "give himself," that he may become a gift, that he will be able to "fully discover his true self" in "a sincere giving of himself" (referring to the words of the Council).According to John Paul II, Catholics live out their existence through their relationship to others, and the best way to live that relationship is by being a "gift", that is, by living our life at the service of others. Only when we live at the service of others do we find out what it means to be truly alive. His audiences also demonstrated convincingly that the highest example of the "gift" is manifested either through marriage or through celibacy, especially celibacy for the kingdom. The Pontiff termed the ability to live this gift through our bodies the freedom of the gift.
With this in mind, we can return to Pope Leo's encyclical. Let us return to that quote, but insert the lesson we just learned:
The rights here spoken of, belonging to each individual man, are seen in much stronger light when considered in relation to man's social and domestic obligations. In choosing a state of life, it is indisputable that all are free to live the gift according to the counsel of Jesus Christ as to observing virginity, or to bind themselves by the marriage tie.
Only when one lives according to the counsel of Jesus Christ (the freedom of the gift) can he live truly within society. The point behind Leo's encyclical is that the various economic systems of the day were impeding mans ability to live out the gift, because they impeded his ability to exist within the family. It is for this reason I submit that Rerum Novarum has had such an enduring legacy: the only encyclical to be solemnly commemorated by 4 different pontiffs over the span of 90 years. The encyclical, way ahead of its time, contained in one form or another most of the developments of social teaching the Catholic Church has taught since the encyclical's promulgation.
I hope that this re-reading of Rerum Novarum has helped some unfamiliar with it to gain a new appreciation into it. Lord willing this will be a subject returned to frequently.