Rediscovering the Obvious -- Having Christ as King Requires A Catholic Social Doctrine

by Dr. John Rao

Alexander Solzhenitsyn once noted that anyone having grown up under the Soviet regime later found it very difficult to escape the general influence of Marxist-Leninist presuppositions, the way in which these distorted the definition of words, and the conclusions one drew from them. The same is true for those who have been raised in the liberal western pluralist world, Roman Catholics included.

Even we, who call ourselves traditionalists and firmly believe that Christ is meant truly to be King of the universe, find anti-Christian presuppositions regarding the individual, society, and freedom so much part of our historical baggage that we are often tempted to define that regal authority in terms which assume the naturalist perspective. Like Solzhenitsyn, in his battle with Enlightenment-inspired Marxism-Leninism, we, too, find it difficult to shake off the remaining chains encompassing our minds, hearts, and souls, chains engendered by our Enlightenment-inspired pluralist environment. These chains, unfortunately, prevent us from recognizing basic truths that should be clear, perhaps even obvious, to a believer.

Among these basic truths, themselves often only partially understood or accepted, is the fact that proclaiming Christ as our King binds us to the work of building a world quite different from the fallen one which currently denies Him from reigning. The explanation, promotion, and defense of this arduous but essential transformation of all things in Christ has come to be known to us as “Catholic Social Doctrine.”

Even a brief glance at the history of Christendom indicates that both ecclesiastical and political authorities had understood that acceptance of the Faith requires substantive social changes regarding the ultimate sovereignty of Christ as King. Yes, many dramatic international battles involving various caesaro-papist forces had illustrated both the continuing imperial resistance to such changes as well as the efforts to control and secularize them. Nevertheless, a steady conquest of the public forum, backed by imperial authority, characterized the bulk of the fourth century, while the Theodosian (438), Justinian (529-534), and Ecloga (726) law codes regulated more and more all manner of social concerns—from marriage to economics to entertainment—in a Christian spirit markedly different from that of the imperial past.

Meanwhile, barbarian rulers eager to gain legitimacy by demonstrating a commitment to Catholic Christianity sought to outdo their imperial predecessors in their assault on various practices of their pagan societies. One sees this clearly in the revision of the Salic Law under Pepin/Pippin the Short in 763, and much more in the comprehensive legislation of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious. Some of them, such as Czar Boris of the Bulgars (852-889), in his correspondence with Pope Nicholas the Great (858-867) in 866, requested detailed ecclesiastical instructions on exactly what social changes were demanded of a converted people, and how these might most effectively be accomplished.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the history of the High Middle Ages cannot be fully understood without recognizing the superhuman effort to ensure Christ’s kingship over a world desperately in need of supernatural correction. It was this attempt to shake off the dead weight of the “business as usual” mentality that shaped the preliminary attempts to change fallen human men and institutions. Attempts to change fallen human men and institutions undertaken by the Abbots of Cluny and their allies in war torn tenth and eleventh century Europe; these propelled the manifold political, social, and general cultural deductions taught and put into practice throughout the remaining “Christian centuries” by so many popes, bishops, monks, mendicants, scholars, princes, guilds, and saintly souls. In short, it was this superhuman effort that developed a body of ideas and standard operating procedures suitable for uniting individuals and the innumerable corporate societies in an ascent of Mount Carmel, turning sons of Adam into sons of God.

Nevertheless, the actual term “Catholic Social Doctrine” is modern, and the first person who appears to have actually utilized it was Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio (1793-1862), one of the editors of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica. In an article of 1855 entitled “On the Divine Element in Society,” he describes that “doctrine” as something the Church would inevitably have to develop more systematically and more dogmatically in modern times.

It will come, there is no doubt about it. A day will come in which social and juridical theory will shine forth with that certitude with which morality shines forth in the Church today, defined in precepts and canons. But before this hoped-for progress can be realized, long studies must be pursued on the nature of society; studies in which the human intellect…prepares the material for the infallible voice of the Church: that Church which leaves research and discussion to its learned ones before proclaiming [as in councils] that “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” [to proclaim a Catholic dogma]…. (Series II, Volume 9, 1855, 390).

Taparelli believed that the Church required a conscious development of her Social Doctrine for two reasons. The first reason was the clear need to answer the violent and sustained Enlightenment attack upon the claim that Christian teachings must impact upon all natural social and individual conduct by means of an equally self-conscious and complete Catholic mobilization of every intellectual and practical tool at the Church’s disposal. He was convinced that such an all-out Catholic “social” counter offensive had to be founded upon an elaboration of the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Mystical Body of Christ, an elaboration that was more profound than any previously known to Church History. Taparelli insisted that a love and nurturing of these two specific doctrines were the only solid means of grasping exactly why a good but fallen nature was dependent upon the life and grace of Christ in order to fulfill and surpass its original raison d’être. He also insisted that the two doctrines explained why the individual must walk down the pathway to salvation and his personal “divinization” through membership in and submission to authoritative social bodies: first and foremost, in and through Christ and His Church, and, secondly, in and through all the other natural social organizations willing to accept Christ’s corrective and transformative kingship over them.

This coeur di cri for a full awareness of the meaning of the Incarnation and the Mystical Body leads us directly to a second reason for securing the development of Catholic Social Doctrine in modern times: the ease of Catholic cooption by Enlightenment propaganda without it. For Taparelli saw just how readily proponents of anti-Catholic ideas and institutions could seduce believers down the naturalist path through calls that mimicked the concerns of the faith while actually turning them into impotent accessories to the victory of irrational, arbitrary human will over truth and justice. He saw this because he himself had once experienced their pseudo-Christian sirène call, and did not wish to succumb to it ever again:

I will candidly add that in the past I experienced in myself the force of social influences that rendered plausible and just to me many of those institutions the fallacy, insufficiency, contradiction, and iniquity of which I see today so plainly, and have seen ever since the facts of experience constrained me to bring a new light of examination to the principles that inform them. (The Modernizers of the Papal States,” Series II, Volume 11, 1855, 176).

Experience, Taparelli believed, had shown that Catholics easily succumbed to Enlightenment propaganda by taking seriously the claims of naturalists to promote, on the one hand, a seemingly Christian-like appreciation for the basic unity and equality of all men, and on the other, a seemingly Christian approval of the liberty and dignity of the individual. The Abbé Félicité de Lamennais (1782-1854) and his disciples and allies demonstrated a propensity to follow the first path. The so-called “Liberal Catholics,” whose seductive arguments had caused Taparelli’s own personal lamentation, followed the second. Neither group saw that they both were obsessed with a truncated understanding of man—totally social on the one hand and totally individualist on the other. Neither saw that they thus created an unnatural “human nature” guaranteed to build an order of things deaf to the complete message of the Incarnation and the Mystical Body, with its unification of society and the individual for the earthly benefit of both and the supernatural salvation of the second. Neither was willing to admit that freedom, justice, and equity, which encompass absolutely everything human, including the family, education, and economic life, required more from them than they wanted to give: the social minded to the individual, and the individual to society.

From nineteenth century onwards, Catholic Social Doctrine was indeed developed much more profoundly, from the reign of Blessed Pius IX through that of Pius XII, and even in some limited respects up until the present day. Unfortunately, the chief movers and shakers of our world today have been either the equality- or the liberty-obsessed Enlightenment forces, the Marxists and the Pluralists. To these forces, the disciples of Lamennais and of the Liberal Catholics accommodate themselves. It is noteworthy that the heirs of these disciples, in admittedly different ways, include both American liberals and conservatives.

Marxists and pluralists control the environment in which we live and the language with which that environment is defended. They forge the cultural bonds that we in the Pluralist West find as difficult to break as Solzhenitsyn did those in the old Marxist East. One means of breaking the bonds is by “surging headlong” into the consummate teachings of Catholic Social Doctrine, effecting the liberating fracture. Such teachings are found in the encyclicals of a century of noble pontiffs and the writings of those men who inspired such popes and, in turn, were inspired by them. There is no justification for Catholic men and women to neglect such “emancipation” in times still more perilous than those in which Taparelli wrote. Every traditionalist must do so. We have nothing to lose but our chains.