It is generally held that Catholic Social Teaching begins with Pope Leo XIII’s masterly encyclical, Rerum Novarum (1891). That, as I’ve tried to show, is a dreadful mistake. Pope Leo considered it his duty to apply to current concerns the constant teaching of the Church and of the word of God. Like Thomas Aquinas, the study of whose works he promoted vigorously, he would have considered “originality” a vice, not a virtue.
Perhaps we are misled by the title, Rerum Novarum. In our anti-society of rapacious consumption of the “new” and “improved,” and the unease instilled in us by mass marketers and politicians who cry that if we do not act now we will be lost—“Awake, arise, or be forever fall’n!” cries the Prince of Politicians to his fellow devils in Milton’s hell—we are apt to credit Pope Leo with seeing the light of novelty. No such thing. The ancient Romans held the political innovator to be a plague. Res nova means revolution, and the “spirit of revolutionary change,” rerum novarum spiritus, writes Leo, has been disturbing the nations of the world.
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The day may come when Catholics can support neither of the main American political parties or their candidates. Some think it’s already arrived. Alasdair MacIntyre, the Notre Dame philosopher, argued along those lines a few years ago, explaining why he couldn’t vote for either a Democrat or a Republican.
I don’t know what Professor MacIntyre will do this year. For my part, along with my brother bishops in Pennsylvania, I believe it’s important to vote today and on every election day. A well-formed Catholic conscience can choose wisely between the candidates. And this year, vital issues are at stake.
Still, elections are tough times for serious Catholics. If we believe in the encyclical tradition—from Rerum Novarum to Evangelium Vitae; from Humanae Vitae to Caritas In Veritate—then we can’t settle comfortably in either political party. Catholics give priority to the right to life and the integrity of the family as foundation stones of society. But we also have much to say about the economy and immigration, runaway debt, unemployment, war and peace. It’s why the US bishops recently observed that “in today’s environment, Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and few candidates fully share our comprehensive commitment to human life and dignity.”
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