Revisiting Pope Leo XIII and Reclaiming Catholic Social Doctrine

Anthony Esolen’s new book is a lively defense and erudite explanation of "first principles and human realities"

Anthony Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College and—among a multitude of other scholarly and intellectual accomplishments—a translator of Dante, is one of the most appealing Catholic thinkers of our time. He writes on Catholic matters with remarkable lucidity and applies the transcendent truths of the Church to contemporary questions with the deftness of a master. In his work, Esolen shows again and again the thrill of orthodoxy that Chesterton famously celebrated. 

With his newest book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching: A Defense of the Church’s True Teachings on Marriage, Family, and the State (Sophia Institute Press, 2014), he turns to the vital area of Catholic social doctrine at a moment when it is both very salient and utterly misunderstood.

Characteristically emphasizing what he calls “[f]irst principles and human realities,“ Esolen relies almost exclusively in this act of reclamation on Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), whose estimable corpus of writings—including, most prominently, the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum—he has thoroughly absorbed and uses to explicate the Church’s teaching on marriage, family, and the state in our time.

Esolen’s concentration on the prolific and influential pontiff forms the essence of this book. In this study, he brings to Pope Leo XIII—a man who was a prolific genius of the sort the nineteenth century produced in abundance—a proper understanding of what makes his work so enduring. There is real insight in Esolen’s subtle depiction:

Pope Leo is sometimes called the founder of Catholic social teaching. He would have been appalled by the credit. He intended nothing other than to apply to current concerns what Jesus taught. His Apostles and what they handed down to their successors. He intended to teach nothing new. He is blessedly free of the mercurial ingenuity of a vain scholar and the meddlesome pride of an innovator. His thoughts derive not from the nature of the spanking-new modern State, nor from social advances sometimes more apparent than real, but from the changeless nature of man, discoverable by reason and frank observation, and by humble attention to the revealed word of God. Leo never supposed that one could devise any social teaching without understanding what a society is to begin with, which requires that we understand what human beings are, and why they are – for what end God made them, male and female, in His image and likeness. Leo surveys the world from a mountaintop. He possessed a manifestly keen mind, but it was not that mind that gave him the vantage. It was the Faith.

Esolen’s study of the Church’s social teaching does not, as would be the case with any number of lesser writers, result in a dry theological treatise. He enlivens his case in part by drawing on works of art. In his chapter “Man, in the Image of God,” Esolen writes on Jean-Francois Millet’s The Angelus; when discussing marriage, he invokes Norman Rockwell’s Four Seasons illustrations; and his chapter on work begins with comments on a painting of the Holy Family by seventeenth-century Spanish painter Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

This use of art to illuminate Christian truth is very appealing and effective. A similar approach is found in the Father Robert Imbelli’s excellent book, Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press, 2014).

Like the thought of Pope Leo XIII, Esolen’s thinking is suffused with Christian realism about men and how they live. In his discussion of social life, for example, he summarizes the concreteness of Christian love in a memorable way: “Jesus did not command us to love ‘mankind.’ There is no such reductive abstraction in true Christian morality. Jesus commanded us to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The neighbor is not someone conveniently on the other side of the world. The neighbor is inconveniently here, now. He is the man who never mows his lawn and who drinks too much. She is the woman escaping from her troubled home to meddle in the lives of the victims of her benevolence. He is the man fallen among thieves, right there in the ditch, bleeding his life away.” It is only with this sort of understanding that any sense can be made of how social life works.

Catholic social teaching has become, certainly in this country, almost completely politicized. Many, perhaps most, Catholics hear the phrase and automatically associate it with the political left. Esolen’s erudite primer eviscerates this distortion by restoring a sound understanding of this area: not left (or, for that matter, right) on the ideological spectrum but Catholic: rooted in the family, in the common good, and ultimately in the source of all Catholic life—the Eucharist.

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About Gregory J. Sullivan 18 Articles
Gregory J. Sullivan is a lawyer in New Jersey and a part-time lecturer in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. He has written for First Things and The Weekly Standard.