The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Pope Leo XIII and contemporary Catholic contentions

Leo also knew that a republic could be good or bad. In Leo’s view, the Church’s role was to help shape that kind of vibrant civil society and it ought to demand of hyper-secularists the right to do so freely and publicly.

Photograph of Pope Leo XIII in his later years. circa 1903. (Wikipedia)

Given everything else going on these days, it may seem strange that a 129-year-old encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, founding father of modern Catholic social doctrine, should have become a shuttlecock in the volleys exchanged by conservative American legal theorists and commentators. But there it is. And it’s imperative that the record about Leo XIII’s political theory be clarified before Professor Adrian Vermeule of the Harvard Law School misrepresents the great Leo further — and Vermeule’s critics continue to make matters worse by swallowing the misrepresentation.

Professor Vermeule is a prominent voice among Catholic “integralists” whose program includes a critique of the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s “originalist” approach to constitutional interpretation, which they judge morally hollow. Responding to Vermeule in a July 24 article in the Wall Street Journal, two defenders of Scalia’s position, David Rivkin and Andrew Grossman, concluded their argument in these terms:

…Mr. Vermeule takes inspiration from an 1892 encyclical in which Pope Leo XIII ‘urged French Catholics to rally to the Third French Republic in order to transform it from within.’ He imagines American Catholics will eventually co-opt ‘executive-type bureaucracies’ to effect a ‘restoration of Christendom.’ Such a ralliement seems far less likely in the U.S. than in France, but it failed there, too.

That, at least, is true: Leo XIII’s call to French Catholics to “rally” to the Third Republic failed. But Professor Vermeule misrepresents what Leo XIII was doing in the 1892 encyclical Au Milieu des Sollicitudes (Amidst the Cares of the Universal Church). And by accepting that misrepresentation at face value, my friend David Rivkin and his colleague Andrew Grossman gave tacit warrant to the notion that serious U.S. Catholics are bent on a “restoration of Christendom” in the United States by means of a Catholic takeover of the administrative state. If I may borrow a phrase from a heathen, this is all nonsense upon stilts.

Let’s go to the videotape.

In the late 19th century, French Catholicism was fractured and evangelically disempowered because of an ongoing, bitter conflict between Catholics who dreamed and schemed about restoring the French monarchy and a state-sponsored Church, and Catholics who knew that that dream was a fantasy and that those schemes were impeding the Church’s efforts to do the works of education and charity in France. By calling French Catholics to “rally” to the Third French Republic, Leo XIII was trying to put an end to this circular firing squad, asking French Catholics to stop litigating the results of the Revolution of 1789 and to get on with being salt and light in modern society, bringing Gospel truths to bear in French public life — which badly needed them.

Leo, who knew that the fratricide between French Catholic royalists and French Catholic republicans was sapping the Church of spiritual energy, was also the shrewdest pope in centuries when it came to reading the political signs of the times. So he understood that French Catholic royalists were perversely confirming the spurious claims of those Third Republic hyper-secularists who took their cues from the worst of the French Revolution’s anticlericalism. And he wanted that to stop.

Leo’s encyclical made several other key points. Charting a Catholic course through the brambles of political modernity, Leo taught that there could be different types of legitimate political regimes: monarchies, democratic republics, and so forth. Leo also knew that a republic could be good or bad. Republics could foster human flourishing and social solidarity, and republics could fall prey to grave social evils. The key to a well-ordered republic was its civil society: those networks of natural associations (like the family) and voluntary associations (like the Church, trade unions, businesses, and charitable organizations) where the habits of mind and heart necessary for making the machinery of a republic work properly are formed. In Leo’s view, the Church’s role was to help shape that kind of vibrant civil society and it ought to demand of hyper-secularists the right to do so freely and publicly.

But the Church did not seek to govern the state, Pope Leo insisted. Indeed, Au milieu des sollicitudes specifically stated that any notion of a Catholic “ambition of securing to the Church the political domination of the state” was a “craftily constructed calumny.”

Pondering that Leonine teaching, Professor Vermeule and his fellow-integralists might consider whether they’re reprising the 19th-century French royalist mistakes that ultimately led some French Catholics to embrace the authoritarian Vichy regime during World War II. By the same token, conservative legal commentators should not assume that today’s Catholic integralists are representing Leo XIII and post-Leonine Catholic social doctrine accurately; they are not.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About George Weigel 478 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. These days nearly every Catholic I meet thinks that the mission of the Church is to perfect civil society. But that’s not the mission that Jesus gave to his church. And it is Pope Leo who is largely responsible for this tangent and aberration. Our bishops today have a thousand and one suggestions on how to make the world a better place, while almost entirely neglecting the “Go and make disciples” thing. It’s one of the reasons why the Church is dying.

    • Nested and, yes, obscured in the cobbled-together wording of the SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL are such clarifications as these:

      “Earthly progress must be carefully distinguished from the growth of Christ’s kingdom. Nevertheless, to the extent that the former can contribute to the better ordering of human society, it is of vital concern to the kingdom of God” (Gaudium et Spes, n.39).
      “The Christian who neglects his temporal duties neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation” (n. 43).
      “The role and competence of the Church being what it is, she must in no way be confused with the political community, nor bound to any political system. For she is at once a sign and safeguard of the transcendence of the human person” (n. 76).

      For his part, POPE LEO XIII harbored the alleged fantasy that the Church had something to say to the world to avert the later disasters of the 20th century:

      “The things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will know no death. Exclude the idea of futurity, and forthwith the very notion of what is good and right would parish; nay, the whole scheme of the universe would become a dark and unfathomable mystery” (Rerum Novarum, 1891, n. 21.)

      In the end, he appeals not to a theocracy of activist bishops, but to “those who rule the commonwealths,” “masters and wealthy owners,” and “the working class,” [all together, later in Vatican II: “the People of God”] “…since religion alone, as We said at the beginning, can avail to destroy the evil at its root, all men should rest persuaded that the main thing needful is to re-establish Christian morals, apart from which all the plans and devices of the wisest will prove of little avail” (n. 62).

    • This corruption of priorities is also why Catholics have “evolved” to regarding sin, the one and only thing that separates man from God, as a myth. And they do this with so much swagger, wimpy prelates submit and never even give any thought at all, let alone comment on the meaning of non-existent confession lines.
      And now that we’ve reached the point that a majority of professed Catholics are at least abortion tolerant, they resolve the issue by just saying, as our Pope has, lets just talk about something else.

  2. I agree that the Church should not attempt to secure “to the Church the political domination of the state”, but what is the Church to do? Is the Church just to pass through age after age quietly awaiting the Second Coming, hoping that those who hate God and the Church will let her alone on her journey? A look at the Church today – in this age – certainly leads one to think that’s the guidance of her bishops.

    But it’s not the guidance of Jesus Christ, the Supreme Head and Shepherd of the Church, for His call to be light and salt of the earth is a call to have a transformative impact on the world, on this age. Light isn’t passive or slow; it is immediately transformative, piercing even the darkest of darkness in an obvious and lasting way. Salt is the same; sprinkle it on food and the taste is immediately and obviously transformed. So important is this calling of the Church to transform the world (from within first, of course, beginning with the souls of humanity), that Jesus declares impending judgement upon those churches and their bishops who fail in doing so.

    Revelation 2:4-7 (ESVCE) “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”

    Revelation 3:1-3 (ESVCE) “I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”

    Revelation 3:15-17 (ESVCE) “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”

    The Church today is conforming, not transforming. Maybe if we started transforming the world as light and salt there would be no “ambition of securing to the Church the political domination of the state”.

    • Well stated. By justifying sin, our clergy in the West seems to be squeezing the spiritual out of the Churh, certainly the moral. The foundation and mission of the Church is being more and more silenced.Conformity especially to modern sexual tendencies within the sexual revolution are mostly responsible. It has become only the very wise who can see the roots and purpose of the Church’s mission. As one has said up here (Canada), who needs the Church when you have the NDP (socialist, atheist, abortionist party)? That speaks volumes and it is distressing.

  3. Secularists should have no ability to publicize secularism and shouldn’t be allowed in the government. That is the biggest issue. Absolute freedom of speech is an error condemned in “The Syllabus of Errors.”

    If there is any error which has caused the downfall of the West since The UNJUST French Revolution {The Declaration of Rights mentions in its preamble that it is made in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, but out of three of the articles proposed by the clergy, guaranteeing the respect due to religion and public worship, two were rejected after speeches by the Protestant, Rabaut Saint-Etienne, and Mirabeau, and the only article relating to religion was worded as follows: “No one shall be disturbed for his opinions, even religious, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.” In fact it was the wish of the Assembly that Catholicism should cease to be the religion of the State and that liberty of worship should be established. It subsequently declared Protestants eligible to all offices (24 Dec., 1789), restored to their possessions and status as Frenchmen the heirs of Protestant refugees (10 July and 9 Dec., 1790), and took measures in favour of the Jews (28 January, 26 July, 16 Aug., 1790). But it soon became evident in the discussions relating to the Civil Constitution of the clergy that the Assembly desired that the Catholic Church, to which the majority of the French people belonged, should be subject to the State and really organized by the State. [Catholic Encyclopedia: French Revolution]}, it is what ought to be called the license of speech. For those who know the truth – i.e. Catholics – there need be no tolerance of the propagation of religious – or philosophical – error. And this is a big reason that it was believed that death was the appropriate penalty for heresy.

    It was only with the evil tolerance of Martin Luther by the state, that the happy cooperation between the Church and the state was broken. Pretty much all current ills have come from the Protestant unjust revolution. A big one has been the expansion of so-called divorce. Currently, it is the evil spouses who are UNJUSTLY enabled (i.e. “empowered”) by the state to cause havoc.

    I turn more directly to the topic of this article. Here is an expanded (from the article) quote from the encyclical.

    “And now, before going any further, We must indicate a craftily circulated calumny making most odious imputations against Catholics, and even against the Holy See itself. It is maintained that that vigor of action inculcated in Catholics for the defense of their faith has for a secret motive much less the safeguarding of their religious interests than the ambition of securing to the Church political domination over the State.”

    I am not entirely sure that I understand what Pope Leo XIII is getting at here. It certainly is true that the Church doesn’t believe that She must dominate the state, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be a strong indirect influence through Her teaching of morality nor that Catholics can’t be treated differently from non-Catholics by the law. (See above concerning The French Revolution.) This would follow from the fact that the separation of Church and state is also on “The Syllabus of Errors.”

    And here is another quote which is contrary to the contention of this article.

    “And here is precisely the ground on which, political dissensions aside, upright men should unite as one to combat, by all lawful and honest means, these progressive abuses of legislation. The respect due to constituted power cannot prohibit this: unlimited respect and obedience cannot be yielded to all legislative measures, of no matter what kind, enacted by this same power. Let it not be forgotten that law is a precept ordained according to reason and promulgated for the good of the community by those who, for this end, have been entrusted with power. . . Accordingly, such points in legislation as are hostile to religion and to God should never be approved; to the contrary, it is a duty to disapprove them.”

    The issue here is that Pope Leo XIII may not have realized just how far the principle he put forth should go. The ability of atheists to gain government positions or propagate their EVIL atheism would definitely be be hostile to religion. The same could be said – to a lesser degree – with regards to any non-Catholic or even a lukewarm Catholic.

    I would go even further than Pope Leo XIII, and I believe that he would agree with me. One ought not to presume that any thing which is called “legislation” is just. To make that presumption is to unjustly give the advantage to those who are – with Pope Leo XIII – “abusers of legislation.” The principle of majority rule HAS NOTHING TO DO with the justice of any de facto law. That must be determined according to reason.

    I maintain with St. Thomas Aquinas that an unjust law (It is better to designated it as “law.”) is not a law, but is a kind of violence.

    Given the above, there is no reason why the Church shouldn’t enjoy a favored position – or that not-Catholics can’t be justly discriminated against – with regards to the state. However, there does need to be a balance here. The idea that the Church can be financially backed by the state is probably an error.

    • Sorry, this makes no sense. You remain in the abstract so you can win your argument. But as soon as you are forced to enter reality, your argument fails.
      You say that legislation must be judged by “reason”, and that using reason, you can determine if the legislation is just, or unjust.
      But people using reason differ all the time as to what is just and what is unjust. “Reason” is not some neutral principle that is easily applied to every situation, it is a malleable concept that different people treat differently. What you are arguing for is some magical rule of an elite, a select group of people you imagine to be Aquinas scholars, say, who would tell us whether a law is just or unjust. But of course they would be no better at judging just versus unjust laws as anyone else.
      You can live in an abstract world where things are just or unjust, according to some theory. But lets face it, many unjust things are justified using “reason” all the time. So rather than appealing to some set of magical scholars, or Church authorities, to determine what is just or unjust (Just imagine what Pope Francis, Cupich, McElroy or Father James Martin would consider “just”!!) we trust to the wisdom of the normal person, aggregated in a body of legislators. At least when legislation has been passed, if they make a mistake, they can easily repeal the law and fix it. Your panel of Justice experts, however, would be presumably be much harder to overturn. They would act like our Supreme Court, which gave us such immoral decisions as Roe and Obergefell, all supposedly based on “reason”.
      There is a very good reason that the Church does not ally with the state – because the Church ceases to be a church when it can coerce people by using the power of the state to enforce its decisions. What we need is people willing to spread the light of Christ into every dark place in the nation, not the power of the state to enforce the laws of the Church onto every human being.

      • People might reason fallaciously – or not reason at all. This is a big function of the science of logic.

        The reason that people differ with their reasoning (or “reasoning”) is that some don’t want their evil to be opposed. It is axiomatic that a basic understanding of right and wrong is available to everyone who listens to God and the Catholic Church, or even his well-formed conscience.

        You are incorrect that those with the knowledge and training to judge laws wouldn’t be able to do any better. After all, we already have those nowadays. They are called judges. However, they don’t do a good job because of known errors “taught” in law “school” (e.g. legal positivism). (See former Judge Napolitano’s YouTube lecture “Taking Rights Seriously.”)

        Justice is objective. The only question is whether it is fallible – i.e. human – or infallible – i.e. God.

        Injustice isn’t justified it is rationalized.

        Normal people aren’t innately wise. They obtain – of necessity – their information from others. The BIG question (Even excluding the possibility of dishonesty.) is whether this information is accurate. The blind leading the blind aren’t wise. They have the same condition.

        Easily repeal a “law”? Do you know how bad things are? It can take months – if ever – for injustice to be corrected in a legislature. I don’t even know whether legislators are aware of their moral duties. They might think that their primary one is to please those who contribute to their campaigns. If so, they are EVIL.

        There wasn’t a single true Catholic on the Supreme Court for either Roe or Obergefell.

        The Church ought to coordinate with the state because man requires nourishment for both his body and his soul, and no man is an island. Those who threaten the faith or morals or who do wrong must be dealt with, and the Church certainly can’t punish everything or everyone.

        The problem with your idea is that the playing field isn’t equal. There is no guarantee that good will win, unless there is just censorship. Somehow this MUST be accomplished.

  4. Weigel’s borrowed with due magnanimity some heathen’s, Nonsense upon stilts is a breath of fresh air from the tiresome, On steroids. Evidence of literary letteredness. Although, is G Weigel correct on Leo XIII? Weigel ends, “Conservative legal commentators should not assume that today’s Catholic integralists are representing Leo XIII and post-Leonine Catholic social doctrine accurately; they are not”. Although previous Pontiffs, theologians expressed belief that the State be subservient to the truths of the faith, in in line with weigel’s assessment Leo XIII was more interested in the viable consolidation of Catholicism in France and by implication elsewhere as a body more capable of influence rather than domination. Leo XIII was perspicacious enough to realize the days of Christendom were gone time to be realistic.

    • George Weigel has always had a habit of overestimating the power of the Church in the modern world. True, God can perform any sort of miracle. But when Benedict, a first rate intellectual was elected, Weigel was all giddy and acted as though his election would be a virtual guarantee to the end of atheism throughout the West. After all, who could win in a personal debate with the new pontiff?

  5. The biggest argument against Integralism is this:
    Would you feel comfortable with Bishops like Wilton Gregory or Blaise Cupich wielding the same kind of political power as the Ayatollah’s in Iran? I’m not, and therefore I am not an Integralist.

    I myself am more a fan of Integral Humanism and Christian Democracy as proposed by Jacques Maritian, where there is no state imposed religion, but all laws are based on Natural Law.

  6. Right on cue, the USCCB hails passage of Biden’s Infrastructure Bill. Forget that the Church is falling, brick by brick and soul by soul, drip, drip, drip.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.