The Good Yarn

There exists a circulating proposition which claims the moral scrutiny of the popes is strictly confined to particular epochs and cultural circumstances. It is a peculiar philosophy arguing Church documents or papal encyclicals were written in response to an age. According to this novelty, a pontiff may respond to a situation, and given an amount of time or a perceived statute of limitations, his words become antiquated.

One advocate of the “time-capsule” school of thought is author of The Spirit of Capitalism and former National Review columnist, Michael Novak. In a 1981 article, Novak responded to an address given by Russian dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1978 to the Harvard graduating class. He was expected to praise the advent of western democracy and capitalism, and decry the horrors of the East. Yet the author of Gulag Archipelago, in an upset for liberal and conservative alike, fired off a critique at the West. He condemned western materialism and shunned an economy bent on expansion, and permitted to plough over virtue and morality. For Solzhenitsyn, modernity’s moral shoulder-shrugging was symptomatic of a diseased society where self-interest and legalism reigned.

“An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.”1

Michael Novak, in his response, compared the author’s speech with Pius IX’s encyclical, The Syllabus of Errors, which listed condemned propositions; ideas branded as modernist.

For Novak, the Syllabus was outdated and he dismissed it as a relic. Western policies had proven the Church wrong, he argued, and the Church would do well to stay out of its way. But there is a specific reason Novak shies away from this document and it is the Syllabus’ incompatibility with the embrace of rationalism.

“It might even be possible to read Solzhenitsyn’s address at Harvard as an updating of Pope Pius IX’s famous critique of modernity, “The Syllabus of Errors.” Solzhenitsyn, like Pius IX, is adept at pointing out the errors, one-sidedness, and blind spots in many of the things we, in a liberal democratic society, hold most dear.”2

Novak clearly decides what side he is on.

“I am sorry, sometimes, then, that we disappoint the great Solzhenitsyn. But I would have it no other way.”3

Novak believes that when liberal democracy and the Church are confronted, the Catholic Church must give way to the former, as she has been humbled by an authentic progress and enlightenment with a successful track record, proven and tested to work. The Syllabus, as any other document standing in the way of this “advancement,” is to be admired as a museum document, significant perhaps to historians or the like. Solzhenitsyn was an utopian getting in the way of “progress.” He was a crank, a theorist of the old school, dreaming of a world of policies subject to our eternal ends. Novak, on the other hand, wished to wake Solzhenitsyn up as economic mechanisms just did not work the way the author thought.

Now there are several consequences when we substitute authority for fashion; the claim that our encyclicals are to be understood under their historical context and nothing more. The first is the perception that successive encyclicals are simply an homage. Pontiffs, when commenting on the anniversary of Rerum Novarum, are just celebrating a wonderful read, like Chesterton writing of Chaucer or singing the praises of Dickens. They may be curiosities of import reserved to the historian, but carry little weight. So when Leo XIII writes about the Americanist heresy in his encyclical, “Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae,” the great pontiff directs his critique at the United States during a concrete period of time, irrelevant to future generations regardless of time and space.

Of course, this is akin to claiming the Ten Commandments were reserved only for the biblical Israelites, The Epistle of St. Paul the Apostle to the Romans could be of little import for Australians, or the Good Samaritan was an illustration of B.C. ethnic charity. Whether a pope addresses a nation or a convent, the diagnosis and solution of any and all error is prescribed to Catholics in any period, after all papal documents clarify the Church’s position on any given topic as it affects her as a whole.4

That said, the same distorted thinking is spreading like wildfire amongst the Catholic corpus, in the form of ambivalence towards Church documents. The prevalent alternative is an official formation of conscience created by political affiliations and constitutions, unprotected by the Holy Spirit but deemed by advocates as infallible or divinely-inspired creeds. This plague takes the form of rationalism, opposed to any Church policies, doctrine, or dogma divergent of public policy.

Essentially it works like this. For modernity to function it must incorporate a systematic agenda. The first step comes in the guise of tolerance. This front is concerned with weakening the virtues. The second is that truth is a matter of opinion, and this sort of relativism insists on the privatization of belief. You are free to believe anything, so long as what you do will not challenge public institutions and policies. Any claim otherwise is brushed aside as utopian or even dangerous.

Catholic historian Dr. John Rao’s conclusions go even further.

“…the freedom all religions are guaranteed is one that requires abandonment of "divisive" doctrines, their replacement with the unifying principles of the naturalist Enlightenment, and, therefore, peace and harmony for those who have lost their souls and would be totally unrecognizable to their ancestors. Such peace and harmony, which destroys the ability of religions to function as they ought, then allows the naturalist strong man to do whatever it is he pleases, limited only by his own continued and quite quixotic subscription to certain "moral values".5

Modernity has guided Catholics for decades, who often unintentionally repeat the same errors found within this philosophy. A few hours worth of study should clearly correct the issues.

If then, worker-associations, micro-property, the just wage, Catholic action, and the reinsertion of justice in the marketplace were solutions isolated to Leo XIII's time, why have successors to the papacy reiterated the same ever since? St. Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II not only denounced the errors of Leo’s time, but claimed they still existed in varying degrees, elaborated on Leo XIII’s solutions, and introduced new answers to global woes in their respective works. Upon inspection, it is clear that Catholic Social Doctrine is nothing new, nor is it basically concerned with the latter half of the nineteenth century, but consistent traditional teaching. From Aristotle to St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Aquinas to Pope John Paul II, the preferential treatment for the poor, the apologia for equilibrium in our economic policymaking, and a clear prescription has always been part and parcel of the Church.

If we are to counter rationalism and its effect on economics and social policy, we would do well to encourage Catholics to review Church documents. It is there where distributists will learn that ours is not the pursuit of happiness, but rather the pursuit of goodness.

1.Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “A World Split Apart,” 8 June 1978.
2.Michael Novak, “On Solzhenitsyn,” National Review 14 Sep 1981: 99.
3.Ibid. 101.
4.H. Thurston, Encyclical. In The Catholic Encyclopedia 1909 New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 25, 2008 from New Advent:
5.Dr. John C. Rao, “The Exotic Liberation Theology of Fr. Neuhaus & Dr. Hitchcock,” The Remnant 15 November 2007.


Anonymous,  Monday, October 27, 2008 at 11:25:00 AM CDT  

A false historicism seeks to make obsolete what was always taught as timeless immutable truth prior to, alas, Vatican II.


Suggestions on how to correct and realign the Council with Tradition, if it should be saved at all.

261 popes thought and taught one way. Only five have veered another way and the Church is collapsing around their ears I fear.

George Carmody Monday, October 27, 2008 at 12:54:00 PM CDT  

Well said. Many modern Catholics have forgotten that the truth does not change and the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine are no different. The very myth you warn against was on display in the discussion you linked to on "Inside Catholic" a few days back.

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