Catholic social teaching can often be misinterpreted and therefore we need to return to its first principles, says Anthony Esolen, author of a recent book on the subject.

“Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching: A Defense of the Church’s True Teachings on Marriage, Family, and the State,” (Sophia Institute Press), addresses fundamental issues such as God, human nature and society.

Esolen based his reflections on the writings of Pope Leo XIII.

The most fundamental truth about our human condition, Esolen explained, is that we were made by God, in the image of God. Ignoring our connection to the eternal would mean that we will lose our notion of what is good and right, he commented, quoting Pope Leo XIII.

People who believe in God and a natural order will be able to see that human life is sacred, that marriage is a contract between a man and a woman and that children belong to their parents, he observed.

“Reason without faith is crippled at best and grows deformed and monstrous at worst, animated by the pride and passion of man,” he added.

Esolen continued by deliberating what human liberty really means. Our liberty is meant to help us achieve our perfection. “Freedom is the unimpeded capacity to fulfil our God-ordained end,” he maintained.

Religion also helps keep the state in place, which is subordinate to our higher destiny.

Marriage and family

On the subject of marriage, Esolen explained that even Aristotle admitted that the family and the household comes first and is the foundation for the state.

Society in turn should protect and promote marriage and the family. By contrast laws that weaken marriage damage civil society and the Church.

“Good laws assist us in the difficult pursuit of virtue. Bad laws thwart that pursuit and encourage vice,” Esolen commented.

A bad law, Pope Leo said, that allows divorce is like a rotten tree trunk from which only “worthless fruits” can come.

As well, individuals who turn their backs on Church teaching regarding the family are being antisocial and self-centered.

An anti-society of self-will and divorce will inevitably damage the sense of civic responsibility and the love of neighbor. Esolen likened the role of families in society to that of bones in a human body.

Therefore, he continued, you can’t talk about a real society, about the economy or poverty, about sexual ethics, without involving the family.

Esolen also considered the teachings of Pope Leo XIII on work and private property. The right to private property is not founded on the laws of economics, but on human nature and the need to provide security for a family.

“Only persons can own, because only persons seal their creations with the stamp, not of their labor merely, but of their persons, the very selves that dwell in and beyond time.”

“Human labor must be honored not because it is labor, but because it is human,” he added.

He went on to consider a number of consequences that arise from this, including the need that companies should treat their workers as humans and not be unjust and that workers should be paid a fair wage. “It is always shameful to treat human beings as if they were mere machines,” Esolen commented.

He also noted that Pope Leo XIII had in mind a society in which the poor and the rich are not separated from each other. It is not enough that the rich pay taxes to help the poor; instead what is needed is a mutual interest and love.

State and Church

Esolen decried how in more recent times the state has squeezed the Church and charitable associations out of schools, hospitals, adoption agencies and other activities.

The state, instead, Pope Leo explained, should foster objective moral law and self-restraint. He also referred to what is now known as the principle of subsidiarity, that is, the state should respect the role of families and associations and local communities.

In his conclusion Esolen insisted on the central role of religion and in particular the Eucharist.

“A sincere devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, Leo says, will bring unity among men again by fostering three virtues: faith, patience, and charity.”

In some of his criticism of contemporary society Esolen’s comments bring to mind the content of Robert Bellah’s book, “Habits of the Heart,” or Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone.” Both of these books noted the fragmentation of society, the breakdown of local communities and a growing individualism.

Esolen certainly provides a good overview of the social teaching of the Church, as contained in the writings of Pope Leo XIII, but it would have been interesting to also consider some of the subsequent documents in the following century or more – perhaps he will deal with this in a future book.