As I’ve noted here before, many Protestants spent the better part of four centuries viewing the bishop of Rome as Antichrist. Reading Exsurge Domina, the papal bull excommunicating him from the Church in 1520, Martin Luther professed to want to believe that the author was actually his debating rival Johannes Eck, but in any case…
…whoever wrote this bull, he is Antichrist. I protest before God, our Lord Jesus, his sacred angels, and the whole world that with my whole heart I dissent from the damnation of this bull, that I curse and execrate it as sacrilege and blasphemy of Christ, God’s Son and our Lord. This be my recantation, Oh bull, thou daughter of bulls.
…Whether this bull is by Eck or by the pope, it is the sum of all impiety, blasphemy, ignorance, impudence, hypocrisy, lying – in a word, it is Satan and his Antichrist.
The pope in question was the pleasure-loving, elephant-as-pet-owning Leo X.
The eleventh Leo only lasted part of the month of April 1605 as pontiff before dying, so he didn’t have time to draw too much Protestant ire. But I can only assume that Leo XII — who in an 1824 encyclical warned that Protestant Bible societies, by translating Scripture into common languages, risked producing a “gospel of men, or what is worse, a gospel of the devil!” — wasn’t beloved by the Christians he viewed as heretics.
Given that history, it’s remarkable that Justin Welby, the evangelical bishop just named to succeed Rowan Williams as archbishop of Canterbury, named the next papal Leo as a key influence on him. Welby not only enthused about the “riches of Benedictine and Ignatian spirituality” in his statement last Friday, but expressed gratitude for having been “confronted… with the rich and challenging social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.” In many ways, that tradition of social teaching began with the 1891 encyclical written by Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum.
Welby has repeatedly expressed his admiration for that document, at greatest length in a July 2012 interview with The Guardian about the bishop’s appointment to a parliamentary commission investigating banking fraud. Welby (who famously spent eleven years in the oil industry before being ordained an Anglican priest) was asked why he had named Rerum Novarum as the greatest influence on his moral thinking:
When one group corners a source of human flourishing, it is deeply wicked. It applies to the City [of London; akin to Wall Street], to commodities traders, and to churches who say only this way is right…. The City is unspeakably powerful. The longer I go on, the more I am aware of the power of finance.
Perhaps Welby had in mind this passage, emblematic of Leo XIII’s concern for the effects of industrialization:
If we turn not to things external and material, the first thing of all to secure is to save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making. It is neither just nor human so to grind men down with excessive labor as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies.
So Leo supported the notion of a fair wage (“…there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner”) and encouraged the development of Catholic trade unions.
But he also argued repeatedly for the right of private property (“…the practice of all ages has consecrated the principle of private ownership, as being pre-eminently in conformity with human nature, and as conducing in the most unmistakable manner to the peace and tranquillity of human existence”) and asserted that some level of inequality was unavoidable (“…it is impossible to reduce civil society to one dead level. Socialists may in that intent do their utmost, but all striving against nature is in vain. There naturally exist among mankind manifold differences of the most important kind…”).
Moreover, he rebutted the Marxian notion that history is driven by conflict between oppressing and oppressed classes whose memberships were defined by their economic roles:
The great mistake made in regard to the matter now under consideration is to take up with the notion that class is naturally hostile to class, and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict. So irrational and false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.
Crucially, Leo discussed human rights as sympathetically as any pope to that point — yet treated rights as being inseparable from responsibilities to other people: “The rights here spoken of, belonging to each individual man, are seen in much stronger light when considered in relation to man’s social and domestic obligations.” No such duties were more important for Leo than those to one’s family and one’s church, surpassing the loyalties demanded by nation-states, political parties, or social classes.
For these reasons, Rerum Novarum and the movement it produced also drew the approbation of evangelical writer Andy Crouch (Culture Making), in his recent essay, “What’s So Great about ‘The Common Good,’” a contribution to Christianity Today‘s ongoing “This Is My City” series.
Acknowledging that “‘The common good’ has an awfully this-worldly ring to it,” Crouch warned that “To believe we humans can achieve good on our own, even working together, without the radical intervention of God, is ultimately to deny the doctrines of Creation, Cross, Resurrection, and Second Coming, just for starters.” But, as he notes, such a faith in humans’ ability to perfect themselves is precisely what drove Leo XIII to address the problems of industrial capitalism and the solution proposed by socialism alike. To Crouch (and many others), Rerum Novarum continues to provide a robust understanding of “the common good,” one that permits — to paraphrase Bishop Welby — no single institution or group to have a “corner” on human flourishing:
Rerum Novarum launched the movement called Catholic social thought. Successive popes and other Christian thinkers picked up on Leo’s themes, defining the common good as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” [from the definition given by the Catholic Catechism, quoting from Pope John Paul II, Gaudium et Spes]. Two ideas are particularly significant in this definition. The common good is measured by fulfillment or flourishing—by human beings becoming all they are meant to be. And the common good is about persons, both groups and individuals—not just about “humanity” but about humans, and not just about individuals but about persons in relationship with one another in small groups.
This definition of the common good has several crucial implications, as Crouch heard from sociologist Christian Smith (a famous Catholic convert from evangelicalism). First, it challenges the collectivist impulse of the Left — by emphasizing the dignity of every individual — and the libertarian streak presently so powerful on the Right — which commingles uncomfortably at best with a tradition that treats private property as inseparable from social obligation.
Second, it “can both draw Christians into engagement with the wider society and prevent that engagement from becoming ‘all about politics,'” since it recognizes that “private associations” like family, church, guild, and others, “with all their particular loyalties, paradoxically turn out to be essential to public flourishing.”
Seeking the common good in its deepest sense means continually insisting that persons are of infinite worth—worth more than any system, any institution, or any cause. Societies are graded on a curve, with the fate of the most vulnerable given the most weight, because the fate of the most vulnerable tells us whether a society truly values persons as ends or just as means to an end.
And the common good continually reminds us that persons flourish in the small societies that best recognize them as persons—in family and the face-to-face associations of healthy workplaces, schools, teams, and of course churches. Though it is a big phrase, “the common good” reminds us that the right scale for human flourishing is small and specific, and that the larger institutions of culture make their greatest contribution to flourishing when they resist absorbing all smaller allegiances.
Beyond this particular reading of Catholic social thought, I was struck even more by Crouch’s introduction of Rerum Novarum:
In Leo’s circumstances, we recognize a parallel to the circumstances of North American Protestants over the past century—once dominant in cultural institutions but increasingly sidelined from direct control. But rather than retreating from defining the Christian voice in a secular world, Leo and his advisers rose to the challenge, above all by returning to the reasoned philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’s work, informed by Aristotle and conversant with insurgent Islam, was the high-water mark of Catholic thought.
If (as some of us may hope) evangelicals are learning to give up the temptations of Christendom, then we might indeed have much to learn from a pope whose loss of political power (after Rome became part of the Italian nation-state in 1870) drove him to retrieve the riches of Christian reflection on how to live in the world without being of it.