Surprise! Marriage is the foundation of Catholic social teaching.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Dec 05, 2014

When I write about Catholic social teaching, I often highlight key principles such as the universal destination of goods, solidarity, the common good, and subsidiarity. All of these principles fit together to make a seamless whole, with each drawing life from the others. But articulating a series of principles does not have a particularly “organic” feel. It seems somehow disembodied. Thus these principles may be very far from instinctive. We may not, as the expression goes, feel them in our bones.

I am sure everyone remembers a commentary I wrote a little more than five years ago, entitled Splitting social and life issues? Can’t do it.. But just in case your memory is exceedingly poor, I’ll mention that I was trying to highlight a key point made by Pope Benedict XVI in his major social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). In this encyclical, the Holy Father made it very clear that openness to life is the very foundation of authentic social development.

Now this is exactly where the “organic” character of Catholic social teaching begins to emerge. Starting from this perspective, we begin to see the whole thing unfold naturally from an understanding of the incomparable value and dignity of the human person. I do not mean the dignity of the “individual”, for we never encounter a person as an “individual”. It is fundamental to human nature that we are created not to thrive alone, but rather in and for relationships with others. We come into being because God is fundamentally relational—three persons in a unity of love. He shares that love by creating us male and female, so that our own natural unions might mirror his inner relationality, bearing fruit that will last.

Catholic Social Teaching Is Rooted in Relationships

The fundamental relationality of the person is what ought to be instinctive about Catholic social teaching, just as it has been generally instinctive in most civilizations, including the classical and Christian civilizations which created what we used to know as Western culture. The man and woman become two in one flesh, joined with God in the procreation of new persons. These persons are nurtured in human families which mirror the love of the Trinity. The family in turn cherishes the relationality of all its members, developing their natural dispositions to seek fulfillment in communion, that is, through participation in the larger goods of God, the family, the Church, and more extensive social, economic and political communities.

A society rooted in the person’s relationship with God is inescapably rooted in marriage and family. Educational, social, political and economic arrangements which are ultimately rooted in the family as the basic social unit—a divinely-ordained community which is by nature prior to the State—will inevitably tend toward health, vibrancy, the common good and genuine human achievement. In contrast, those educational, social, political and economic arrangements which undermine marriage and the family, which presuppose a fragmented individualism, and which leave an atomized populace at the mercy of an amoral state must inescapably tend toward destruction and ruin.

It is not too much to say that if we get marriage right we build society on a foundation which enables social life and culture to flourish. And if we get marriage wrong—as all secular liberal Statist societies do, whether of the left or the right—we face inevitable social disintegration and failure. The result of this failure is that the State will attempt to hold things together through ever-increasing irrational force. In other words, truth and virtue, along with those who value them, will be increasingly marginalized and persecuted in the impossible effort to prevent collapse by the elites of a decadent culture.

Despite this effort, what is hollow must at length collapse. To promote promiscuity; to facilitate contraception, divorce, child abandonment, and mock marriages; to destroy the family for the sake of individualism; to deprive the moral relations inherent in natural law of their hegemony over positive law; to subject marriage, family and education to State control; to enforce arbitrary preferences, orientations and “rights” against a basic understanding of relationships and duties; to view persons as objects for utility or pleasure: All of this hollows out society.

In the same way, to foster an unabashed consumerism which seeks to fill human emptiness with mere things; to organize economic activity as if its primary purpose is material profit, with the persons involved treated as commodities; to enforce a privatization of religious belief, which is always relationally intensive, so that the State may be free to reshape all mankind according to its own lights; to refuse to recognize the Church as both a society in its own right and a model for all human society; to replace authentic authority, which is based on relationships, with mere power: Again, these things drain away the very substance of social life.

These things destroy the social order because they ignore or attack the fundamental relationality of the human person. We are meant for one another. When that is not recognized, utter collapse is only a matter of time.

Making This Instinctive

All of this is to some degree understood instinctively, though we are quite capable of overriding and even dulling this awareness by following our own pride and passions. After all, it is in the very nature of pride and passion to isolate. Selfishness seeks to act alone. When this is justified socially by fundamentally false theories of the person (theories that look remarkably like ideologies), governments always seek to form citizens to deny what they would otherwise sense to be true. Welcome to the modern West.

Unfortunately, to recover a basic understanding of the human person after being carefully trained to reject it will, for most people, require much more than the bare outline of an argument I have offered here. This bare outline is already an abstraction of the lived reality.

It would be far more effective to explore at our leisure a longer treatment by a fine writer, one who can draw not only from philosophy, theology, and Catholic social teaching but also from the great imaginative tradition of literature. Here we might find the apt references and particular examples which can awaken our hearts. In this way, the reader can be rooted once again in what is obviously true—obvious, that is, if instead of merely theorizing we will remove the scales from our eyes and begin again to see.

Happily, this is exactly what Anthony Esolen has accomplished in his new and seriously delightful book, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, from Sophia Institute Press. A professor of English at Providence College, Esolen has written widely on both literature and contemporary issues. He is as at home in Dante’s Divine Comedy as he is in magazines of opinion, or even in devotional periodicals such as Magnificat. As to this latest achievement, I have never seen a work which so clearly captures the dependence of Catholic social teaching on the fundamental realities of human life and love—the very realities we ought to recognize as completely natural to us all.

Or supernatural to us all, of course: What we lack in our own natural perceptions can be supplemented and sharpened by Revelation, and interiorized by grace. But in our current historical situation, most of what is natural has been driven away, and so Esolen’s book is an enormous help. Subtitled “A defense of the Church’s true teachings on marriage, family and the State”, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching focuses in turn on eight key topics: man as the image of God, liberty, marriage, family, social life, the Church as a perfect society, human work, and the State.

Esolen’s writing is clear, lively and immensely enjoyable. Insofar as he draws specifically on the social encyclicals to fulfill his purpose, he completely avoids the pedantry of covering the entire field. Instead, he confines himself to the work of Leo XIII, the great pope who inaugurated the genre. This too has its advantages, first that it strengthens the focus of the book, and second that, in the late 19th century, popes tended to write somewhat more forcefully, and certainly more colorfully, than they do now.

The beauty of Esolen’s accomplishment lies in its power to help us adopt Catholic social teaching as what we might call “second nature”. This is the process by which we make a fresh understanding habitual or instinctive, rooted in our being (where it belongs) so that it unfolds naturally and luxuriantly as from deep roots. My own brief argument here is inadequate to the task. It can in some sense enable readers to know, but it is not enough merely “to know” abstractly, to glimpse the truth as a kind of theory.

No, truth is always the mind’s conformity with reality. That is why we owe a deep debt to ourselves to read this supremely accessible and powerful book. The whole point is to escape from disembodied theory into a sensible, rich, and relationally fulfilling way of life.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Dec. 05, 2014 12:44 PM ET USA

    What you say is already "known reality" to any number of us. We are looking for action, not more "conceptualization." What about the LCWR? What happened (or is happening) with that? It looks like the Church in Europe for the most part is already lost. What are "they" (the Vatican) waiting for?, Our Church in America to collapse too?