This Dark Age

A manual for life in the modern world.

By Daniel Schwindt

This Dark Age is now available in paperback on Amazon. The print version is MUCH cleaner than this online version, which is largely unedited and has fallen by the wayside as the project has grown. If you’ve appreciated my writing, please consider leaving a review on the relevant paperback volumes. The print edition also includes new sections (Military History, War Psychology, Dogmatic Theology).

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4.2. Justifications for the Social Doctrine

General remarks

At one time it would have been taken for granted that the Church—whose business is to guide and form the profound aspects of man’s being—would also have something to say about his mundane economic activities. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Men today are trained to imagine various compartments in life: one “personal” and one “spiritual,” one “recreational” and one “professional,” one “public” and one “private.” As a result the Church and the State, and even more so the Church and “the market,” are cordoned off and told they have nothing to say about one another. Thus, we find ourselves reduced to a position from which we must justify the very existence of the doctrines we are about to explore. Before we can say what the Church teaches about economic and political life, we must convince the reader of Church’s right to have any opinion whatsoever in these matters. Fortunately the task is not difficult.

Grace presupposes nature

If it be asked why the Church should concern itself with “worldly affairs” and issues seemingly so far-removed from religion as economic theory, we can respond plainly that these two spheres are not really as distant from one another as the materialists and technocrats would have us believe. Yet a more comprehensive explanation is called for if we are to understand not only why the Church is justified in formulating this doctrine, but also why, once formulated, it deserves to be obeyed.

We may find such a justification by referring to the maxim of St. Thomas Aquinas, that grace presupposes nature.[1]

That is to say, the spiritual dimension of man’s being, in which his true happiness is to be found and which is the supreme concern of the Church, is not to be imagined as existing in some other world, sharply divided from the “ordinary” world in which we live out our daily lives. The Christian tradition does not buy into such a dichotomy. It teaches that man is neither material body nor incorporeal soul, but is rather a union of body-and-soul. Grace, then, or the life of the spirit, presupposes and is built upon the foundation of nature. And while it is true that the foundation is hierarchically inferior to the superstructure (grace), it is still the foundation, and foundations are something of a necessity to the structures that rely on them. Taking this premise into account, the suggestion that spiritual authorities should not concern themselves with economic and political affairs and instead “stick to religion” is evidence that the speaker has made one of two great errors.

First, it is possible that he imagines that the higher order of reality (spiritual life) has nothing to do with the lower order (the physical world). From such a point of view, it is possible to conceive of a Church whose “sphere of competence” is religion alone, and whose business therefore has nothing to do with earthly life. This is probably the more common mistake. It is closely connected with the modern tendency already mentioned above, to try and organize (“systematize”) life into neatly divided categories. Unfortunately, given such a view of life, and because physical realities press themselves upon our senses incessantly, sooner or later the material concerns begin to claim most, if not all, of one’s attention. By going down this road, a man begins by dividing two orders of reality into separate worlds, and he ends by losing one of those worlds entirely as it fades from his consciousness. His point of view becomes an implicit, and sometimes also and explicit, materialism.

If we avoid the first mistake and manage to retain both orders of reality in our considerations, we must also guard against a second error, which comes from a misunderstanding of the hierarchical relationship between the spiritual and the material orders. In this case, even though the spiritual order is not lost, it is still hopelessly alienated from “worldly affairs” due to imagining the two orders as being “separate but equal,” when in fact they can only be comprehended hierarchically.

To understand the nature of this second error, consider two strangers who meet on the street. They are distinct and roughly equal—and for this reason it is improper for one to interfere with the business of the other. This is an appropriate view of two men on the street, but it is not an appropriate view of the relationship between the Church and the State, because this latter is one of hierarchy and not of equality. This type of relationship can be illustrated interpersonally by imagining a father and child. The father can and should interfere in the life of the child. And from the point of view of the child, the reverse is true: he cannot command the father, but instead should listen to what the father commands because he is by nature in a subordinate position.

Such is the nature of all hierarchical relationships. While the inferior cannot comprehend or inform the superior, the superior can always comprehend and should inform the inferior. And so, while the lower cannot transgress into the higher, the higher is in a legitimate position to guide the lower. Traditionally speaking, this is the proper view of the relationship between the Church and authorities of a strictly worldly order.

[1] ST I-II, q. 2, a. 1.

The soul of the social body

We must be careful here. Although we have said that the spiritual authority is the superior and that it may speak into the inferior, we must also be clear that it only speaks to the affairs of the inferior regarding universal principles, since these are its area of expertise. It does not, as we shall note below, provide “technical solutions” to economic or political problems, for these technical and “practical” solutions are the proper domain of political authorities. It is precisely at this point that the Church acknowledges their autonomy. This hierarchical relationship, which carefully combines desire for unity with respect for autonomy, has been called the “Gelasian diarchy,” named after a letter from Pope Gelasius I to Emperor Anastasius in the year 494 AD, when the pope advised the emperor as follows:

“There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment.”[1]

Pope Leo XIII affirmed this tradition when he said that “the Almighty…has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human, things,” but he also made sure to note that there must “exist between these two powers a certain orderly connection which may be compared to the union of the soul and body in man.”[2] No one familiar with the connection between body and soul would suggest that the soul should disregard the activity and function of the body.

[1] Trans. John S. Ott, Portland State University, from Andreas Thiel, ed., Epistolae Romanorum pontificum genuinae et quae ad eos scriptae sunt a S. Hilaro usque ad Pelagium II., vol. 1 (Brunsberg: Eduard Peter, 1867), Letter no. 12, pp. 349-358.

[2] ID, 14.

Faith and morals

Many of the Church’s critics tend to parrot tirelessly certain phrases whenever a pope speaks about economic or political problems. They say that the Church’s competence lies in “faith and morals,” the obvious implication being that socio-economic issues are excluded from these two categories. Unfortunately, this is not the traditional understanding of social, economic, and political life. Morality, in fact, pervades all of these areas. Justice is the foundation of morality, and it is undeniable that economic affairs in particular are riddled with problems of justice. If these problems are left unanswered, they may result in chaos. This is why canon law claims:

“To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.”[1]

[1] Code of Canon Law, canon 747, § 2.

When the worldly undermines the eternal

Returning to our principle that grace presupposes nature, we can say that the Church has concern for the worldly, not because she wishes to dictate the details of its technical operations, but because man needs a healthy material foundation if his spiritual life is to thrive to its utmost. The Church concerns itself with temporal affairs only insofar as they threaten spiritual affairs, which means that her concern will necessarily expand in times of turmoil and economic confusion. Particularly when the conditions of man’s earthly existence drop below a certain minimum, the Church cannot and will not remain silent. It was precisely this situation which gave birth to, and fuels, the further development of CST:

…it is not rash by any means to say that the whole scheme of social and economic life is now such as to put in the way of vast numbers of mankind most serious obstacles which prevent them from caring for the one thing necessary; namely, their eternal salvation.[1]

Woe to the man who claims that economic and political conditions have no bearing on the spiritual life. Clearly it is due precisely to the Church’s eternal concerns that she refuses to remain indifferent to temporal ones.[2]

[1] QA, 130.

[2] CSDC, 71; EN, 34.

Interpreting the signs of the times

We have already said that the Church acts as guardian of universal truth, and is not concerned with technical solutions.[1] She operates on certain permanent principles which, although they never change, may require new adaptations depending on the time and place in which they are to be applied. This is not because the truth is somehow “relative,” or changing, but because man and his environment are constantly changing. Each age brings its own peculiarities and its own problems. As an expert in humanity,[2] the Church’s duty is to constantly observe the flux of social conditions, appraising these adjustments as to whether they are good or bad, and responding to them in language intelligible to each new generation.[3]

[1] LS, 188.

[2] CSDC, 61; PP, 13.

[3] GS, 4.

Continuity and renewal

The Church is tasked both with protecting the eternal and unchanging teachings of the Church, and with providing appropriate adaptations, interpretations, and, when necessary, re-interpretations, for each historical period. The Church must “become all things to all people,”[1] and while this does not in any way imply “compromise,” it does mean that when a new epoch presents itself, altering the customs, language, and thought of a people, it is up to the Church to make sure that the Tradition, in its fullness, is presented in a way that is intact and yet comprehensible to them. On this point, the desire expressed by St. John Paul II is the perennial desire of the Church:

“I wish principally…to reaffirm the continuity of the social doctrine as well as its constant renewal. In effect, continuity and renewal are a proof of the perennial value of the teaching of the Church…This twofold dimension is typical of her teaching in the social sphere. On the one hand it is constant, for it remains identical in its fundamental inspiration, in its ‘principles of reflection,’ in its ‘criteria of judgment,’ in its basic ‘directives for action,’ and above all in its vital link with the Gospel of the Lord. On the other hand, it is ever new, because it is subject to the necessary and opportune adaptations suggested by the changes in historical conditions and by the unceasing flow of the events which are the setting of the life of people and society.”[2]

[1] 1 Cor 9:19-23.

[2] SRS, 3; Cf. OA, 4.

Remarks on Vatican II

If we are going to take the Church seriously as an authority (and if we are not, then we are certainly wasting our time), then we must take the whole Church and not pick and choose certain parts as it pleases us. Now this seems easy in principle—but what happens when we come up against an apparent contradiction in the tradition itself? What happens if the Church seems to “change its mind” or becomes “a house divided against itself?”[1] Does this not force us to choose between one part of the church against another, whether we have in mind sects or historical periods? Such a situation is difficult, but it is the position of this book that no such contradictions exist in actuality, allowing the reader to rest knowing that he is not faced with a conundrum of this magnitude.

Controversy has arisen in the history of the Church—we should not be surprised at this, for it is said that scandal must come[2]—and these controversies demand explanation, especially since certain groups have used these moments of discord to divide the flock. The most recent controversy of this type is the debate surrounding the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”). Because of this controversy, any study of CST that tries to ignore the disagreements which followed Vatican II will doom its readers to confusion and frustration. We would not wish this trouble upon our readers, and so we will reconcile this debate without pausing on it any longer than is necessary. We will show that the division in question is only apparent, that the Tradition of the Church remains intact, and that the reader need not choose between the Church of Yesterday and the Church of Tomorrow, but can be at peace within the Church Eternal.

Admittedly the debates surrounding the Second Vatican Council have been the greatest threat to Catholic unity in the last century. Those who participate in the battle tend to take one of two positions which are, in our opinion, equally superficial: either Vatican II was an illegitimate compromise with the modernist heresy, and therefore all post-conciliar popes are “pretenders” and heretics themselves[3]; or else the Council represents a “coming around” of the Church to modern ways, which it had until then been obstinately and wrongly opposed.

Both of these views share one thing, and that is a pessimistic attitude toward the Church as a competent authority. Both believe that Vatican II represents a departure from and a rejection of the previous teachings of the Church. They only differ on whether or not the change was good or bad.

Moreover, both positions foster division. The first view requires the believer to stand against the Church as he finds it today, while the second requires the believer to stand against the Church as it was for a thousand years prior. This is why, although we may find respectable persons on either side of this debate, we ought to have no respect at all for the debate itself. In what follows, we will attempt to guide the reader around this tangled mess so that he can avoid such an unnecessary snare.

[1] Mt 12:25

[2] Mt 18:7.

[3] This is the position of the “sedevacantists,” whose name derives from the Latin sede vacante which means “the seat is vacant.” The sedevacantists usually insist that the last legitimate pope was Pius XII, and that the seat has been vacant since his death in 1958.

The example of Dignitatis Humanae

When it comes to such convoluted disputes, it is helpful to isolate a single element in the controversy which epitomizes it; and then, by dissecting this error, we are able to reach an understanding of the nature of the problem in its entirety.

In my experience, the most debated item from the council is its Declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae (Latin: “Of the Dignity of the Human Person”). Compared to the controversy it has sparked, it is a remarkably short document, as well as very limited in its scope (which should automatically suggest to us that it ought to be read in a certain way). The source of the contention hinges on whether or not it overturns the previous teachings on religious worship and, in particular, the relationship of the State with the religion. For example, the declaration expressly forbids the State to coerce a citizen into the confession of a particular creed. At the same time it upholds the noble teaching that only the free conscience can make a true profession of faith.[1] Citizens may not be compelled to adopt the faith under any circumstances. At a glance, this appears to be a change in attitude from the position previously held by the Church, which had always insisted on the public profession of Christ’s social kingship—particularly through the voice of Leo XIII.

We will return to the issue of Church and State at the appropriate point in our study, but for now it suffices to quote a section from Dignitatis Humanae which is all too often disregarded, but which points us in the direction of clarity as to the Council’s intent:

“Religious freedom…has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”[2]

Now, taking what we already said above regarding the relationship between Church and State, and if we also admit that Dignitatis Humanae does contain statements which would seem to contradict “traditional Catholic doctrine,” we must choose between three possible ways of handling the situation:

  1. We can ignore the quote above, take the apparent departure from tradition as a real departure from tradition, side with tradition, reject the document, the council, and all post-conciliar popes, and thereby separate ourselves from the Church as it exists today. This option corresponds with the so called “sedevacantists.”
  2. We can ignore the quote above, take the apparent departure from tradition as real departure from tradition, side against tradition, thereby separating ourselves from two-thousand years of Church teachings. This is the position of the liberal or “modernist” elements of the Church.
  3. We can take the quote above into full account, giving the Magisterium the benefit of the doubt which it deserves, assuming that it would not so blatantly contradict itself. We can then set ourselves to the task of reconciling the apparent contradiction between Dignitatis Humanae and the traditional understanding on religious liberty, such as the one taught by Leo XIII in Immortale Dei and Libertas. (Both of Leo XIII’s encyclicals, we might add, are cited in Dignitatis Humanae.) For example, we can assume that a State may be forbidden to coerce belief while at one and the same time being obligated to acknowledge Christ as King.

We will adopt the third approach throughout this study. Any other way of going about things would make this project, and any other of its kind, a waste of effort. How exactly this reconciliation of an apparent contradiction must be handled will become clear in what follows.

[1] DH, 2.

[2] DH, 1.

Catholic Social Teaching, systems, and ideology

Because of the constant need to re-interpret and re-apply the principles of its social doctrine, which are themselves unchanging, it should be obvious that the Church will never present a specific economic “system” or political “program” of any kind.[1] Technical applications are not, and cannot be, its domain, since they must be built and modified according to the unique circumstances of each historical, geographical, and cultural situation. Technical solutions that prove fruitful for one social group or geographical zone may prove inappropriate for another, and so it would be futile for the Church to try and produce a “one-size-fits-all” solution and demand that its solution be blindly applied to all peoples at all times. Such is the danger of ideological thinking, which the Church avoids at all times. However, it should also be said that precisely due to the fact that the Church stands beyond ideology and specific systems, she retains the ability to judge the appropriateness of these systems, as to whether or not they meet the requirements of her principles. This means that when the Church denounces capitalism and socialism, it remains within its rights; and it can denounce these illegitimate systems without having to offer an alternative “system” to be erected in their place. Discernment and principles are her domain. What she claims to offer is “an indispensable and ideal orientation,”[2] which she calls upon the laity to put into practice, each in his own sphere of competence according to his vocation.

[1] CV, 10.

[2] CA, 43.

Authority of the Doctrine

It is also good to mention that, when it comes to works such as the one you have before you, as well as when considering official documents such as the Compendium and the Catechism, the citations used will differ in rank with respect to authority. There are papal addresses, encyclicals and council documents, as well as the occasional work produced by conferences of bishops such as the USCCB. Even within council documents there are varying degrees of authority between constitutions, declarations, and decrees.[1]

While it would be possible to elaborate on the binding force of each type of document, detailing the degree of assent demanded from the believer who wishes to remain in good standing, we choose not to enter into that subject here. The reason for this approach can be found in the social conditions prevalent in our era. We have already hinted above at these conditions. Within modern liberal-democratic regimes such as the United States, the social mind tends to be preoccupied with freedom from religious authority, rather than with duty toward it. The result is that appeals to authority, whether legitimate or not, fail to exert any force whatsoever on contemporary audiences. Listeners instinctively turn against any claims on their conscience which are not chosen solely by themselves. The principle of docility, or the suggestions that a person can adopt a posture of submission while retaining his dignity, simply does not compute in cultures where each person is assured, from the cradle to the grave, that there is no higher authority than his own reason or preference, and that he owes obedience to no one. Thus, we have judged it prudent in this work to pass over an examination of the binding nature of certain documents, proceeding on to the teachings themselves in hopes that, although we will make no attempt to prove their varying degrees of authority, the reader will be sufficiently interested in the doctrines that he will explore the matter himself.

Moreover, by openly avoiding the legalistic paradigm of what one must and must not believe, we are able to outline the body of social teachings more comprehensively, because much of it consists, not in laying out what the church demands, but, as we said above, in indicating the lofty ideal for which it hopes, and after which we are obliged, as lovers of Christ, to strive.

[1] CSDC, 8.