May 14, 2011
Tomorrow, May 15, 2011, is the 120th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum Novarum. While it was not the first ecclesial text addressing matters of concern to Catholic social thought, it is a major catalyst for CST in the present age. Of course, it should go without saying that Catholic social thought is an indispensable pillar of our project here at the Mirror of Justice which addresses Catholic legal theory. I am sure that Pope Leo’s encyclical will remain a major and key foundation stone of Catholic social thought well into the future. Moreover, it has been the stimulus for major encyclicals or apostolic letters by Pius XI, Paul VI, and John Paul II. It also provided a means for the Church, through the Petrine Ministry, to consider and better understand her teachings as new issues emerged in societies around the world.
In May of 1991, Blessed John Paul II commemorated the 100th anniversary in his Centesimus Annus. It was then thought by many, and reasonably so, that with the crumbling of totalitarian systems—especially the Soviet Union—the important contributions of Catholic social thought to the betterment of the human family could proceed without real impediment.
I wonder, though, if that is still the case today on the 120th anniversary. My reason for saying this is due to something which Blessed John Paul stated in Centesimus Annus: “As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” [N.46] A few years later, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, he reiterated this point by stating: “the value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes.” [N. 70] Blessed John Paul elaborated on this by offering for consideration the context of a democratic majority which “decrees that it is legal, at least under certain conditions, to kill unborn human life, [but] is it not really making a ‘tyrannical’ decision” which is “legitimated by popular consensus?” Popular consensus today is growing on other fronts involving other issues that also challenge the Church’s vital social teachings. Might this mean that other tyrannical decisions legitimated by popular consensus are just around the corner?
Given the anniversary we commemorate tomorrow, it would be important to reflect on this. Why? The Church in the present day still encounters difficulty in proclaiming the Good News and proposing the merits of her social doctrine. The well-formed consciences of those who state publicly and teach the truth about the essence and nature of the human person are under scrutiny. Ironically the obstacle to the protection of the well-formed conscience is no longer totalitarian dictatorship. It is or is becoming the mechanisms of democratic government for which the values that uphold the truth about the human person mean little or nothing.
The anniversary, at a minimum, gives us yet another opportunity to consider and discuss—while that is still possible—the values that our polity embodies and promotes. A happy and blessed anniversary to my friends here at the Mirror of Justice and to our faithful readers!
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