After reading my essay, American Catholics and Social Justice, which recently appeared in this journal, a priest friend said he found it “very interesting and informative” but added that “papal teaching never stands still and while Rerum Novarum is indeed a significant and historic document, Catholic Social Teaching is also a product of its time.”
I was pleased that he took the time to read the essay and to share his reaction with me, but troubled with the implications of his thinking. My essay noted how American Catholic bishops take a very different view of social justice than the view Pope Leo XIII advanced in his famous 1891 encyclical. I addressed the question, which view is more reasonable? My friend was implying that the question is moot because 19th century encyclicals and social teaching were good for that century but not for ours.
That notion is not new. G. K. Chesterton answered it early in the last century by pointing out the error of disqualifying ideas solely on the basis of their vintage. He wrote,
In dealing with any historical answer, the point is not whether it was given in our time, but whether it was given in answer to our question.
Given the grip of relativism on our time, the import of Chesterton’s insight may not be completely persuasive. So let’s follow my friend’s implication further and see where it leads. If the ideas of every age are good for that age but not the next or the one after, then it is a waste of time to read anything written in the past. That takes in a lot of writings—not just old encyclicals but the works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and even the Bible. Of course, my priest friend would never say that the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount were relevant to their respective eras but not to ours, but that is the logical extension of what he said. And that idea is transparently false.
Similarly, saying that Church teachings “never stand still” and are a reflection of the times implies, at very least, that they are not based on timeless truths and, at most, that there are no timeless truths. Either way, the impression conveyed is that what the Church teaches is just one more option in the marketplace of ideas. When clergy give that impression, however inadvertently, it is not surprising that growing numbers of people consider the Church irrelevant or that liberal politicians have been emboldened to attack religious freedom.
The idea that Catholic clergy would flirt with relativism, let alone embrace it, would have astounded a Catholic of Pope Leo XIII’s time. The Church was historically known and respected (sometimes grudgingly) for championing the idea that truth—all truth, not just theological—is unchanging. What people believe and claim to be true may be mistaken because human nature is imperfect. (In the words of a venerable formula, “the mind is clouded and the will weakened.”) But though human error can work great mischief, it can never alter the truth.
The Church’s insistence on human fallibility and the permanence of truth has been one of its great contributions to human history. The perspective that truth is elusive and error prolific has stimulated curiosity, encouraged the search for genuine understanding, enlivened philosophy, and given rise to science. The Church can best serve the present age by reclaiming that perspective and acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, the teachings of earlier generations can provide insights that are helpful to our time.