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Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum (1891)–The Evil of Equality

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII became the first of the modern Popes to really use encyclicals (an encyclical means a letter to the whole world) as means of communication, because now there were thriving societies in North and South America that a century earlier had been by comparison rather primitive, and Christianity was mostly in Europe, plus a few missionaries scattered elsewhere. By 1890, that was increasingly not the case; there were more and more organized dioceses and parishes all around the world. So an encyclical was a letter to communicate with all of them.

Leo XIII entitled one of his encyclicals Rerum Novarum, the new things, the new times. What he meant were the things I’ve just described, the moving from the farms and the strain on families.

What is a Pope doing writing about economic and social matters? That’s not a Pope’s province, except that the cradle of Catholicism–of Christianity more generally–has always been the family. That’s where children first learn by the look in their mother’s eyes when she holds them for the first time and in the warmth of being held–that’s where children first learn the meaning of unconditional love and concern for someone beyond self. Then that understanding is nourished in various ways in the family, and this is how Christian faith is first practiced.

The crisis of the family already in 1890 was something the Pope knew needed to be addressed. He wanted to call attention to the fact that societies were now being organized on an entirely different principle than in the whole preceding history of Christianity. Earlier, almost all Christians had been farmers or associated with farming. If you read the New Testament, you’ll see that quite vividly; the good shepherd, the sower of the seed, almost all of the parables are agrarian in background.

But more and more people were not living agrarian lives, and what does Christianity mean for that? That’s what Pope Leo XIII started to address.

I do want to read one stunning passage from Rerum Novarum, paragraph 26. The threat the Pope sees is socialism, the theory of giving the state total power. He doesn’t use the term “totalitarian.” Very early in his encyclical, he writes first about “civil society.” For Leo, “civil society” is a good term; “civil” comes from the Latin for the town, the city, the citizen. It gains its force from the experience of the medieval towns, centers of safety, commerce, craftsmanship, and prosperity–the highest prosperity and the greatest freedom.

Max Weber even wrote: “City air breathes free.” When you come to the towns, you’re free. That’s where the universities were; that’s where the new commerce was; and that’s where people came from far and near to examine the goods that came from many regions and to set up trading arrangements.

Here is Leo XIII’s attack on the very ideal of equality as a social ideal:

Therefore, let it be laid down in the first place that in civil society, the lowest cannot be made equal with the highest. Socialists, of course, agitate the contrary, but all struggling against nature is in vain. There are truly very great and very many natural differences among men. Neither the talents nor the skill nor the health nor the capacities of all are the same, and unequal fortune follows of itself upon necessary inequality in respect to these endowments.

These words are in one of the older translations of the encyclical. Here is the more modern translation on the Vatican Web site:

It must be first of all recognized that the condition of things inherent in human affairs must be borne with, for 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; people differ in capacity, skill, health, strength; and unequal fortune is a necessary result of unequal condition.[9]

It’s really a rather simple observation, and I would love to linger on this, but I dare not. He goes on:

Such inequality is far from being disadvantageous either to individuals or to the community. Social and public life can only be maintained by means of various kinds of capacity for business and the playing of many parts; and each man, as a rule, chooses the part which suits his own peculiar domestic condition.[10]

The fact that we’re unequal is a benefit, “for to carry on its affairs, community life requires varied aptitudes and diverse services. And to perform these diverse services, men are impelled most by differences in individual property holdings.”[11] This becomes his defense of the crucial role of the ownership of private property for incarnate beings like ourselves. If we were angels, we wouldn’t need property. But if a human being is going to be free, he has to own his own stuff; he has to have a place to which he can repair that somebody can’t take away from him.

Thus, Leo XIII did not mean by “social justice” equality. On the contrary, Leo held that it’s good that there’s an unequal society. Some people are fitted for different kinds of work, and it’s wonderful to be able to find the work that fits your talents. This had been an argument that the founders of the United States used to justify a commercial system: that it provided more opportunities for a wider range of skills than farming life did, so it allowed a much larger range of talents to mature and to develop as people found different niches for themselves.

Some people are great as blacksmiths but not as other things. All glory to them for being good blacksmiths. I enjoy very much good waiters and good waitresses in restaurants. There are some who do it as a career–this happens more in Europe than here–but they do it so well that they always give you a very pleasant hour or so. Theirs is not exactly a job I would want for myself, but if that’s their job and they do it well, it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.

So Rerum Novarum addresses the evil of equality. Equality is against nature and against the whole range of human gifts. Human gifts make us necessarily unequal in some sense.

Naturally, God is not impressed by the talents of any human being. No matter how great anybody’s talents are, they don’t come anywhere close to God, who created all beauty and all power and all energy and all ability. In that sense, in the eyes of God, we’re all equal. Relative to God, the differences between us aren’t important in the way God sees us. But in terms of looking at each of us realistically in our social roles, we are very different, and that’s what makes society work. Not everybody has to be slotted to be a cog in a machine.

Nothing demonstrates this diversity in individuals better than the difference between raising children and training animals. It’s easier to bring up cats than children. My two daughters each brought home a stray kitten that they promised to take care of; we parents would never have to take care of them. Then they graduated from high school; they went away to college; they left home; we inherited the damn cats.

We didn’t know how to train them very well at first, so they developed very bad habits. A black and white one, a yellow one: two totally different cats. You can’t say they didn’t have different personalities. Pepé Le Pew was quick and witty, and Le Beau (le Duc d’Orange) was slow and fat and dumb. On the other hand, all you had to do was train them, even though we didn’t do that so well. Bringing up children, however, you have to prepare them to be free, to be responsible.

All you have to do with cats is discipline their instincts. They’ll always do what their instincts demand, so you just have to shape their instincts a bit, and then they do it. But with children, you can’t train them, because they have more than one set of instincts. One set of their instincts is warring against another, and they themselves have to learn how to balance these warring passions, recognize them, become master of them, learn self-control to become free. That’s what freedom is.

Cats today may well behave roughly the same way as they did in the time of the pharaohs, but your own children are each so different from the others. You have no idea what they’re going to be when they hit 17 or 18 or 20–or 30 or 40. They go their own ways in religion, in politics, in what they want to do, and the risks they want to run. That’s why Pope Leo was so dead set against the idea of equality understood as sameness, but rather wanted to praise the diversity of human gifts and human vocations and human callings.