Putting Catholic Social Teaching in Historical Context

Modern Catholic Social Teaching: The Popes Confront the Industrial Age 1740-1958

By: Prof. Joe Holland

Paulist Press


ISBN: 0-8091-4225-2

stmichielskerk.jpgSint Michielskerk, Leuven, Belgium.
Photo by Carolien Ulyssis.

Having the honor to attend the Catholic University of Leuven in Leuven, Belgium, I recall passing in front of the great baroque church of Sint Michielskerk. Established in 1666, it faces Naamsestraat at the point I would turn to go to Maria Theresa College, the home of the theology faculty.

One particular day, a classmate noted that during the French Revolution, the church was closed, and converted into a dance hall. This was a surprise for me since I considered that the revolution did not go much out of France, nor did have a significant effect on the Church outside of Paris.

Checking on the historical accuracy of my classmate’s statement, I discovered that in 1794, French Republican soldiers defeated an Austrian army at Fleurus (today in Belgium) and occupied the city. By 1795, St. Michielskerk was seized, and converted into a Temple of Reason, and was used for public events. It remained in this secular state until 1803. By that time, the French Revolution had consumed its own leader, Robespierre, Napoleon Bonaparte had risen to power, the Concordat of 1801 settled the controversy between France and the Catholic Church, and much of the repression that had existed in areas occupied by French Republican forces returned to their prorevolutionary status.

As I reflect back on my theological studies, a historical myth was taught, and it went like this. In response to the Reformation and the emergence of new, progressive thoughts, the Catholic Church held the Council of Trent, and tried to respond to changes that were taking place Europe. As time passed, religious, political and ideological lines were drawn, institutions became entrenched and the Catholic Church settled into a fortress mentality. It closed itself off to the progress and the innovations taking place. It did this to maintain its control, and therefore failed to introduce the benefits of progress and the age of reason to its believers.

Then through the grace of the Holy Spirit a new pope, John XXIII called an ecumenical council, and declared an aggiornamento. These openings allowed the benefits of progress to move the Church into the future. The problem with this myth is that it is not true, and it does not take into consideration the real persecution, losses and threats that the Church endured during the last four centuries.

During these four hundred years, priests and religious were persecuted and killed, church property was expropriated, monasteries and convents were suppressed, and the religious expelled. If leaders of the Church seemed to be paranoid, reactive and threatened by the purveyors of new ideas, it was not because of paranoia, but because of real experiences of suffering and loss.

Prof. Joe Holland has made a great contribution in assisting Catholics to understand what was happening when popes addressed encyclicals to the social problems that were affecting the Church and society. Modern Catholic Social Teaching does not begin in 1891, when Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum. Rather, Prof. Holland begins with the tensions and activities that were shaping the world and the Church in the decades that preceded the French Revolution.

Prof. Holland believes that to understand the context of Catholic Social Teaching, one must understand the social, intellectual and economic changes that were affecting Europe. The Catholic Social Teaching became the Church’s response to the challenges it faced, and its effort to maintain its mission of bringing men and women to Christ.

Prof. Holland also demonstrates that not all Catholic Social Teaching is found in ecclesial documents that address social issues. Rather, he surveys and briefly summarizes the majority of the documents that popes issued from 1740 until 1958. (Prof. Holland’s second volume will cover the period from 1958 through Pope John Paul II.) The only document that I found that he did not cover was Exsul Familia of Pope Pius XII. This document is often referred to as the magna charta of the Church’s teaching on immigrants, refugees and the people on the move.

I would like to say that the myth of the Paranoid Church is something that I left in Leuven. However, one still finds it in many publications, and among scholars who should know better. In the February 7, 2005 issue of America Magazine, an article appeared entitled Secrets Behind the Forbidden Books. The author introduces us to Fr. Hubert Wolf of Germany, and his fascinating project of studying the records on the reasons that books appeared or failed to appear on the Index of Forbidden Books.

The author notes that Fr. Wolf and his researchers are pouring “. . . over Vatican files to show how the Roman Catholic church tried – and failed – to control knowledge for over four centuries.” This point is true, but by its standing alone one gets the impression of a paranoid, threatened Church. However, one is not paranoid when they really are out to get you.