Were any of us twenty-first-century Catholics to be transported back in time to an earlier era of ecclesiastical history, we would find much that would surprise and probably even perplex and trouble us about the Church. The further back in time we were carried, the greater the surprise would be. In her outward and visible features, in the concrete ways that her faith and practice are manifested at various times and places, there is indeed considerable change perceptible in the Church; nevertheless, the essentials are always what they were on the day of Pentecost. The many outward changes do not, and cannot, alter the essentials.
In the lifetimes of many Catholics today, however, an amount of change unusual in Church history was condensed into ten or so brief years, roughly 1965 to 1975, during which not only was the liturgy of the Latin Church altered beyond what anyone even as late as 1965 would have believed possible, but the daily lived experience of being a Catholic in like manner also changed. Along with the traditional form of the liturgy, rules for fasting, time-honored methods of calculating indulgences, and methods of catechesis all vanished in a few years. As a result, the pre-1965 Catholic subculture, in which, by and large, both clergy and laity were consciously oriented toward man ‘s supernatural end, toward avoidance of sin and attainment of virtue, and took seriously the Church ‘s teachings on faith and morals, changed into a subculture that no longer adhered with any strictness to Catholic faith and morals, that no longer regarded orthodoxy in doctrine or fidelity in morals as the sine qua non of the serious Catholic. But above and beyond all the individual instances of changed practice or changed emphasis, there was a more subtle but more important change in the overall orientation of the Catholic subculture: the communal Catholic way of perceiving the world in large measure disappeared. Although the Catholic subculture in the U.S. had long since made compromises with the dominant Protestant culture, the everyday lives of most Catholics prior to 1965 in great measure accorded with the following description given by Peter Berger in his book The Sacred Canopy: “The Catholic lives in a world in which the sacred is mediated to him through a variety of channels—the sacraments of the church, the intercession of the saints, the recurring eruption of the ‘supernatural’ in miracles—a vast continuity of being between the seen and the unseen.”
Of course, the teachings of the Church still support such an approach to life, and many Catholics in their own lives and with their own families work to keep it alive. But the actuality of life in the Catholic subculture in great measure ceased to do so after 1965. Up until that time, you could assume that almost any Catholic you met would share the same beliefs and the same orientation toward life as you did, even if he did not live up to the demands of the faith. By 1975, however, a Catholic might believe nearly anything—or nothing.
Of the mass of individual changes in Catholic life that occurred during this time, some were authorized by the highest authorities in the Church; some were not. Needless to say, not all of even the authorized changes were wise. But wise or not, they have created considerable confusion. Those who remember the pre-1965 era, and who do not have sufficient knowledge of theology and Church history to sort all this out, are apt to become confused and have difficulty making sense of what happened and of the state of the Church today. It is easy to embrace everything new or reject everything new. It is much harder to make distinctions between beneficial and harmful innovations, and even more so between new things and new names for old things.
One area in which such confusion has been created during these years is that of the Church’s social doctrine. There are many reasons for this, one being that the doctrine was not well-known or well received in some quarters even before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Another reason is that, as American society has become more politically polarized since the 1970s, in the minds of some Catholics anything that seems to call into question the fundamental justice of the American capitalist system is suspect. Take, for example, the term “social justice.” Pope Pius XI introduced this term into Catholic teaching in his encyclical Studiorum Ducem (1923). He later made extensive use of it in two landmark encyclicals, Quadragesimo Anno (1931) and Divini Redemptoris (1937). Subsequent popes have used it on a regular basis. But for some Catholics this term has the sound of an innovation, even a departure from Catholic doctrine. Of course, this is silly, for social justice is a legitimate development of the doctrine of the virtues dating back to Aristotle and is nowhere near being a new teaching. It is simply a new name given to a certain aspect of what was once known as “legal justice.” But for many who are not aware of the Aristotelian and Thomistic distinctions between the various forms of justice, “social justice” has a strange, foreign-sounding, socialist ring to it. Where did it come from, they might wonder? Unfortunately, there are too few around who can explain its origin or that it is simply a logical extension of age-old Catholic teaching on justice. Even among those who claim to champion social justice there are not many who could define it according to the mind of the Church.
Take another phrase, “preferential option for the poor.” Admittedly, this term does not have the pedigree of the earlier one, for it originated in 1968 and was coined by the superior general of the Society of Jesus, not by a pope. St. John Paul II, however, employed the phrase in his encyclical Centesimus Annus (1991), wherein he explained that the concept “is not limited to material poverty, since it is well-known that there are many other forms of poverty, especially in modem society—not only economic but cultural and spiritual poverty as well. The Church’s love for the poor, which is essential for her and a part of her constant tradition, impels her to give attention to a world in which poverty is threatening to assume massive proportions” (no. 57).
Does the phrase “preferential option for the poor” express something the Church has always held, or is it some kind of innovation? There can be no question but that it expresses, in new words to be sure, a practice that goes back to the Church of the New Testament: “Only that they would have us remember the poor, which very thing I was eager to do” (Gal. 2:10). Thus St. Paul recounts part of the charge given him by Ss. Peter and James and John when he met them in Jerusalem. Remembering the poor has been part of the Church ‘s charge then and now. In fact, it goes back years before Paul’s meeting with Peter, to when Jesus Himself made the duty of aiding the hungry and thirsty and naked and homeless the condition of our salvation, and neglect of that duty the cause of eternal damnation (Mt. 25:31-46). As a result, almsgiving has always been held in the highest esteem by the Church, so much so that Catholic countries have been characterized by a kind of indiscriminate almsgiving that has often scandalized Protestant nations, where striving after wealth is the cultural norm.
This is all well and good. I can hear someone object, but almsgiving is voluntary, and that means one can give when one wants and however much (or little) one wants. No one can compel others to give, especially not the government. Too often, say these critics, present-day crusaders for social justice and a preferential option for the poor want to compel such aid, which surely is an act of theft.
As in the case of social justice, we must gently tell such critics that they are mistaken. Although voluntary almsgiving will certainly always be a necessary part of a Christian ‘s duty, both the duty and the justice of state aid to the poor have deep roots in Catholic history and doctrine, and have been expressly taught at least since Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), and even more clearly by Pius XI and later popes. One of the reasons the state ‘s duty of aiding the poor was not set forth in the same manner in earlier times was that the notion of the state as something separate from the monarch’s personal household was not fully articulated. Christian kings and nobles always gave alms, and no one questioned whether the funds they used belonged to them personally or to the government or to the commonwealth as a whole, as there was no clear distinction between these. The notion that money raised by the king through taxation could not be used for the poor would have been seen as preposterous to our Catholic ancestors. Take the sainted King Louis IX of France, for example. Jean de Joinville, a contemporary and friend of St. Louis, wrote in his chronicle about the French king’s almsgiving:
From the time of his childhood, the king had pity on the poor and suffering; and the custom was that, wherever the king went, six score poor persons were always fed every day, in his house, with bread and wine, and meat or fish. In Lent and Advent the number of the poor was increased; and ofttimes it happened that the king served them, and set their food before them, and carved the meat before them, and gave them money with his own hand at their departing.
But, just as today, some complained about what they considered excessive care for the poor:
There were some of his familiars who murmured at his giving such large alms, and because he expended so much; and he would say: “I like better that the great and excessive expenditure which I incur should be incurred in alms giving for the love of God, than in pomp and splendour and for the vainglory of this world.
When changing political conditions gave rise to the notion that money raised by taxation was not the personal property of the ruler, the Church then gave clear sanction to state aid to the poor, a sanction that grew clearer and more explicit between Leo XIII and Pius XI, and clearer still between Pius and recent pontiffs.
Today one can find Catholics with a zeal for social justice and for the poor who ignore most of the rest of Catholic teaching on faith and morals; similarly, one can find Catholics with a zeal for correct doctrine and good personal morals who ignore the Church’s heritage of care for the poor and her zeal for justice. Both camps might learn from each other, for to be an authentic and orthodox Catholic absolutely requires adherence to all that the Church sets forth for us to believe and do. The Catholic who ignores or belittles social justice is as much a cafeteria Catholic as is he who ignores or belittles teachings on sexual morality. When, one wonders, will the majority of Catholics finally learn that we cannot pick and choose among the Church’s teachings, and that the political divisions of the world have no place in the household of God?
From the aftermath of the Council of Trent until the Second Vatican Council, despite all the vast political and social and technological upheavals in Western culture, in important respects the Church changed little, and this was especially true with regard to the liturgy. Then, in about ten years, everything went topsy-turvy. It is hardly a wonder that some Catholics would be thrown off-balance by this. But it is possible to keep our balance if we remember certain principles and apply them to our efforts to discern and understand what has happened. If we make an effort to penetrate beyond appearances, to see the difference between new words or terms and new concepts or teachings, then we will be able to judge more calmly and clearly what is really going on in the Church. New terms do not necessarily mean new ideas. The terms may or may not have been prudently introduced, but once introduced, we must not get overly alarmed if they are simply new ways of saying old things.