by Anthony Esolen
The good and wise Pope Leo XIII never condemned an error without commending a truth. In this series on Catholic Social Teaching, then, I believe I should follow the Holy Father’s example. It’s easy to inveigh against what Leo condemns; more rewarding, though, to reveal the beauty of what he commends. In this essay, then, prescinding from his affirmation, in Aeterni patris (1879), of the principle that grace perfects our nature, his defense of Christian marriage in Arcanum divinae(1880), and his condemnation of a radically secular state in Humanum genus (1884), I’d like to take a few small steps toward recovering what it means even to have a society, let alone a Catholic one. To this end, behold the famous painting by Jean-Francois Millet, The Angelus.
It well deserves to be loved. A man and woman, farm-folk hoeing potatoes, pause in their hard work to pray. The noonday sky casts a glow about them. On the earth we see the potatoes, some of them spilling out of a burlap sack. There’s a wheelbarrow nearby, with a few full sacks on it. The man has doffed his wide-brimmed hat—wide-brimmed, for work in the sun—and holds it against his breast. The woman folds her hands in prayer. They bow their heads. Just visible upon the far horizon is the spire of a church. The title, The Angelus, brings all the motifs together. It is the moment of Emmanuel: and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
What would the secular mind understand about this scene? A man and woman are praying. Well, that’s their business. They’re poor. They should be given public assistance. Not much else, I’m afraid. Let’s take the motifs one by one.
First, it is a man and a woman. They are married; the painter doesn’t need to spell this out. They are Adam and Eve. They are made for one another, as God had ordained from the beginning, and therefore, says the Lord, alluding to that original society before the Fall, a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.
To believe that this man and this woman should, to gratify their desires, put themselves asunder, is to make nonsense of the painting and of the nature and the grace that Millet has portrayed. They are with and for one another, reflecting the abiding and never-swerving love of God for man. God does not renege on His promises; Mary does not regret saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord,” and Jesus, our Emmanuel, abides with us until the end of time, most intimately in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
The man and woman belong together, as Millet has shown in the form of their bodies. The husband is wiry, with broad angular shoulders. The wife is about as tall as he is, with wide hips. They are poor—it’s no gold coins they pry up from the furrows. They wear the peasant’s wooden shoes, shoes that would rub your feet into a bloody mass of blisters, were it not for calluses years in the making and a half inch thick. But they are not destitute. The woman’s body suggests fruitfulness, the blessings of children to come.
Then there is the work. “You shall earn your bread by the sweat of your brow,” says the Lord to Adam after the original sin. But the Catholic Church has never held that work is merely a curse. Ora et labora, say the sons of Benedict: work and pray. All work may be ennobled by love; and it is a powerful prayer when performed for the glory of God. We affirm the converse too: unless it is done in love, work is mere toil and grows inhuman. If done to obscure the glory of God, it is demonic. Since man is a social being, his prayer and his work are also social. The man and the woman are united by both the prayer and the work, and it is indeed hard to distinguish them. The painting shows a pause in one kind of prayer for another kind of prayer, in one kind of work for another kind of work. Yet the overwhelming impression we gain from it is not of hurry or strain, but of peace.
The Lord is present in this tilling the field and this song of praise. There’s no artificial severance of the things of man from the things of God. Religion is not for Sunday; it is for every minute of our lives, and every fiber in our bodies male and female, and every inch of the fields we work. “If the Lord does not build the house,” says the Psalmist, “they labor in vain that build it.” We may apply that maxim to any society whatsoever. Unless the Lord has built the house, there is no proper house for man to dwell in. There’s no such thing, strictly speaking, as secular humanism: only secular inhumanism, man’s organization of his world against God and therefore against himself. There’s no such thing as a secular society; only a secular collective, or grab-bag, or metastatic tumor, for if human beings are not united from above, they cannot be truly united at all. Without God, man strives for his portion of finite things; and the deadly sins of pride, envy, avarice, and spiritual sloth ensure that we are never content with the heaps of nothings we have.
Finally, that steeple. The man and woman are praying because they hear the Angelus bells tolling from far away. This is no secret handshake, no skulking in a back room, no relegation of prayer and praise to a cordoned-off ecclesial space, barely tolerated by the “real” world of secularists, hedonists, and assorted idolaters of power and wealth and celebrity. The bell rings out over the village and the plains.
Why is that so important for the civil order? Pope Leo always asserts an analogy between the relationship of reason to faith and the relationship of the civil to the sacred. It’s not a relationship between equals. Faith without reason may be feeble, or may be a holy child; but reason without faith can never be a child. Reason without faith is truncated at best, and grows deformed and monstrous at worst, animated by the pride and passion of man. Without the arrow of faith, says Leo, liberty degenerates into license; and the civil order loses those benefits conferred by Christianity, benefits secured by “fortitude, self-control, constancy, and the evenness of a peaceful mind, together with many high virtues and noble deeds” (Arcanum divinae). Indeed, the pagans themselves were not secular in our sense, “for in their heart and soul the notion of a divinity and the need of public religion were so firmly fixed that they would have thought it easier to have a city without foundations than a city without God” (Humanum genus). I lay special stress upon these words. The Pope does not say that a city wherein faith is no part of civic life will be a bad city. He says it will be no city at all. It will be a simulacrum of a city, a conglomeration of human activity without foundation and without aim.
All these are still insufficient to build up a Catholic social order. They are, however, necessary. Catholic Social Teaching affirms the holiness of marriage and its being grounded in our created nature. It affirms the holiness of our labor, not to amass luxury, but to secure those modest provisions that make for contentment upon earth, that we may worship God with a free heart, endow our children, and give generously to those in need. It affirms even more than this. The earth in Millet’s painting is fertile; and man, working the earth, brings it the more intimately and blessedly into the plan of God. So too the man and woman, in their fertility, cooperate in bringing into being a new child, whose end is to enjoy God’s very life.
Catholic Social Teaching affirms the social, not the conglomerate, the mass, the collective, the anthill, the Brownian motion of molecules in a jar. Leo’s logic, if we accept his premises, is inexorable. If man is made by God and for God, and if man by nature is a social creature, then his social life too is made by God, for God; it too must be open to, even oriented toward, the divine. What we see on the horizon is not the towering glass of a money-making powerhouse, nor its cousin, the bold ramparts of a secular state, but a steeple—so frail a needle of faith and hope and love, against the ugly colossi of Babel.
There must be more, for a society to come into being. What that is, I will discuss in the next essay.
The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.
By Anthony Esolen
Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ironies of Faith (ISI Press, 2007); and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010). Professor Esolen is the translator of Dante.