May 13, 2016
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
Individual initiative had been at work on the social issues for more than fifteen years. Bishops, priests, and lay people had expressed their opinions. On May 15, 1891, they found Leo XIII at the helm. The encyclical, Rerum Novarum [“On the Condition of Workers”] appeared. It described the widespread [social] malaise. It asserted that, to remedy the problem, justice must work together with charity.
It formulated the Church's social dogma which it summarized in three great themes: (1) the right to own property and its limitations; (2) the relationships between capital and labor; and (3) the shocking injustice of the new forms of usury.
Let us review these points. The right to own property and its limitations. Private and personal property is a natural right of humankind. The right to live and to provide for the sustenance of one's family is the basis of the right to private property. It is because you have the right to live that your property must be respected. It is because others have that same right that you owe them your surplus.
The relationships between capital and labor. The immediate result of labor must be sustenance for the worker. The enrichment of the capitalist is in addition to that, if it is possible at all. Labor must provide the worker with the wherewithal to sustain his life in the broadest meaning of the words. The working conditions must not entail unjust obstacles to the legitimate development of his physical life, his domestic life, or his moral and religious life, because every person has the right to the fullness of those three dimensions of development.
Cumulative justice prohibits usury in contracts, that is, profit which is not justified and whose only foundation is in deceit or oppression of the weak. The old forms of usury are met again, with new gravity, in modern agiotage and in the present system of credit. [Editor’s note: agiotage is the practice of making speculation a business, that is, to buy and sell with no purpose other than to seek a quick or considerable profit.]
If those principles of social life had been respected, the malaise would not exist. Leo XIII goes on to tell us the general principle behind the solutions to be effected, and the very nature of those solutions.
True Christianity, the Gospel fully understood and fully implemented, is the solution to the social malaise. But by that Leo XIII does not mean the conservative Catholics who see no means of salvation other than two personal virtues: the Christian beneficence of the master and the Christian resignation of the worker. Of course, the encyclical proclaims the efficacy of charity and resignation; but it gives priority to the achievement of justice.
From the beginning of the encyclical, Leo XIII notes the intolerable evils from which workers are suffering. He does not represent them as inevitable forms of suffering, but as social and personal injustices. He does not ask Catholics to mitigate those injustices through charity; he demands that they be suppressed.
The encyclical is not a simple invitation to charity; it establishes and delineates the basic outlines of a statement of workers' rights, grounded in Christian principles. If it says in its conclusion that the social solution will come from a greater outpouring of charity, the entire context indicates that it is referring to charity in the broad sense which begins with the achievement of justice. It was thus that Our Lord summed up the second tablet of the Decalogue with this precept: You shall love your neighbor.
Christian Social Renewal, 7th Lecture: “The Democratic Program”
Lived and Shared: contemporary expressions of Dehonian spirituality
The social problem that filled the life of Fr. Dehon was the problem of the workers. Even in his time the suffering and the poverty that had to be relieved had a thousand faces: the homeless, the unemployed, the alcoholics, the prostitutes, the orphans, the sick. But the number one social question, of which the failure to solve was the thing which made the major part of society of his time a “rotten society,” was the problem of the workers.
The emerging character of the problem of the workers was ratified in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Fr. Dehon was the precursor, the apostle, and the sustainer of this encyclical and of many others—all in close harmony with the spirituality of the Heart of Jesus and with the work of the foundation of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
This is the reason why he said that devotion to the Sacred Heart was not just a simple devotion of piety, but a general renewal of Christianity and of all social life, in the light of evangelical truth and charity. This is why he worked contemporaneously for the renewal of the Church, especially of the clergy, of pastoral and of ecclesiastical studies.
This is the origin of his cry, “Priests, go to the people!” He did not ask for clerical works but that the clergy go out to the people, supporting its organizations, its press, its justifications, and its struggles; organizing co-operatives and autonomous savings banks; and taking the wisdom of Christian social thought and the gentle strength of the Gospel to the workers’ movement.
Today, the Dehonians must do the same thing. They must recognize in their studies, and tackle with pastoral experiments, the “number one” social question of the present time: justice, peace, and the safeguarding of creation, which together form one single, enormous social problem.
They must enter into the third world, and into the pacifist and ecological movements with an apostolic soul of evangelization, truth, and applied charity. They must be apostles of the great, recent social encyclicals. They must elaborate and enrich, not just acknowledge Christian social thought on these problems.
They must prefer, support, and accompany the laity that is committed to these movements and they must participate in their organizations, their meetings, and their struggles. They can even initiate and support some meaningful social works if necessary, but only while paying attention to the global scale of the social problem today: act locally, think globally. They must assist the needy without making them charity dependent, support those who work in the social field without being paternalistic, and encourage instead the responsibility and the rightful autonomy of the laity.
Excerpt from “Dehonian Communities and Social Commitment,”
Dehoniana XXIV [1995/1]
Reflection Questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth
What do you sense is the number one social question of the present time?
In his encyclical, Leo XIII does not ask Catholics to soften social and personal injustices, but demands that Catholics suppress them. In what one, particular way can you work to suppress a social or personal injustice?
What difference does it make in your spiritual practice to say that justice must work together with charity?
Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve
May 15 is the anniversary of the 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum
, by Pope Leo XIII. In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayer all those who work for social justice throughout the world. You may find helpful the following Oblation Prayer
adapted from the Prayer Book of the Priests of the Sacred Heart
God, our Father,
in the early days of the covenant
you spoke to Moses in the burning bush.
You told him that you would be with your people
as a liberator and a savior.
You raised up prophets who denounced injustice
and who called people to cease doing evil
and learn to do good.
At the appointed time,
Jesus, your Son,
came to bring good news to the poor.
He called upon his followers
to set their hearts on heavenly treasure
and to live for others here on earth.
God, in this time of the Church,
we offer you our lives.
We ask you to make us available
to live in solidarity with your people,
to promote justice,
and to be a sign in the heart of the world
that your love abides in Christ.
Each week reflections and prayers based in the Dehonian charism are published on the Dehonian Spirituality page of the U.S. Province website of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. This is an email version of that update.
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