Popes & Protests

Leo XIII, Pius XI, and Nietzsche

A Cocktail for Conflict

November 15, 2016

+St. Albert the Great+


I have noticed with concern the violent protests, which erupted over President-Elect Trumps victory over Hillary Rodman Clinton. I had clung to the hope that these outbursts would not have occurred. Rumors of martial law and speculation of widespread upheaval were nothing more than conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, these predictions were valid. How is it that I am not surprised even though saddened? The answer lies in studying Church History and Modern Philosophy.

Studying Church history in general, and modern history in particular, gives me a context from which to judge events. Studying Philosophy in general and modern philosophy in particular gives me a framework to understand the ideas that are underneath the events. Church history implies a theological undercurrent, which is quite helpful as well. Because before considering history, one must turn to anthropology and define what is man.

All historians have a lens from which to see the world; there is no such thing as “I just want the facts”. Is man Imago Dei or a random product of impersonal forces? Does history have a story or is it in response to random influences? I answer that Man is a rational animal with an immortal soul. The history I study is a response to this primordial question. Church history combines the events of history with the Church’s response to it. Church history is matter and form, an embodied consideration. The same Creator who fashioned man drives history. I therefore think looking briefly at the writings of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI along with Fredric Nietzsche will help us understand why we have violent riots. St. Therese’ of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, will show us the solution.

Leo XIII wrote his encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. He understood the fears Karl Marx was exploiting as a result of the Industrial and French Revolutions. Pope Leo showed another way of addressing the plight of the worker against hostile forces in a manner befitting humanity. Part of his encyclical was addressed to the threat of societies who plotted ill for society. §2 “It is no easy matter to define the relative rights and mutual duties of the rich and of the poor, of capital and of labor. And the danger lies in this, that crafty agitators are intent on making use of these differences of opinion to pervert men’s judgments and to stir up the people to revolt”. Pope Leo warns of crafty agitators intent on making people revolt.

Who might some of these crafty agitators be? In paragraph §3 “The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men”. He concludes with the definition of an oligarchy. These oligarchs “that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”[1]

We see at the beginning of the post industrial revolution the makings of an oligarchy. Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, published in 1931 being even more clear about oligarchs. Pius XI warns of the few who rule the masses. Consider paragraphs 105-106 105. “In the first place, it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure.”

  1. 106. “This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will”.[2]

            Does this not describe our current times with exorbitant national debt, personal debt, student loans, credit cards, car leases, payday loans, etc…? This is a will to power, that flows from a nihilistic philosophy, most notably proposed by Fredric Nietzsche in the late 1800’s. Nietzsche picks up where Marx leaves off in his philosophical considerations. Marx, who was atheistic, paid lip service to bettering the lot of common man. No philosophy has caused more bloodshed than Marxism in the 20th century especially for the common man, but Marxism sounds better to our ears today because of its veneer of concern for the downtrodden.

Nietzsche was more honest. He does not pretend his secular rationalism is anything more than a grab for power by the most powerful, the Ubermensch. Nietzsche appealed to the masses because he said “things like they are”. His writings were in the back pockets of soldiers in WWI. The soldiers would read snips of his philosophy while holed up in bloody trenches. Nietzsche’s boldness was intoxicating.

Nietzsche considered religion a product of the many weak people to put a bridle on the few who were powerful. Religion dampened the fun of the powerful and as such it is a ‘slave morality’. This slave morality prohibits the few from really enjoying themselves.[3]

Oligarchs have consumed these ideas and see the use of violent revolt as part of the equation for keeping their power. It makes no difference what happens to societies so long as the power remains in these few individuals’ hands. Moreover, reason does not factor into their considerations. This is perhaps the hardest part for men of good will to grasp.

Alasdair McIntyre in his book[4] clearly makes the point that for Nietzsche vitalism, his life force, is from struggle and not from reason. If one uses reason to advance a point of view, one shows an allegiance to Socrates. For Nietzsche, following Socrates, is a sign of weakness. This is yet another problem in addressing the violent protestors. Reason has been discounted for weak minds.

What to do? Church history gives us the clue. Therese’ of Lisieux was born in the same time period as Leo XIII and Fredric Nietzsche. During the course of her suffering she experienced the anguish of the atheist. She chose to believe in a good God in spite of the ravages of tuberculosis. Popes Leo & Pius along with Therese’ state that it is the practice of the virtues, both theological and moral, which is the solution to the conflicts suffered by man. The virtues are the path to man’s and society’s happiness.

John Paul II at the elevation of Therese’ to a Doctor of the Church highlighted three aspects of her spirituality. Therese’ grasped the 1. hidden wealth of the Gospel 2. with a deep resonance of life and 3. wisdom which belongs in a particular way to the feminine genius. Therese’ had a life of integrity. Therese’ life put the love of God first in her life. At the end of her short painful life of 24 years, would say these simple words at her death, “My God, I love You!” Therese’ offers our society a livable alternative. Therese’ has been an inspiration and help to millions of people since her death. Her life gives an alternative to our world beset with the philosophy of secular modernism. Therese’ has her origin and telos in God. As such it is not a fairy tale, but fundamentally a deeply healthy and happy life.

                  [1] http://w2.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum.html


                  [2] https://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19310515_quadragesimo-anno.html


            [3] Fredric Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morality (1887) (I.2,4,10)

                  [4] Alasdair MacIntrye, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990) 41-42.