Catholic Social Teaching and Noblesse Oblige

I have a relative, let’s call her “Kimmy,” who recently moved to Texas to pursue a relationship with a man she met online.

Now don’t get ahead of me, this won’t be about online dating or cohabiting outside of marriage, and it’s not a horror story or anything. From all reports, he’s a nice guy and she’s happy. They may even get married and we’re all pleased about that, especially since Kimmy was widowed at an age more common to the 18th century than the 21st.

No, what I want to tell you about is this man’s occupation:

For an average charge of about $4,000
he will come to your home
and hang art on your walls.

Oh, and he doesn’t provide the art; he hangs the art you already own.

For $4,000.

From what I understand, he makes a very good living at it because, apparently, there are enough people who have art that requires $4,000 worth of hanging services that he does quite a brisk business. Again, I’m happy for him and Kimmy and they aren’t actually the area of society with which I’m concerned. His business is just a symptom of that area in which I perceive the society to be in conflict with Catholic Social teaching. Namely, that there are people who have a superabundance of money, valuable art, and no inclination whatsoever toward using one to ennoble society with the other.

“We have the right to private property but…‘in his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself’ (Gaudium et Spes).”

The phrase noblesse oblige (pardon my French) captures the sentiment of the Catholic Social teaching just cited: With nobility—in our day, wealth and power—comes obligation. Under this outlook, the honor of privilege entailed a responsibility to ‘overflow’ with nobility, that even the lowest members of society might feel themselves relieved, uplifted, dignified, and to some degree even ennobled.

One 15th century example of a person who understood the role of privilege and wealth in this way was Ludovico Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Though far from saintly in his personal life and less than ethical in his business dealings, he nonetheless put his wealth to work aiming to make Milan the most beautiful and ‘cultured’ city in Italy. He employed architects, engineers, and artists—not to build lavish private homes in which to display art for himself but, rather, to build up a monastery, the city cathedral, and lush public gardens.

Sforza put on grand public celebrations, invested in upgrading the public works and utilities, and contributed heavily to advancement in the universities. He did all this in large part because it simply wouldn’t have occurred to him to be privately wealthy. A noble’s greatness was measured by the quality of society under his influence, not merely its quantity.

“A nation’s economy exists for humans, not the other way around. Profit, power, or material goods cannot be the focus of human endeavor.”

Unfortunately, with our revolutionary overthrow of the monarchical nobility began a slow decline in any aspiration to or recognition of plutocratic nobility [i.e., the necessary nobility of the wealthy]. Instead, our liberalist [in the sense of individualism, not the ‘left’ of the political spectrum] attitude, which I lamented in my previous offering, eroded our sense of communal ennoblement as something to strive for and in its place installed “conspicuous consumerism,” personal and ego-driven “fame,” and “status” as the markers of success. As a result, we’ve lost sight of the

“Christian virtue of friendship or social charity that works to share both material and spiritual good with others, especially the poor” that we call “solidarity.”

At this point, the big question is: How can we apply Church teaching to this problem and bring about change in social attitudes?

Our reading for this week informs us clearly, “Legislation cannot establish brotherly love.” It is not through direct intervention in the political sphere, then, that Social Justice will be realized. We must look instead to the dignity and duties of our daily lives.

“We acknowledge that God is supreme over all creation. However, His plan is achieved through the cooperation of human beings who have been entrusted as stewards. (Gen. 1:26-28) God acts through human beings for the good of the life he has created.”
“We are all called to contribute. This is to be seen as a duty.”

To live these ideals, to live this faith in the midst of a society that recognizes no value that cannot commoditized is an enormous and daunting responsibility. It requires of us a commitment to the realization of an impossible task. But faith, as Scripture tells us, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1) – it is the possibility of the impossible, “for with God nothing will be impossible” (Lk. 1:37).

What is required of us is to act in faith, to act in hope, to act in love. If we would bring our society to its, necessarily human, communal sense, then we must heed the call to contribute and do the work of establishing brotherly love by living brotherly love.

Such work is not an effort in pursuit of some utopian delusion; it is a vision of the Kingdom of God. If there is any impossibility we should be working towards, this is it.

I would close with a liturgical reminder of this communal sense. In the Confiteor we take note of the inter-connectedness of society and of the debt we owe, not only to God but to each other…

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

Oh yeah, and I almost forgot to mention… Ludovico Sforza? While you might not have known his name, I’m sure you’re familiar with one of the artists under his patronage—Leonardo da Vinci. You might also have seen one of the works Sforza commissioned Leonardo to create:

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2 thoughts on “Catholic Social Teaching and Noblesse Oblige

  1. This was really excellent. What a great topic! I’d love to weigh in on it in depth, but for now, tomorrow’s blog post beckons. 😉 Hopefully I can return to it soon.

    Liked by 1 person

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