Coming to the edge of permissible reality is an unnerving experience.

A recent college classroom conversation had a peculiar effect on me.

We were discussing Rerum Novarum, an 1891 papal encyclical published under Pope Leo XIII.  Generally, the essay is a prescient (from my perspective) statement against socialism.  That general theme received an encouragingly fair, even sympathetic, treatment by the class and the professor.  In the midst of the lesson, however, as I knew it would, the following quarter-paragraph emerged for special scrutiny, even though it’s a brief tangent in 64-paragraph work.  I provide the whole paragraph because the context is important to a reasonable reading:

… Finally, work which is quite suitable for a strong man cannot rightly be required from a woman or a child. And, in regard to children, great care should be taken not to place them in workshops and factories until their bodies and minds are sufficiently developed. For, just as very rough weather destroys the buds of spring, so does too early an experience of life’s hard toil blight the young promise of a child’s faculties, and render any true education impossible. Women, again, are not suited for certain occupations; a woman is by nature fitted for home-work, and it is that which is best adapted at once to preserve her modesty and to promote the good bringing up of children and the well-being of the family. …

In the field of nineteenth-century sexism, this is mild stuff, and one must stretch to make it representative of centuries of patriarchy.  The concern of paragraph 42 is fair and reasonable working conditions, with the compassionate insistence that this judgment must be individualized to reflect the circumstances of the actual worker.

The clause about women being “by nature fitted for home-work” is certainly dated, although we too easily forget that the dating involves lived experiences, not merely an evolving culture.  Sure, sweep away the revolutionary changes of electricity in the home and automobiles (which both post-dated Rerum Novarum) and Leo looks as if he’s holding to unreasonable sexism.  Return those considerations — and many more — to the calculation, and a different picture emerges.

Simply put, a great deal more labor was necessary to maintain a household back then, and mobility was much reduced.  That is, for “the well-being of the family” the need for somebody to focus on home-work was much greater, and the question of who should stay home is different from the assertion that women should do so… just because.  Even within that context, one might insist there was room for Leo’s view to evolve further, but a reasonable critique in one direction does not justify an unreasonable application of modern life to the judgment of the past.

Indeed, reviewing the social advances of the last century and a half, a suspicion creeps in.  The standard narrative is that social movements won their ground by beating back the rigid hands of greed and intolerance.  The more accurate story seems to be (although not in all cases) that historical circumstances permitted the changes, making them practical, and the movements merely accelerated their realization.  In some cases, one might argue the movements merely took credit for things that were about to happen anyway.

What affected me emotionally in the conversation wasn’t that this level of nuance is uncommon, but the impression that an utter lack of nuance is the common stance.  Even the first sentence quoted above came in for criticism: “work which is quite suitable for a strong man cannot rightly be required from a woman or a child.”  Take note that Leo specifies a strong man and that the assertion concerns what can be required, not what can be accepted.  I repeatedly had to check the text to confirm that those words were there, because they were entirely unacknowledged.

Coming to this point in an otherwise encouragingly fair presentation felt like coming to the edge of permissible reality.  The atmosphere veritably dared a retrograde participant to defend the notion that one can speak of such a thing as strong men.  I did (of course), and the professor recognized that sounds of some kind had come out of my mouth, but we quickly moved on to the next point.

Frequently, I’ll complain of the way in which the news media shapes people’s sense of reality by ignoring certain people or certain stories.  Others have made the point that progressives seek to control the language to make it impossible to think certain things, but I’d never before felt the significance of this prohibition so palpably.  The experience was as if the truth literally could not be spoken.  Words that I could see on the page were apparently not there for others, and when I offered testimony from my own time as a carpenter, it evaporated as if I’d never spoken.


Featured image by Engin Akyurt on Unsplash.

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