Monday, October 21, 2013

"Distributive Justice"?, II: Saints as Models


In the first posting in this series I began a discussion regarding the canonization of G. K. Chesterton.  After someone brought the matter up, I investigated.  It turned out to have been something of an enthusiastic “over-sell.”  The world does not (yet) have a “Saint Gilbert Keith Chesterton of Beaconsfield” or anywhere else.  Further, from the evidence, a canonization will probably be after a very long wait, if it happens at all.

Don’t get me wrong.  From what I know about G. K. Chesterton, he sounds like a good candidate . . . for canonization, not sainthood.  (The task is to decide whether or not a candidate is already a saint.)  I have spotted some errors in his thought, but it is nothing substantive, just the misapplication of otherwise sound principles.  It is nothing to get excited about.

Unfortunately, therein lies the rub — and the reason (in my opinion) why we are not going to see a Saint Gilbert Keith Chesterton Parish or School, or even The Holy and Sacred Congregation of Distributists of the New Dispensation anytime soon.  The reason lies in why the Catholic Church (at least in part) canonizes people.

Two of the reasons that the Catholic Church holds up especially holy people is for “veneration” and “intercession.”  The idea is to show proper respect to people who have done great things, and to help support your requests to God.  After all, saints are supposed to be “special friends” of God, and He presumably will look more kindly on a petition if someone He favors speaks up for you.

One of the main reasons the Catholic Church canonizes people, however, is to promote their Christian lives as models for other Christians here on earth.  The Catholic Church offers such people for Catholics as role models in the faith.

“Wait a moment!” the non-Catholic Christian protests.  “Isn’t Jesus supposed to be the absolutely perfect model for Christians?  Doesn’t this denigrate Jesus somehow?

Good point — but, no.  Jesus is, of course, the perfect model, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” as they put it.  He is the principle, the basic rule personified, the actual embodiment of the natural law.  Our lives as Christians (assuming you’re Christian), however, in a sense are applications of this great principle; there is always a difference between a principle, and the application of a principle.  This is something a lot of people have trouble with these days.

This is similar to the difference between having a right, and exercising a right.  A right, for example (especially a natural right, i.e., one that is an inherent part of human nature) can be held absolutely by each person, just as Jesus is absolute perfection to Christians, and each human being as a human being has the full potential (“analogously complete capacity”) to become as perfect as Jesus.  Human beings are not perfect, but perfectible.

The exercise of a right, however, can never be absolute.  It is necessarily limited by the duty not to harm the right holder, other individuals, groups, or the common good as a whole, or exercised in a way that prevents or inhibits others from exercising their rights.  In short, the exercise of a right we have absolutely is necessarily limited by circumstances.

Just so with Jesus as the perfect — absolute — model for living a Christian life.  If the absolute of Jesus’s perfection were the only way to realize the Christian life, we would all have to be immaculately conceived by virgin mothers, have carpenters as foster fathers, wear bed sheets and sandals, and be crucified for crimes we didn’t commit.  Among other things.

Obviously this is silly.  Leading a Christian life could not possibly mean that we have to live precisely as Jesus did in First Century Judea down to the smallest detail.  That is why (in part) the Catholic Church offers somewhat more limited models for us to follow: people (“saints”) who have adapted the perfect principle of Jesus’s life to their particular circumstances in necessarily limited fashion, and have shown us how it can be done in our less-than-perfect lives as well.

#30#

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