In The “Dumb Ox” (1933), G. K. Chesterton commented that the great conflict between Aquinas and Siger of Brabant concerned a dispute over “a theory which most modern newspaper readers would instantly have declared to be the same as the theory of St. Thomas [Aquinas].” (G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”. New York: Image Books, 1956, 92.)
Ironically, this is the reason — in my opinion — why we are not going to see Chesterton canonized any time soon. Not only the whole of what we can call the Chestertonian Establishment — the Professional Chestertonians, neo-distributists, et al. — but virtually the whole of modern society accepts as necessarily true an assumption that is the direct antithesis of what is actually the case — but which they insist is the same.
Only in this way can they maintain the illusion that they are “faithful Catholics,” even as they go directly contrary to virtually everything both the Church and Chesterton say, to say nothing of common sense. Nor is this fantasy limited to members of the Chestertonian Establishment or Christians. It is endemic in modern society.
The current presumed conflict between “Church” and “State,” for example, is based solidly on this fallacy, as are Keynesian economics and socialism. Chesterton called it “the assassination of Thomism.” (Ibid., 93.) Aquinas called it “intellectual self-annihilation.” (Post Analy., Lib I, lect. 20.) Fulton J. Sheen translated Aquinas’s comment as “mental suicide.” (God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy. New York: IVE Press, 2009, 197.) Pope Pius XII identified this error as “a false opinion” “threatening to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine.” (Humani Generis, 1950.) This error has inserted a fatal flaw into many people’s understanding of the natural law.
The error is this: the fixed belief that humanity receives rights as a grant separate and distinct from the creation or existence of humanity itself. The titanic struggle in the world today is therefore whether these rights are a grant from the State, or from God.
Ultimately, this becomes a question as to which is supreme and sovereign. Is it God as understood and presented by a particular group of believers? Or is it the State that governs a particular group of citizens, who may or may not be believers?
If rights come from the State, then, obviously, the State has the ultimate power to decide what rights people have, and how they are to be exercised. The State decides whether people live or die, and how they do either.
If rights come from God, then (just as obviously) organized religion or an individual’s personal interpretation of what God has commanded determines what rights people have, and how they are to be exercised. As many, possibly even most Catholics understand this, the Catholic Church in its “Magisterium” (the body of authoritative teachings of the Church) presents how rights are to be defined, and how they are to be exercised.
This theory is completely wrong, whether one takes the side of religion or of the State.
By focusing on whether rights are a grant from the State, or a grant from God, disputants have unconsciously answered — and answered incorrectly — the one overriding question that must necessarily be settled before the debates in which they are endlessly engaged can even take place. By not first settling this question, all the people concerned with the question have absolutely guaranteed that the issue can never be resolved.
What is this question?
Whether rights are a grant at all, and the vesting of them in humanity distinct from the act of creation, regardless whether they come from God or the State, and even what is meant by “grant.”
Until we first settle the issue as to whether rights are even a grant, as that term is generally understood, and somehow separate from creation, the whole discussion whether rights come from God or the State is a complete waste of time.
It is akin to the endless discussions between theists and anti-theists as to whether God or gods exist when the disputants have not bothered to settle the question as to whether God or gods can exist. Both sides argue endlessly and pointlessly that God does/does not exist because He does/does not exist. (This is a “circular argument” wherein the disputant assumes as a given what he or she is claiming to prove.)
Here is where the first problem comes in. Adherents of the Just Third Way, as well as Aristotle, Aquinas, Chesterton, Sheen, and all the popes since Peter (vide 2 Peter 1:3-7) have agreed that rights — along with everything else — come from God or whatever term you wish to use to indicate a Creator. In a very qualified sense, yes, rights are a “grant” from God. Everything is. No believer in any religion, even one with only a personal conviction that some kind of God or Creator exists, can logically or honestly deny or contradict that statement.
The issue here boils down to what we mean by “grant.” As understood by most believers today, the theory that rights are granted by God usually means one of two things. One, God created humanity, and then vested humanity with a set of rights. Thomas Jefferson’s phrase from the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” is almost always understood this way. The exercise of rights, even the definition thereof, can change if we believe that God somehow changed His mind, or it becomes expedient to do so.
Two, God created humanity, but made the human race subject to a select group of rulers or to the State itself. Rights are a grant from God to these rulers or to the State, which then grant such rights to the people as are found expedient for the ordering of society. In either case, as most believers understand it, only God gave humanity rights, and therefore only God, not the State in any form, can take rights away. Of course, since what a right is and how it is to be exercised depends on what someone thinks God has said, this does not really mean all that much to people who do not accept a particular religious revelation.
As understood by most non-believers, the theory that rights are a grant usually means one of two things. One, humanity had all rights and the absolute exercise thereof before agreeing to enter society. By agreeing to enter society, humanity surrendered all rights to the State, which then makes grants back of such rights as it finds expedient for the ordering of society.
Two, humanity had all rights and the absolute exercise thereof before agreeing to enter society. By agreeing to enter society, humanity surrendered some rights in order to gain security for others, and limitation of the remaining rights to ensure a well-ordered society.
As we shall see in the next posting in this series, both the believers and the non-believers are wrong in this instance.