As we saw in the previous posting in this series, “modernism” is a form of religious positivism that developed in tandem with the legal positivism that infected American civil society in the latter half of the 19th century. Modernism and positivism are rooted in a rejection of the traditional understanding of the natural law based on human nature and discerned by reason.
Both modernism and legal positivism replace reason with a transformed “natural law” based on private interpretation of something someone accepts as the will of the strongest, whether God, the State, Der Volk — whatever. This shifts the discernment of basic principles of right and wrong from reason, to faith. Keep in mind, of course, that “faith” does not necessarily mean religious faith.
This was the environment within which Monsignor John A. Ryan developed his novel theories of distributive and social justice that distorted the determination of what constitutes a just distribution. He also abolished commutative justice, “exchange,” which relates to delivery of what has been determined to be just.
Ryan replaced “exchange” with “gift,” that is, with the determination of a just distribution on the basis of need, not equality or proportionality of inputs to production. He then put the actual delivery of what is “just” under distributive justice instead of commutative justice. This turned distributive justice into “distributive pseudo charity” to be enforced with the coercive power of the State. It also eliminated the whole concept of commutative justice and the sacredness of contracts.
Oddly, where Ryan himself admitted the influence of the agrarian socialist Henry George, his followers today assure us confidently that,
“Although Ryan, as a young man growing up amid agrarian ferment in rural Minnesota, was, if we are to give credence to Eric Goldman, “electrified” by George’s masterpiece, Progress and Poverty, his mature evaluation of George reveals no trace of this early enthusiasm. (Robert V. Andelson, “Monsignor John A. Ryan’s Critique of Henry George.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 1974 33 (3): 273-286.)
This does not appear to be an accurate assessment. Examining Ryan’s pivotal work, Distributive Justice (John A. Ryan, Distributive Justice. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1916), we come to a different conclusion. Ryan did not so much repudiate georgist thought as transform and extend it. He developed George’s proposed “single tax” imposed as a 100% levy by the State on all profits from land in a way that expanded it to encompass all forms of capital, land and non-land (chattels).
Ryan did this by improvising history, promulgating new definitions of fundamental concepts and terms, and reinterpreting accepted explanations and sources. Discarding Aristotelian-Thomism (while continuing to pay it lip service), Ryan changed the meaning of distributive justice, ignored commutative justice, and termed this transformation “social justice.”
Ryan thereby changed what it means for something to be a natural right — especially with respect to private property. This violated the principle of contradiction/identity, the basis of both divine and human reason: the means by which the natural law (right and wrong) can be discerned.
This was a fatal error. To make matters worse, Ryan claimed Rerum Novarum as his authority for his innovations — innovations that required and justified a vast expansion of State power explicitly repudiated in the document itself (Rerum Novarum, § 7). Nevertheless, Ryan waved the encyclical like a banner, or wielded it like a club, depending on the occasion and whichever seemed more effective or appropriate under the circumstances. As Goldman related,
“Ryan proceeded to apply the Rerum Novarum in a way scarcely distinguishable from the Reform Darwinists of Protestants and Jews. . . . After Ryan had been hurling the Rerum Novarum at his enemies for years, a reform-minded rabbi achieve a masterpiece of superfluity by saying to the priest: ‘You have a very great advantage over men in my position. . . . You can hang your “radical” utterances on a papal encyclical.’”
“‘Yes,’ I suppose there is something to that,’ said Father Ryan, smiling.” (Goldman, Rendezvous with Destiny, op. cit., 86.)
The problem is that Rerum Novarum does not say what Ryan claimed it did. Discarding the Thomist analysis, he interpreted the encyclical in light of changes in law and economics based on theories directly at odds with the natural law philosophy from which the Catholic Church, as well as Judaism and Islam, derive their social teaching — and on which the United States was founded.
Neither is the proper framework for interpretation the legal positivism or modernism of “the Reform Darwinists of Protestants and Jews.” These had become infected with secular ideas based on false concepts of social science and human nature, and which, in large measure, are responsible for the social and financial chaos we see in the world today. Pius XI would later describe this synthesis as “a theory of human society peculiar to itself and irreconcilable with true Christianity.” (Quadragesimo Anno, § 120.)
Not surprisingly, these are also the errors Pius X denounced in Lamentabili Sane, the “Syllabus Condemning the Errors of the Modernists.” Some of the more obvious of the censured propositions found in Ryan’s work are:
63. The Church shows that she is incapable of effectively maintaining evangelical ethics since she obstinately clings to immutable doctrines which cannot be reconciled with modern progress.
64. Scientific progress demands that the concepts of Christian doctrine concerning God, creation, revelation, the Person of the Incarnate Word, and Redemption be re-adjusted.
65. Modern Catholicism can be reconciled with true science only if it is transformed into a non-dogmatic Christianity; that is to say, into a broad and liberal Protestantism.
By disconnecting his theories from the Aristotelian-Thomist concept of the natural law based on nature and discerned by reason, to one based on faith — or, rather, on personal opinion, the will — Ryan removed absolutes from the social sciences. This makes sense after a fashion. This is because opinion — unlike knowledge — cannot be an absolute. Since the social sciences are based on human nature, and human nature in Ryan’s framework is not based on anything absolute, only the opinions of the strongest or the craftiest have any validity — might makes right.
Contrary to Ryan’s assertions, Leo XIII did not base the wage contract on distributive justice, or justify State control of business — just the opposite, in fact. Pius XI did address the duties of individual employers and the payment of wages under the “permanently valid” wage contract in Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, but he put the matter squarely under commutative justice. Leo XIII addressed the duties of the State, not the employer, when the propertyless condition is widespread — and the duties of the State come under distributive justice.
Ryan, however, seems to have concluded (erroneously, as it turns out) that the distributions mentioned in Rerum Novarum permitted under distributive justice in cases of extreme need applied not only to the State, but to individual employers governed by commutative justice in their relations with their non-owning employees (Quadragesimo Anno, § 110) for delivery of a wage determined to be just under distributive justice.
Ryan thereby removed payment (delivery; fulfillment of the contract) of wages from commutative justice, where Catholic social teaching and common sense put them, and which is primarily the concern of the contracting parties. The State only comes into the picture when one of the parties fails or refuses to fulfill the agreed-upon terms.
Ryan decided that both the determination and payment of wages come under distributive justice — and thus directly under the State in all cases — and that “distributive justice” and “social justice” were equivalent terms. This not only greatly expanded the power of the State, it also redefined wages as well as commutative justice and distributive justice. This violated the principle of contradiction/identity, and substituted “gift” (distribution on the basis of need) for “exchange” (contractual relations under commutative justice).