Monday, December 30, 2013

Infallibility and Income

We had a discussion the week before last about how to understand what the pope is saying.  The problem is that it seems everyone from President Obama on up (cf. the inverted pyramid structure for JBM and JBL; the real leader is on the bottom, not the top) hears precisely whatever he or she wants desperately to hear, whether for good or for ill.

Take, for example, the concept of “infallibility.”  A lot of Catholics have almost as much trouble with this as non-Catholics.  It’s not an easy thing to understand if you approach it from the wrong assumptions.

For example, you have to keep in mind that “infallibility” means that Catholics believe the pope has the power to discern truth infallibly in matters regarding faith and morals. This does not extend to how he may express it, or (more usually) how others understand it.  It doesn’t necessarily mean what you want it to mean, what you think it means, or what you need it to mean to support your position.

Infallibility doesn’t mean that something is true because the pope says so; rather, the pope says something because it is true. Then he has the fun of trying to make it clear to the rest of us, especially Catholics. This can be difficult, because all of us, the pope included, are fallible human beings, and do not see things clearly as human beings this side of heaven. As Saint Paul reminded us,

“We see now through a glass in a dark manner: but then face to face. Now I know in part: but then I shall know even as I am known. And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.”

Now, some pope or other said something to the effect that trying to wriggle out of something in an encyclical because it wasn’t declared ex cathedra as “officially infallible” is a mistake because what is taught in the encyclicals has already been taught as infallible in many cases.  There are, of course, prudential applications of infallible principles in the encyclicals as well, which is what confuses a lot of people.  They tend to assume that everything is infallible, or nothing.

For example, the infallible teaching of the Church with respect to the means of making a living and “doing something” about the growing wealth gap is very general: every child, woman, and man has an equal right of access to the means of gaining an adequate and secure income.

This does not mean that everyone has a right to an adequate and secure income, however — yet that is the way it has been interpreted by many people.  Frankly, the income may not exist for people to receive!  How, then, could anyone have a right to something that doesn’t even exist?  They can’t.

This is where the wisdom of the popes comes in — and the oversimplifications many people force on what they say:

1) If the opportunity exists, everyone has an equal right to engage in productive activity, whether through labor or capital ownership.  As Saint Paul said, “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”  (That, by the way, is a very good summary of Say’s Law of Markets.)

2) If the opportunity exists, but an individual is not able to take advantage of the opportunity for some valid reason, others should, in charity, give him what he needs.  If the need is “extreme,” this becomes due in justice, and the State may make an additional tax levy to redistribute a measure of wealth until the extreme need passes.  (In social justice, of course, people have the additional duty of organizing to reform the social order so that the cause of the extreme need no longer exists.)

2a) The State should carry out the redistribution on a temporary basis, and only as long as the emergency lasts.  Individuals who take what they need directly from the surplus of others do not incur moral guilt, but they must be punished under human law because simply taking what you need sets a bad example and undermines the social order.

3) If opportunity does not exist, the State must redistribute enough wealth to keep people alive as an expedient, while people organize and work to create opportunity.  If people acting on their own, individually and in free association with others, are unable to create opportunity, the State may step in and assist as an expedient.

3a) State action does not mean artificial job creation, but the removal of artificial barriers that prevent or inhibit productive activity.  Except as an expedient in an emergency, the State must not impose desired results, but create and maintain the environment within which people can meet their own needs through their own efforts.  As Leo XIII explained,

“Man’s needs do not die out, but forever recur; although satisfied today, they demand fresh supplies for tomorrow. Nature accordingly must have given to man a source that is stable and remaining always with him, from which he might look to draw continual supplies. And this stable condition of things he finds solely in the earth and its fruits. There is no need to bring in the State. Man precedes the State, and possesses, prior to the formation of any State, the right of providing for the substance of his body.” (Rerum Novarum, § 7.)

As you can see, this is extremely nuanced, with a great deal of prudential applications mixed in with the infallible principle.  This is why almost every pope since Leo XIII has carefully instructed people to interpret what is in the encyclicals in light of Thomist philosophy.  Trying to interpret the encyclicals through the filter of any other philosophy necessarily twists and distorts matters — which is what G. K. Chesterton warned about in Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox” (1933), his short biographical sketch of Aquinas:

“Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense. Each started with a paradox; a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view. That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson, to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there. The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind.” (G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”. New York: Image Books, 1956, 145-146.)

This is also what Fulton J. Sheen warned against in his first book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925) — to which Chesterton wrote the introduction.

These are not easy concepts, but the simplifiers do no one, least of all themselves, any favors.   This is one reason why the interfaith Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) has republished Fulton Sheen’s Freedom Under God in an annotated, Just Third Way Edition that makes these points, and expanded on them in a new foreword and annotation to explain things to today’s readers.


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