Last week we saw that, as a result of the application of bad ideas about natural law, virtue, and the role of the State, the whole concept of civil society has changed. People — human beings — are no longer considered sovereign, with inalienable rights that automatically define them as persons.
Instead, the State is considered sovereign, in and of itself. All rights, and thus recognition of the status of a human being as a “person,” are presumed to come from the State. The State, in effect, becomes a god.
That’s bad enough. What has happened to organized religion, even to the whole concept of religion, is even worse. Nor is this a recent development.
At least as early as Pope John XXII (Jacques Duèse, cir. 1244-1334) in the Bull Quia Vir Reprobus (“That Evil Man”) in 1329, the popes have dealt with the same issue, that is, a shift in the immediate source of natural rights from the human person, to something outside or apart from humanity. Renegade Franciscans, the Fraticelli, led by Michael of Cesena and William of Occam, insisted that everything humanity has comes directly from God; that all rights are contingent on God’s Will . . . meaning their personal interpretation of something they accepted on the basis of faith without reference to reason was God’s Will. The main attack, as it has been throughout history, was against private property.
As Chesterton carefully explained in his book, Saint Francis of Assisi (1923), however, “Il Poverello” — “The Little Poor Man” — abolished property for himself, not for others. It was a personal decision, what the Catholic Church calls “a counsel of perfection,” giving up something good to get something better.
As we might expect, however, “some Franciscans, invoking the authority of Francis on their side, went further than this and further I think than anybody else has ever gone. They proposed to abolish not only private property but property.” (G. K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi. London: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1943, 173.) They claimed that property (private or otherwise) was not, in fact, good at all, but something evil, although permitted as an expedient on account of man’s sinfulness.
As Chesterton explained the error of the Fraticelli,
“The truth is that this incident shows two things which are common enough in Catholic history, but very little understood by the journalistic history of industrial civilization. It shows that the Saints were sometimes great men when the Popes were small men. But it also shows that great men are sometimes wrong when small men are right. And it will be found, after all, very difficult for any candid and clear-headed outsider to deny that the Pope was right, when he insisted that the world was not made only for Franciscans.” (Ibid., 174.)
That, as Chesterton saw it, was the question. Was sound reason, or unsound faith, to triumph? Did God make the world for an elite, whether the poor (socialism) or the rich (capitalism) . . . or for everyone — some kind of just, third way? Just as in the 19th and 20th centuries when the rising tide of modernism and positivism threatened the foundation of the social order (and continues to do so today), the 13th and 14th centuries were a time of deadly peril for civilization:
“St. Francis was so great and original a man that he had something in him of what makes the founder of a religion. Many of his followers were more or less ready, in their hearts, to treat him as the founder of a religion. They were willing to let the Franciscan spirit escape from Christendom as the Christian spirit had escaped from Israel. They were willing to let it eclipse Christendom as the Christian spirit had eclipsed Israel. Francis, the fire that ran through the roads of Italy, was to be the beginning of a conflagration in which the old Christian civilization was to be consumed.” (Ibid., 175.)