Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Does Social Justice Lead Away from God?


A week or so ago we received a link to a review of An Anxious Age: The Post Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America (New York: Image Books, 2014), by Joseph Bottum, former editor of First Things magazine.  The review raised some questions about the general understanding of social justice in our society.

While the reviewer of the book is a Catholic priest, and the author the former editor of a Catholic magazine, this is not, despite the twist put on the situation by both of them, a religious issue.  It is something that relates to everyone, Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers.  As the contact who sent us the link commented,

“Do you agree with [the reviewer’s] comment tracing the abandonment of God by Protestants to their ‘quest for social justice’?  Don’t you think he needs to read Ferree’s and Pius XI’s views on the ultimately natural law basis of ‘social justice’, rather than the perverted anti-property, anti-market version of the term that describes social problems rather than guiding principles for solving social problems?”

With that for a lead-in, what could we say, but —

No, we do not agree that 1) (true) social justice could have any such result (just the opposite, in fact), 2) what we regard as false ideas about social justice are restricted to Protestants, or 3) even false ideas about social justice lead to “the abandonment of God.”

1) Social justice is a natural virtue known by reason, not a supernatural or theological virtue accepted by faith.  There is therefore no direct link between the practice of one's particular faith and a “quest” even for perverted ideas of social justice.

All that can be known by reason is that God exists and the general content of the natural law (i.e., good is to be done, evil avoided).  Who God is, and of what His, Her, or Its Will consists is a matter of faith to be accepted, not proved.  Given free will and humanity's character as moral beings, religious faith, as far as civil society and the common good are concerned, must be regarded as uncertain opinion, not certain knowledge.

That being the case, if we do the best we can with what we know by reason and accept by faith, even if we are mistaken about what we know, are later proven wrong, or we become convinced by faith that something else is true or a fuller or more complete expression of truth, we are not led away from God, but toward Him, as long as we honestly accept what we believe to be true by faith, and acknowledge that which has been proven by logical argument or empirical evidence (reason).  This is the first principle of reason and the foundation of faith.

2) False ideas about social justice are not restricted to Protestants, but are rampant among people of all faiths and philosophies, even those with none, but particularly among Catholics, not Protestants.  Protestants, as in many other things, are only following the lead of the Catholics.

In The Church and the Social Question (1984), the solidarist economist Dr. Franz H. Mueller, a student of Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., traced the corruption of Catholic social teaching to the distortions forced on the understanding of the natural law by Monsignor John A. Ryan, particularly the concepts of distributive justice and social justice.  We agree, if we limit the discussion specifically to Catholic social teaching.

Msgr. Ryan believed that Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical on capital and labor, changed the basis of the natural law from reason to faith, and made all natural rights (especially property) conditional upon human wants and needs balanced against the needs of society or the collective as a whole (vide John A. Ryan, A Living Wage. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, Publishers, 1906, 48).  This abolished the concept of inalienable rights that a human being has by the mere fact that he or she is a human being, and made personality, that is, the status of being a person, a prudential grant from the State, the community, or God.  (Cf. Scott v. Sandford, 1857, the Slaughterhouse Cases, 1873, Roe v. Wade, 1973, Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission, 2010.)

Making personality a grant from an outside agency rather than an inherent condition built into human nature by humanity’s Creator disconnected “the Spirit of America” from the framing principles expressed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, and, despite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, shifted sovereignty from natural human persons (“We, the People”) to the artificial person of the State.

3) Even the falsest or most perverted ideas about social justice do not and can not lead to abandoning God.  The only way that even the most perverted form or distortion of “social justice” could lead anyone to “abandon God” is if that individual had already abandoned God, that is, formalize a de facto abandonment.  Substituting the corporal works of mercy or State control of the economy for the spiritual works of mercy and the precepts of religion is either a misunderstanding caused by a personal (mis)interpretation of something accepted on faith as God's Will (a shift from reason to faith as the basis of the natural law), or an effect of already abandoning God, not a cause.

I agree that [the reviewer] should read Father Ferree’s analysis of Pius XI’s breakthrough in moral philosophy.  We did, in fact, leave him a copy of Father Ferree's pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice (1948) when we met with him a few years ago.  Whether he read it or agreed with it is another matter, and something over which we have no control.  We are unable to ask him, as he requested that we not communicate with him.

Whether or not he read the pamphlet, however, in our opinion [the reviewer] would not be open to these ideas.  Not only does his review of Joseph Bottom's book, An Anxious Age suggest this, a while back he gave an equally glowing review of Dr. John D. Mueller's book, Redeeming Economics (2010).  The thesis of John Mueller (not to be confused with Franz Mueller) was based on an acceptance of Msgr. Ryan’s distortions of distributive justice and social justice, and posited a fundamental change in economic activity from “exchange” (contract/freedom of association, commutative and distributive justice), to “gift” (distribution on the basis of need), replacing justice and private property with need/”charity” as the distributive principle.

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