Back in 1904, Robert Hugh Benson published his lengthiest novel, By What Authority?, a fictional account of England under Elizabeth I. It’s so long that one purchaser claimed he bought it but never read it, and so gave it a “one star” review on Amazon without knowing what the book was even about. It was just too big and cumbersome, according to him. (His loss.)
By the way, if you want to know something about the novel By What Authority? but you’re too weak to hold the book itself, you might find So Much Generosity, an “appreciation” of the fiction of Cardinals Wiseman and Newman, and of Monsignor Benson, useful as a sort of “Cliff Notes” version. It’s not been reviewed yet, but it is small enough to lift, so you can give it more than one star on Amazon.
To return to our subject, in the previous two postings in this brief series (which concludes today), we looked at how we cannot know God’s law by reason, we can only accept it on faith, and that we have not yet seen any evidence that the rich have, as claimed, gained their wealth dishonestly. Today we look at something that transcends even knowledge of God’s law and proof that the rich have broken it.
That is, even granting for the sake of the argument that we can, one, prove that what we’re demanding be enforced is God’s law, and, two, that we have hard evidence that “the rich” have, in each and every case gained their wealth dishonestly, what is our authority for either demanding that the rich be punished by the State as we prescribe, or for doing it ourselves?
We can get into a lot of trouble by asserting authority that we do not, in fact, have. The Christian God is, by all reports, a “jealous God.” He does not appear to take kindly to people usurping His role or authority: “Vengeance belongeth to me, and I will repay. And again: The Lord shall judge his people.” (Hebrews, 10:30)
A serious warning follows this claim to divine authority. When human beings, whether individually or through their institutions (such as the State) go beyond the bounds of the natural law on which human law is based, and try to enforce the supernatural or divine law, they effectively usurp God’s role. They thereby become subject to His judgment: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews, 10:31.)
The bottom line here is that, however frustrated or angry we might be at the unjust social structures and the results of their flawed functioning, we are never justified in taking God’s law into our own hands. The proper response in social justice is to organize and restructure the institutions of the social order so that they work for the benefit of all in equitable fashion, not to take revenge on those whom we have labeled criminals without any evidence or even rational basis for presuming that they have broken a law that we cannot prove even exists.
If people are in extreme need, the State is justified as an expedient in making a redistribution under its duty to care for the common good. The solution to need, however, is not redistribution, but in reforming our institutions so that people can become productive and meet their own needs through their own efforts. We must be very careful not to put ourselves in the place of God and demand a “justice” that we cannot prove even exists.
We like to keep in mind the closing scene of the film, Judgment at Nuremberg. The German judge, Ernst Janning (played by Burt Lancaster), was trying to justify what he had done in sending people to the gas chambers. Germany was in danger, the common good was threatened.
Janning’s excuse was, “You must believe me. We did not know it would come to this” (i.e., 12 million people slaughtered for crimes against the State with no evidence that any crime at all had been committed). The American judge, Dan Heywood (played by Spencer Tracy), ended the film:
“Herr Janning, it ‘came to this’ the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”
Without proof, everyone is innocent. We must prove that someone is guilty. We cannot simply assert it and claim God’s authority, or that of Der Volk, or the class struggle, or anything else, as our justification. That only makes us far worse than the people we are — falsely — accusing.