We’ve decided that the reason Monsignor Ronald Knox, the third member of the Chesterton-Sheen-Knox Reason Triumvirate, has been pretty much brushed aside is that he was a trifle too . . . we’ll say “sarcastic” at times. “Unvarnished” or “uncomfortable” would be a better and probably more descriptive way of putting it, but whatever you call it, those intellectual zingers that Knox kept inserting into his writing seem to make people uneasy, and don’t give them anything to distort or twist all out of shape so they can misrepresent his thought.
This is not the case with Chesterton and the American Chesterton, or (if you prefer) Sheen and the English Sheen. Chesterton was witty, clever, and extraordinarily . . . “poetic” is the word that comes to mind, suggested by a Prominent Chestertonian. Sheen was witty, clever, and extraordinarily spiritual.
This allows people to slap the “mystic” label on Chesterton, allowing them to sidestep all the “difficult sayings” about common sense and reason. Given Chesterton’s views on what most people mean by the term “mysticism,” this is probably causing him to writhe in embarrassment, humiliation, and frustration in whatever area of the afterlife he inhabits.
Similarly, people focus on Sheen’s spirituality to the exclusion of his profound philosophical thought, meaning common sense and reason. We actually had someone react in a most unsheenly, er, unseemly fashion when we said something to the effect that CESJ, not being a Catholic or even a religious organization, is interested in Sheen for his social thought. White-lipped with rage, this devoted follower of Sheen informed us coldly that Sheen’s spirituality is the only thing that matters. Too bad Sheen didn’t agree.
Anyway, our point today is that excluding reason from the discussion and focusing on faith and charity, as Knox claimed “enthusiasts” do, pretty much destroys any hope of establishing and maintaining any form of justice, especially social justice. This is because “enthusiasm” as Knox defined it (an excess of charity that threatens unity) generally precludes the ability to organize and work to reform the institutions of the common good that is the hallmark and distinguishing characteristic of social justice.
This makes sense. If you’re continually excluding people from associating with you for reasons of insufficient faith, charity, hope, or anything else, and deeming them unworthy of rights, whether life, liberty, or property, you’re going to have one heck of a hard time organizing with those people to effect necessary systemic changes through acts of social justice.
As Knox pointed out, the problem with the “enthusiast” is that he or she thinks that only those deemed “godly” by those doing the judging (i.e., the “enthusiast”) have legal rights. Everyone else is dog food and must be cast into the outer darkness, preferably with wailing and gnashing of teeth.
In consequence, the whole of the natural law and the concept of inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property are abolished in favor of moral relativism, even nihilism, as Heinrich Rommen explained in his book on the natural law. This is, in fact, what every pope since Pius IX has identified as the single greatest danger to Catholic doctrine and common sense in the world, the replacement of objective reason with subjective faith in one’s self and one’s opinion, what Chesterton called “the inner light” or “the god within.”
Ironically, this is also what the Catholic Church warns against in its “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church”:
142. The natural law, which is the law of God, cannot be annulled by human sinfulness [Cf. Saint Augustine, Confessions, 2, 4, 9: PL 32, 678: “Furtum certe punit lex tua, Domine, et lex scripta in cordibus hominum, quam ne ipsa quidem delet iniquitas”.]. It lays the indispensable moral foundation for building the human community and for establishing the civil law that draws its consequences of a concrete and contingent nature from the principles of the natural law [Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1959.]. If the perception of the universality of the moral law is dimmed, people cannot build a true and lasting communion with others, because when a correspondence between truth and good is lacking, “whether culpably or not, our acts damage the communion of persons, to the detriment of each” [John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, 51: AAS 85 (1993), 1175.]. Only freedom rooted in a common nature, in fact, can make all men responsible and enable them to justify public morality. Those who proclaim themselves to be the sole measure of realities and of truth cannot live peacefully in society with their fellow men and cooperate with them [Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, 19-20: AAS 87 (1995), 421-424.].
The bottom line? How can you possibly organize in social justice if you “cannot live peacefully in society with [your] fellow men and cooperate with them,” or are always bending on principle or giving in to expedience?