Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fulton J. Sheen on Natural and Supernatural, Capitalism and Socialism


A lot of people remember that the late Fulton Sheen had a “thing” about socialism.  He was agin’ it.  He didn’t like the way that the communist form of socialism tried to abolish God.  He also didn’t like the way that socialists played fast and loose with the truth, accusing others of the very thing of which they were guilty.  Not that he was all that enthusiastic about capitalism, however.

More than anything else, though, Sheen seemed to be irritated at the way socialism abolished the natural law in the classic sense, and thus the whole concept of inalienable rights, and then attempt to make up for the abolition by trying to force the supernatural law to take up the slack.  Thus, people got faith in the State instead of reason, and fake charity (often called “distributive justice”) instead of justice.

This was anathema to the man who wrote God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925).  As we’ve mentioned more than once on this blog, faith fulfills and enlightens reason, just as charity fulfills and enlightens justice; each has a special role to play, and you can't have one without the other.

It is true, as Aquinas pointed out, that many people accept things on faith that are based on reason.  That, however, is because they don't have the time or sometimes the inclination to reason things out.

The problem with the socialists is that they try to make faith do the job of reason, and charity the job of justice, where the capitalists try to get rid of or (probably more fairly) minimize the role of faith and charity. This is why, in my opinion, the Church condemns socialism, but "only" harshly criticizes capitalism.

The real danger, of course, is that the socialists and some ethical capitalists diminish or abolish the sovereignty of the individual and alienate inalienable rights by shifting from the intellect to the will, that is, from reason to faith in areas where it is not warranted.  Capitalists tend to respect the sovereignty of the individual, but without reference to God, which leads to distortions in the natural law without the supernatural law to guide it.

So, to oversimplify a bit, socialism tries to replace justice and reason with charity and faith, respectively, while capitalism tries to limit or eliminate charity and faith in purely worldly or material matters. Neither socialism nor capitalism can work, because, while the natural virtues and the supernatural virtues have discrete roles to fill, neither one can do without the other — yet, at the same time, we must be very, very careful not to confuse or combine them.

As Sheen explained the proper order of things, however,

"St. Thomas [Aquinas] said: 'Grace is the perfection of nature.' [Summa, Ia, q. 1, a. 8.] By nature we are made creatures of God; by Grace we become the sons of God. It is odd that a world that talks much of “emergent evolution” refuses to accept true evolution when it implies surpassing the human. For the supernatural is not an incongruous superstructure built upon reason, like a hut built on a tree, nor is it an accidental aid, like a magnifying glass to the eye and a loud-speaker to the ear; it is an enrichment, through the love of God, of the personal relationship which already exists, even in the natural order, between man and God.

"Man cannot bring about this ennoblement of his character; he can merely receive it as a gift; he has only a passive potency for it — as a dry stick has a potency for burning which a wet stick lacks. And although God desires that every man shall respond to this gift of self-transcendence, He nevertheless leaves each free to reject His infusion of love — for gifts cease to be gifts if they are forced on us. God respects man’s freedom of will; He did not even enter into this human order of ours without consulting a woman. So, neither, does He elevate us to partake of His Divine Nature without our free consent."  (Fulton J. Sheen, Lift Up Your Heart. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co, Inc., 1950, 196.)

Now, it’s important to understand that (at least as far as Sheen was concerned) humanity’s natural rights (e.g., life, liberty, and property) are not, strictly speaking, a “gift,” except insofar as existence itself is a “gift.”  Life, liberty, and property are ours by our very nature, built into us at the moment of creation.  It is the supernatural rights that help us develop the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity that are the gift.

This is not, however, what we hear from many people today.  Socialists (whether or not they call themselves that) insist that we only have such rights as God gives us (Christian socialism), or that the State gives us (other forms of socialism).  The so-called “logic of gift” attempts to force the natural law into the mold of the supernatural law, and then force the supernatural law to replace the natural law.

The capitalist error, while not as egregious, is similar in its effects.  By kicking God out of the equation, it makes humanity the be-all and end-all of everything.  Material wellbeing is the only thing that matters, and then only for the strongest.

Trying to combine socialism and capitalism, as in the modern Welfare State, doesn’t do anything more than create a non-sustainable and badly functioning hybrid that falls of its own dead weight as soon as the productive people are tired of supporting the non-productive.

The only viable alternative to either capitalism or socialism is the Just Third Way, applied in CESJ’s Capital Homesteading proposal.

#30#

2 comments:

Gwee Doe said...

Michael ... Wouldn't you admit that a capitalist-Based society can be run by Christians and thereby not have the inherent weaknesses you described, while this is never the case with Socialism? This is why socialism in all its forms has been condemned by the Church ... Right?

Michael D. Greaney said...

Capitalist-based societies HAVE been run by Christians, and have failed miserably because the inherent weaknesses are, well, inherent in the system itself.

As for why the Catholic Church condemns socialism and "only" criticizes capitalism, it's all a question of power.

The meaning and purpose of temporal life as far as the Catholic Church is concerned is the acquisition and development of virtue, and this requires the exercise of natural rights within the framework of a justly structured social order. Exercise of rights requires power, and (as Daniel Webster pointed out) "Power naturally and necessarily follows property." This is why property, although "lower" than life and liberty is key to both, for it is the chief means of maintaining life and liberty.

Socialism by abolishing private property (as well as private life and private liberty by asserting — contrary to reason — that the collective has inherent rights but actual people do not) destroys the means whereby people are supposed to acquire and develop virtue, and so prepare themselves for heaven. Obviously, since the Church desires everyone to go to heaven, socialism must be condemned for it takes away the ordinary means of getting there, and is therefore "objectively evil."

Capitalism does not abolish private property (or private life or private liberty), but it does make it virtually impossible for anyone without ownership of capital to exercise the natural rights of life and liberty except under the control of others. The concentrated ownership of capital that characterizes capitalism is thus not objectively evil, and so is not condemned, but the fact of concentration of ownership makes it unacceptable.