Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lord of the World, VI: Reformation and Transformation of Truth


In yesterday’s posting we looked at why Robert Hugh Benson, author of the science fiction satire Lord of the World recently mentioned by Pope Francis as recommended reading (so, have you gotten your copy yet?) seemed to have such a high opinion of rich Americans, yet held their upper class English counterparts at arm’s length.  Given Benson’s focus on vocation, that is, one’s calling in life, this appears to have been because the American “upper crust” had purpose, while that of England had no purpose except to have no purpose.

Ideological Colonization
The issue today is how and when such a thing happened.  Benson appeared to be convinced that the change had begun when England abandoned Catholicism during the Reformation, cut itself off from the Catholic culture of Europe, and crafted an idiosyncratic religion that brought out the worst in the English people.

Not to contradict Benson, but the social, political and, above all, economic forces that prepared the ground for the Reformation in England and elsewhere had been gathering strength long before the Reformation.  The Reformation could reasonably be said only to have accelerated a process that was already underway, aimed at the economic disenfranchisement of ordinary people.

R.H. Benson
Not being concerned with economics, nor very much with politics, Benson concentrated on the explicitly religious and social issues involved in the Reformation and the social and religious results of what he regarded as tantamount to a religious earthquake or tsunami.  This did not detract any from his main theme of vocation, although it sometimes resulted in a few misstatements concerning the correct application of the precepts of the natural law within the field of political economy . . . to which the typical reader of Benson’s novels would be more than justified in shrugging his or her shoulders and saying, “So what?”

In any event, whatever the goodwill or justification of the Reformers, Benson took as one of his themes the sea-change that had taken place when the basis of the social order shifted from the Catholic understanding, to the Protestant understanding.  Ironically, there is evidence that Benson himself accepted some of the precepts of the new order, particularly with respect to the transmission of political sovereignty, but not enough (fortunately) to affect his basic premise.

Will over Intellect
The most significant change, as previously stated on this blog a number of times, was a shift in basing the natural moral law on Will rather than Intellect, that is, on opinion rather than knowledge, or faith instead of reason illuminated and guided by faith.  In England as well as in other places, the Reformation was based on the theory that the State, not the Church, was supreme in matters of faith and morals, that is, in matters relating to the meaning of revelation and the interpretation and basis of the natural moral law.

The Hobbesian "Mortall God"
Consequently, what was regarded as “true” became subject to political expedience instead of what could be accepted on the basis of faith or discerned by reason illuminated and guided by faith.  If the State required that God, His Will, or even His Nature — truth itself — be redefined in order to meet some need or want of the ruling élite, then it must be so.  As John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), the economic architect of the modern global economy declared, the State has the power to “re-edit the dictionary” if required to meet the State’s needs. (John Maynard Keynes, A Treatise on Money, Volume I: The Pure Theory of Money. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1930, 4.)

This was, essentially, the basis of the totalitarian philosophy detailed by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan and other works, and which was eventually taken as the essential political philosophy of the modern Nation-State, as well as the economic and financial system.  The State is supreme in all things, by divine right, the will of “the people,” or some other authority, real or imagined — it doesn’t matter, as long as the State can justify its absolutism in some fashion.

Ironically, in light of Benson’s admiration of Americans and the belief (shared with G.K. Chesterton and Fulton Sheen) that the Catholic Church is the last institution opposing State absolutism, it was an American Catholic priest, Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869-1945), who almost single-handedly changed what truth itself means for many people.  Ryan advanced an overtly statist approach to the interpretation of Catholic social teaching as a new pseudo orthodoxy, overthrowing millennia of sound understanding of the natural law.

Ryan accomplished this feat in 1906 with the publication of his doctoral thesis, A Living Wage.  The key passage in the book is one in which Ryan asserted without a shred of proof that natural, inalienable rights are, in his view, unnatural and alienable if someone or something strong enough decides to take them.

Specifically, Ryan claimed that people have natural rights not because God built them into human nature as orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims have always believed, but that natural rights “exist and are sacred and inviolable because the welfare of the person exists.”  (John A. Ryan, A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects.  New York: Grosset and Dunlap, Publishers, 1906, 48.)

Let's be reasonable. . . .
You see the trick?  In traditional Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy, natural rights exist because the human person exists.  Period.  That’s a matter of fact, of objective and verifiable knowledge.  Either you’re a human being, or you’re not.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  If you’re a human being, you have rights because you are a human being, and for no other reason.

But that’s not what Ryan said!  Ryan declared that human beings only have rights if required by “the welfare of the person”!

Whoa.  That’s not natural law.  That’s totalitarianism.  It changes the justification for having rights from a matter of fact, to a matter of opinion.  That you exist is a matter of fact that can be determined by reason and empirical evidence.  Your welfare, however, is a matter of opinion.  Opinion is subject to the will of the strongest that has the power to decide such difficult matters for you; when the powerful want your opinion, they’ll give it to you — and woe betide those who step out of line.  In Ryan’s framework the State, the Hobbesian “Mortall God,” will decide what is best for your welfare, not you.

"We are not amused, Msgr. Ryan"
To Ryan, the absolute truth of the natural law was insufficient to justify rights and protect and maintain human dignity.  What mattered was whether natural rights such as life, liberty, and (especially) property, got the results he demanded: universal wellbeing on the State’s terms — a goal specifically repudiated by Pope Pius XI:

When we speak of the reform of institutions, the State comes chiefly to mind, not as if universal well-being were to be expected from its activity, but because things have come to such a pass through the evil of what we have termed “individualism” that, following upon the overthrow and near extinction of that rich social life which was once highly developed through associations of various kinds, there remain virtually only individuals and the State. This is to the great harm of the State itself; for, with a structure of social governance lost, and with the taking over of all the burdens which the wrecked associations once bore, the State has been overwhelmed and crushed by almost infinite tasks and duties. (Quadragesimo Anno, § 78.)

A pólis by any other name . . . would still be the tool called the State.
Of course, many people today take “State” in a much more narrow sense than the popes have clearly meant.  This allows them to espouse socialism with a clear (or, at least, convenient) conscience.  To block that avenue of escape, in the context of Catholic social teaching, “State” refers to “the pólis,” that is, any organized civil community of persons, whether village, town, city, province, nation, or empire — any aspect of that unique social tool charged with the care of the common good at the appropriate level.

Temptation, oh, temptation
Ryan’s seemingly unimportant shift in the justification for the natural law (and thus the foundation of the dignity of the human person) was one of those small errors that lead to rather gigantic errors in the end.  The Anglican apologist Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) might almost have had Ryan in mind when he had the demon Screwtape instruct his nephew, Assistant Tormentor Wormwood,

Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster.  On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything — even to social justice.  The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then to work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. . . . You see the little rift?  “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.”  That’s the game. (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters.)

It was a “game” that Ryan played with a high degree of skill.  It comes as no surprise that the solidarist economist Dr. Franz H. Mueller (1900-1994), a student of the great Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J. (1854-1926) described Ryan’s social and legislative program in terms that leave no doubt as to its fascist and socialist character.  (Franz H. Mueller, The Church and the Social Question. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1984, 94-136.)  The fact that Ryan went after Fulton Sheen in terms that can legitimately be described as tantamount to persecution (Fulton J. Sheen, Treasure in Clay: The Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen.  New York: Doubleday and Co., 1979, 45) suggests that Ryan was aware that Sheen had the intellect to see right through the phoniness of Ryan’s social philosophy, and that Ryan took steps to neutralize Sheen’s influence.

Use your reason. Resist ideological colonization.
Although it is highly unlikely that Benson read (or was even aware of) Ryan’s book (and vice versa), Lord of the World takes many of the things that Ryan took for granted to their reductio ad absurdum, e.g., an all-powerful State, a total focus on material wellbeing (a form of neo-pelagianism), and, most of all, a shift in the basis of what it means for something to be true from objective knowledge to subjective opinion.  Ryan, in fact, is the perfect example of what Pope Francis termed “ideological colonization.”  Ryan’s social program reads chillingly like a parody of Lord of the World.

There’s much more that could be said of Ryan, his thought, and his activities, of course, but this is a series about Robert Hugh Benson — and we’ll have a little more about him tomorrow.

Sources for Benson’s novels and related material:






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