Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Three Key Books on Common Sense, VII: The American Regression

Yesterday we noted that, under pressure from the presumably unavoidable slavery of past savings, distributism regressed from the ideas of Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and progressed into a weird combination of georgist socialism and theosophy known as Fabian socialism.

Rev. Edward McGlynn
Nor did the Americans lag behind.   The difference was that, where the attack in England came from outside the Catholic Church, the attack in the United States came very much from within — and was thus far more effective and devastating.

It happened in 1906, after a long and arduous struggle, beginning in 1886 with Father Edward McGlynn’s championing of the theories of agrarian socialist Henry George.  It is important to note, georgist legend to the contrary, McGlynn later repudiated georgism in full (“Parish for M’Glynn: He Recants and Will Soon Be Completely Forgiven,” Meriden Daily Republican, Meriden, Connecticut, Wednesday, December 19, 1894, 3).

It was in that year that Msgr. John A. Ryan succeeded in diverting Catholic social teaching from its reason-based natural law foundation with his doctoral thesis, A Living Wage.

Ryan’s theories shifted the justification of natural rights, especially private property, from objective knowledge, to subjective opinion, or from reason/intellect, to faith/will.  As he explained,

Natural rights are necessary means of right and reasonable living.  They are essential to the welfare of a human being, a person.  They exist and are sacred and inviolable because the welfare of the person exists — as a fact of the ideal order — and is a sacred and inviolable thing. (John A. Ryan, A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspects. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, Publishers, 1906, 48.)

Msgr. John A. Ryan
Do you see the “one twist to the mind,” the sacrifice of “a sane point of view,” as Chesterton put it?  It is rather serious, as Ryan’s entire argument rests on this premise, and falls completely apart once it is refuted.  It is this:

The key to Ryan’s theories is the belief that “Natural rights. . . . exist and are sacred and inviolable because the welfare of the person exists.”

ON THE CONTRARY!  Natural rights exist and are sacred and inviolable because the human person exists, not because the welfare of the human person exists.  The fact of human existence is true and certain knowledge.  The welfare of the human person is a matter of subjective opinion.  Ryan thereby removed all certainty from the interpretation of Catholic social teaching, and made it into something where might makes right — the might being that of the State, which was thereby justified in seizing absolute power . . . to ensure the welfare of the human person, of course.

Ryan was completely wrong.  Natural rights need no justification other than human existence.  This is because human nature is a reflection of God’s Nature.  Love of God, and thus loving God by loving man, necessarily implies respect for human dignity — dignity being understood as recognition and protection of humanity’s natural rights, which can never be taken away.

Once a justification for natural rights other than mere existence is admitted, however, then natural, inalienable rights can be alienated if, in the opinion of those with power, the justification no longer exists.  God becomes irrelevant, and man (or the State as the collective in place of individual men) becomes, in effect, God.  God qua God is no longer a necessary Being; He becomes not-God — a contradiction, and the one impossibility for a Perfect Being.

Henry George
The problem was that Ryan's thought was influenced directly by the theories of agrarian socialist Henry George (as was Fabian socialism), and indirectly by theosophical thought.  In 1916, in Distributive Justice, a work he considered his magnum opus, Ryan attempted to distance himself from George, but this was rather equivocal.  Ryan repudiated George’s theory of title in land . . . but George himself considered the whole debate about title irrelevant!  More importantly — and what Ryan expanded to all forms of capital — was the presumed right of the State to tax based on the State’s alleged property in (common ownership of) everything — the abolition of private property.

This was "the single tax," the heart of George’s theories, although George excepted from common ownership anything made by unaided human labor alone . . . into which category nothing actually falls. . . . After all, can you find anything that was made with purely human inputs, i.e., out of absolutely nothing except human labor?  And what about livestock?  If we apply George's theory consistently, we cannot own a cow, a horse, or a dog because we did not create any cow, horse, or dog with our own labor.  The distributist mantra of "three acres and a cow" under georgism becomes "illegal possession of land and enslavement of another species."

Anyway, the theosophical influence on Ryan (possibly unconsciously so on Ryan’s part) came through Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, from whom Ryan derived his specific ideas of economic freedom and economic reform (John A. Ryan, Social Doctrine in Action: A Personal History.  New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941, 18, 25).  Donnelly was an ardent georgist and anti-Bryan (that's William Jennings Bryan) populist who advocated abolition of private land ownership and State ownership of railroads and major industries.

Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, Spiritist.
Donnelly, the author of inventive theories on many subjects (e.g., that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays) and a number of long-forgotten science fiction novels, was a former-Catholic-turned-spiritist.  He was a primary source for Madame Blavatsky’s concepts of Atlantis and the antediluvian world found in The Secret Doctrine.  Opposed to private land ownership, he made two fortunes in land speculation.

Matters would have stopped there, for georgism qua georgism was on the decline, but Ryan proved himself to be a master politician, both in academia and in society at large.  He also had a highly developed sense of self-preservation and was a skilled self-promoter.  He demonstrated this by his ability seemingly to repudiate his connection with the thought of Henry George, while at the same time expanding it far beyond anything envisioned by George.

Consequently, by the 1930s, Ryan was the unquestioned leader in the interpretation of Catholic social thought, ruling supreme from his position at the Catholic University of America.  The fact that Ryan’s theories were based on a theory of society utterly foreign to Christian truth was either ignored or dismissed.

Catholic Central Verein
Ryan proved himself adept at denigrating anyone who questioned his theories or asked for an explanation or resolution of what appeared to be contradictions.  Despite grave reservations about his thought, such as those expressed by the Central Bureau of the Catholic Central Verein of America in St. Louis, especially his support for the New Deal (which got him named “Monsignor New Deal” and “The Right Reverend New Dealer”), few dared to stand against him, particularly after Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, and Ryan immediately claimed that it validated everything he said . . . even though there is nothing in the encyclical to support his contention.

In view of this, and quite possibly in support of his friend Fulton J. Sheen, under constant attack from Ryan at the time (Sheen later referred to this period in his life in veiled terms as a "crucifixion"), in 1933 Chesterton took the bull — or, rather, the ox — by the horns, and wrote what he evidently hoped would start turning things back in a more sane direction: Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox”.


1 comment:

Jeanna Casey said...

I always appreciate your blog, it's better than most history books out there. J.A. Ryan really did a disservice to Catholic social teaching. Thank God for Ven. Fulton Sheen. :)