Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Enthusiasm, III: Demonizing the Angelic Doctor


One of the things that Pope Leo XIII stressed from the beginning of his pontificate was the importance of understanding Catholic teaching — all Catholic teaching — in light of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, “the Angelic Doctor.”  One of Leo’s earliest encyclicals, in fact, was Æterni Patris, “On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy” (1879) — which might as easily have been titled, “On Saint Thomas Aquinas.”

Leo XIII, addressing the evils of society.
Leo’s first encyclicals addressed the evils of the day, principally socialism.  In Æterni Patris, however, he gave his general solution: strict adherence to the philosophy of Aquinas.  Later, in Rerum Novarum, he applied the strict principles of Thomism to the “new things” of the modern world to present a specific solution: expanded capital ownership (vide Rerum Novarum, §§ 46-47).  As he said,

“Domestic and civil society even, which, as all see, is exposed to great danger from this plague of perverse opinions, would certainly enjoy a far more peaceful and secure existence if a more wholesome doctrine were taught in the universities and high schools — one more in conformity with the teaching of the Church, such as is contained in the works of Thomas Aquinas.” (Æterni Patris, § 28.)

Cooking the deep, fat friar's goose.
Why this emphasis on Aquinas?  Because the moral relativists and positivists feared no one more than they feared Aquinas, regarding him as more demonic than angelic.  It was therefore in their best interest to denigrate, reinterpret, or ignore the Aristotelian-Thomism that contained in it all that was necessary to refute them utterly.  As Leo reminded us,

“A last triumph was reserved for this incomparable man — namely, to compel the homage, praise, and admiration of even the very enemies of the Catholic name. For it has come to light that there were not lacking among the leaders of heretical sects some who openly declared that, if the teaching of Thomas Aquinas were only taken away, they could easily battle with all Catholic teachers, gain the victory, and abolish the Church.  A vain hope, indeed, but no vain testimony.”  (Æterni Patris, § 23.)

If anyone wants to understand Catholic social teaching, then, it is obvious that he or she must do so within the framework established by Aristotelian-Thomism.  Anything else is simply the application of positivism to create a sort of “living social constitution” out of Catholic teaching, transforming its substance from “reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves” to “documents of faith,” and jettisoning original intent.

Msgr. John A. Ryan
The problem was that a positivist, Monsignor John A. Ryan, was in a key position at the Catholic University of America, and he rejected Aristotelian-Thomism in favor of the philosophy of William of Occam, even as he paid the required lip service to Aquinas.  Ryan shifted the basis of the natural law from God’s Nature, self-realized in His Intellect, to his personal interpretation of God’s Will as expressed primarily in Rerum Novarum . . . as he forced a Thomist, reason-based document, into a non-Thomist, faith-based framework.

In this way Ryan was able to justify his expansion of Henry George’s agrarian socialism, but without calling it socialism, and an increase in State control without calling it fascism.  As the solidarist economist Franz Mueller, a student of Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., commented,

“Ryan relates that the first time he read Rerum Novarum he was most impressed by the passage in Section 28. [§ 36 in the current official Vatican edition] Actually this passage is a clear statement of the principle of subsidiarity, but at that time Ryan seems to have been fascinated by the pope’s acceptance of State intervention and overlooked the important qualifications made by Leo. . . . Ryan all through his life felt that what governments normally do, and what appears to be practically necessary, may be regarded as belonging to the proper functions of government — a rather pragmatic point of view.” (Franz H. Mueller, The Church and the Social Question.  Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1984, 96.)

John Duns Scotus, "the Subtle Doctor."
Superficially, Ryan seemed to have shifted from the philosophy of Aquinas as the framework for understanding Catholic social teaching, to that of John Duns Scotus, which agrees with Thomism on a number of points, particularly the existence of absolutes.  In reality, however, what Ryan did was to reject Aristotelian-Thomism and scholastic philosophy altogether.

Ryan used the positivism of William of Occam that distorted the philosophy of Duns Scotus to reinterpret Catholic social teaching.  In this way Ryan was able to eliminate absolutes, and shift from true justice to a false charity as the basis of the natural law, and then conflate the natural law of justice and the supernatural law of charity.

Ryan thereby thought he had circumvented the slavery of past savings.  This was not by going back and correcting the original error by including future savings as a way of financing new capital formation.  Instead, Ryan redefined basic terms such as liberty and private property, thereby compounding the original error.

Further, Ryan failed to realize that Leo XIII had “tightened up” the definitions of the individual virtues, especially justice and charity, while at the same time leaving an out by adding flexibility.  The individual virtues had been distorted and weakened by expanding or modifying their definitions to address the growing social problems under the vague label “social justice.”

No, Leo explained.  The individual virtues, being based on the moral absolutes of the natural law, cannot be changed, even for the best of reasons, although their application can and must be changed to meet modern conditions.  To resolve this seeming conflict that appeared to put being a good person in opposition to being a good member of society, the pope hinted that there was something beyond and in addition to the absolute and unchanging individual virtues.  There seemed to be a way to change the application of the individual virtues, making institutions (our social structures), for all practical purposes, infinitely flexible, not unyieldingly rigid as some people supposed.

George Mason: life, liberty, and private property.
Unfortunately, that was all Leo did.  He gave the principles and the solution . . . but not how to implement the solution.  What was needed was a way to undertake institutional and systemic changes in a way that respects individual rights absolutely, at the same time being flexible to meet the needs of the whole of society.

Thus, as Leo taught, the individual virtues, inextricably linked to humanity’s natural rights, must remain sacred and inviolable.  Life, liberty, and private property are rights for all, not just a few as in capitalism, or for the abstraction of the collective, as in socialism . . . but left it at that.

Leo’s goal was the establishment and maintenance of a social order established on justice fulfilled and completed by charity, not one in which charity replaces justice.  Since, as Daniel Webster noted, “power naturally and necessarily follows property,” and power is essential to establish and maintain justice, “The law, therefore, should favor ownership, and its policy should be to induce as many as possible of the people to become owners.” (Rerum Novarum, § 46.)

Not stating an effective means to achieve this goal, however, left the field wide open to anyone willing to change fundamental principles and adopt any expedient to gain his or her end.  Helped not a little by the abandonment of the philosophy of common sense, and its replacement with the philosophy of expedience and moral relativism, Ryan was ready, willing, and able to do this, as we have seen previously in this series (VII: The American Regression).

The effects, as we will see in the next posting in this series, were disastrous, not merely for the Catholic Church, but for the world.

#30#

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