Thursday, December 17, 2015

The American Chesterton, V: Socialism as Social Justice


In the previous posting in this series we saw that, just as modern theology and philosophy separate religion from God, socialism and capitalism separate creation from the Creator.  This results in putting man before God.

Platonists find Aristotle revolting.
We’ve seen this reversal of the proper order before in our discussion.  This was in the Platonist revolt against Aristotle and in the development of a new concept of religion.  Chesterton, Knox, and Sheen all noted how the shift from the Intellect to the Will as the basis of the natural law turns things around, putting man, either individually or in the collective, instead of God, at the center of things.

The shift from God to man in modern philosophy and theology is key to understanding why Chesterton and Knox became “Roman” Catholic.  It also explains why Sheen insisted on restoring common sense and a focus on God, not man, to religion — to say nothing of his presumed obsession with socialism as antithetical to true religion. (Cf. “[N]o one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.” Quadragesimo Anno, § 120.)

Brownson: socialism deifies humanity and degrades people.
All three — Chesterton, Knox, and Sheen — saw dis- or non-union with the pope and dissent from the Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of the Catholic Magisterium as being centered on man instead of God to one degree or another.  This is a theme that runs through the works of all three, and is the hallmark of socialism and modernism, both of which (as Brownson noted in regards to socialism) turn “the people” into saints . . . at least in their own minds.

The focus on man instead of God helps us understand not only why the trio opposed socialism so strongly, but also the source of much of today’s confusion among neo-Chestertonians and neo-distributists.  The key is found in the fact that before converting to Catholicism, Chesterton and Knox were “High Church,” also described as “Anglo-Catholic.”


This terminology requires a little explanation, especially for non-Christians — who (we hope) realize that this series is about what happened to common sense, and is not a “religious” tract, per se.  The difference between Anglicanism and Catholicism is, however, critical to our being able to understand just what happened, and how.  To Christians (and then only those who care about such things), the qualification Anglo-Catholic is a distinction that only makes sense if you accept something called “Branch Theory.” 

Branch Theory is the idea that “the Catholic Church” has three legitimate branches, the Roman, the Eastern (Orthodox), and the Anglican.  The fact that the Church headed by the pope and the autocephalous Orthodox churches — two thirds of the presumed Catholic Church — both reject Branch Theory does not appear to affect its acceptance among those describing themselves as Anglo-Catholics.

Henry VIII gave himself a divorce.
Nor is acceptance of Branch Theory universal even in the Anglican Church.  The Anglican Church is divided into “High” and “Low” parties, depending on how closely one presumably adheres to the beliefs and outward practices of Latin Rite Catholicism.

Many people thereby conclude that the split between Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism is purely political.  Thus, whether one is Anglo Catholic or Roman Catholic depends only on whether one accepts the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury (or whoever controls the Archbishop of Canterbury, such as the parliament, king, or queen of England), or that of the pope, respectively.

The fact is, however, that the Church of England split from the Catholic Church (let’s jettison Branch Theory equivocations) as a result of putting man before God.  The simple fact is that the man Henry VIII Tudor wanted a divorce, and he established his own church to give him one.  This, by the way, demonstrates the wisdom (even if unintended) of America’s Founders, who rejected the establishment of any religion as a branch of government.  An established church automatically shifts the emphasis from God to man, turning the social tool of the State into the Hobbesian “Mortall God.”

Newman: from Oxford to Rome
Thus, the Church of England (as opposed to the Church in England) has been man-centered from its beginning.  It retained among its High Church adherents many of the outward forms and even doctrines of the Universal Church, but the understanding and interpretation of them was twisted into more or less convenient and expedient shapes.  The Oxford Movement did not so much establish a continuity with the original church introduced into England as create what in some respects was a parody of it.

That the High Church party of the Church of England retained or adopted the outward forms but lost the substance of Catholicism was something that both Chesterton and Knox finally realized — and that the failure to retain that substance meant that the Anglican Church was ultimately headed for disaster.  Before their conversions both men commented on how modernism and New Age thought were corrupting Anglican doctrine.  This was in large measure what led them to enter the unqualified Catholic Church.

For some, the Conference of Lambeth in 1930 was the beginning of the end, but Knox and Chesterton (and possibly John Henry Newman and Robert Hugh Benson before them) saw the implications much earlier — and imparted their concern to Sheen.  This explains an otherwise obscure statement made by Benson in a letter he wrote in 1907.  As he said,

Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson
“There’s no doubt a great sense of disaster coming in England.  It is all rather vague and indefinable; but it seems to me that evil is coming closer and closer — I don’t mean to me, that would be hysteria — but to other people; it’s in the air.  It’s like a coming thunderstorm.  Well, I’m thankful I’m safe indoors.”  (Quoted in C.C. Martindale, Life of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, Volume II.  London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1917, 218-219.)

At the beginning of World War I, while still an Anglican, Knox also sensed a great disaster.  This, however, was not the war itself, although that, of course, was a grave concern.  Instead, as Evelyn Waugh related,

“He [Knox] did not at recognize — who did? — the monstrous physical catastrophe that impended, but while his countrymen were singing and waving flags, he stood back aghast at the gross dislocation in the moral order, which kept him on his knees, alone, six hours a day for the last three weeks of the month [August 1914].”  (Waugh, Ronald Knox.  London: Cassell Publishers Limited, 1988, 131.)

Msgr. Ronald Knox
Both Benson and Knox realized that the socialist version of social justice was not only man-centered, but inseparable from Anglo-Catholicism.  Both seemed to assume that this would eventually lead to subsuming whatever was God-directed, to whatever people with enough power found expedient or useful, such as giving in to artificial contraception, or abandoning the pretense of Christianity altogether.  It is not a coincidence that in Benson’s novel Lord of the World the socialist Oliver Brand takes the lead in establishing the worship of Man, using ceremonies that parody those of Catholic Church, as did (in Benson's opinion) those of the Church of England.

The source of the problem — at least, that aspect of the problem with which Chesterton, Knox, and Benson dealt — was the Tractarian or Oxford Movement itself.  The original idea was to demonstrate the historical continuity of the Church of England with the institution established by Augustine early in the sixth century at Canterbury.

As this seemed to be an attempt to make the Anglican Church more “Romish” or “Papist,” leaders of the Established Church and the government viewed it with deep suspicion.  Anglo-Catholic clergy were denied appointments and promotions.  In consequence, they turned to social work in the inner cities among the new industrial proletariat in respectful imitation of the charitable work of the Medieval religious orders.

Fabian wolf in sheep's clothing.
Unfortunately, while the effort was laudable and did a great deal of good, it came out of a man-centered tradition, that of the Church of England.  This tended to tie the High Church party or Anglo-Catholicism in with the socialist movement, especially the humanitarian and presumably pacifist Fabian socialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Since large-scale charity was vaguely termed “social justice” — a view later corrected by Pius XI with his completed social doctrine and the act of social justice — socialism and social justice became near-equivalent terms in Anglo-Catholicism.

Chesterton and Knox, both of which briefly were socialists, recognized this, as well as the seemingly inevitable slide of “Christian socialism” into modernism and New Age thought and, ultimately, the abandonment of traditional Christianity altogether in the formation of a new Religion of Man.  Knox being Sheen’s mentor, the consequences of the disastrous combination of the rejection of reason that characterizes socialism and modernism, and the spiritual pabulum of New Age thought, became integral to Sheen’s thought as well.

#30#

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