In the last few postings (with time out for Christmas, New Year’s, and the year-end news roundup), we’ve been going over Pope Francis’s Urbi et Orbi (“The City and the World”) Christmas message. Although brief, there was a great deal of substance. In our opinion, however, there was not enough — His Holiness highlighted some serious problems, but gave no more than a hint of a possible solution, and that inadequate (again, in our opinion).
|Orestes A. Brownson|
Putting together what Pope Francis said and the extract from Father Ferree’s pamphlet, Introduction to Social Justice, however, the picture starts to become much clearer and in focus. It becomes obvious that there is no single “one step” or “one size fits all” solution to any social problem. This is because “man being by nature a political animal” (Aristotle), any viable solution must have both individual and social aspects.
The art of politics, after all, is to balance the individual and social aspects of human nature without one taking over the other. Thus, as Orestes Brownson noted with respect to the United States,
The United States, or the American Republic, has a mission, and is chosen of God for the realization of a great idea. . . . Its idea is liberty, indeed, but liberty with law, and law with liberty. Yet its mission is not so much the realization of liberty as the realization of the true idea of the State, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual — the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy. In other words, its mission is to bring out in its life the dialectic union of authority and liberty, of the natural rights of man and those of society. The Greek and Roman republics asserted the State to the detriment of individual freedom; modern republics either do the same, or assert individual freedom to the detriment of the State. The American republic has been instituted by Providence to realize the freedom of each with advantage to the other. (Orestes A. Brownson, The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies and Destiny. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2003, 3.)
Understanding man as a political animal, we realize that what we regard as social problems are really political problems, that is, problems having both an individual and a social aspect. If we forget that, we tend to focus either on particular individuals to the detriment of the common good (usually understood as the collective), or on the collective and ignore individuals.
Of course, the “error within the error” here is that the common good is neither an amorphous collective good, e.g., the Benthamite “greatest good for the greatest number,” nor the aggregate of individual goods. It is, rather, that vast network of institutions within which human beings as political animals exercise their natural rights and acquire and develop virtue — “pursue happiness” — the “medium” of life, or environment within which human beings as political animals realize their individual goods; the common good is not itself an individual good (obviously, or it would not be the common good).
Consequently, every political problem — what is usually understood as every social problem — necessarily has a two-part or a two-step solution. There is an individual part or step, and a social part or step.
As we might expect, the individual aspect of a political problem, being the most immediate and coherent, is the more easily grasped and consequently where most people stop. Obviously, if people are hungry, you feed them. If they are naked, you clothe them. And so on.
That, however, is not social justice, but individual justice and (more often) charity fulfilling — not replacing — justice. Yes, many people are absolutely convinced that the practice of what the Catholic Church calls “the corporal works of mercy” is “social justice,” and that individual charity has been redefined as “distributive” or “social” justice, but they are wrong, sometimes disastrously and tragically so.
Why “disastrous” and “tragic”? Isn’t doing good a good thing? Isn’t the fundamental precept of the law to do good and avoid evil?
Yes, but it is how one does good that is the proper matter of social justice. Just as human beings have individual habits of doing good and doing evil that we call virtues and vices, respectively, we also have social habits that we call “institutions” — and the common good is made up of the vast network of social habits (institutions) wherein we either grow in virtue, or degenerate into vice — the system.
|Fr. Ferree: "Social problems require social solutions."|
Thus, just as we make ourselves better individuals by practicing individual virtues and performing (among other things) the corporal works of mercy directed at individual good, we become better members of society by performing acts of social virtue directed at the common good. If we are “broken” and in need of reform, we work on ourselves. If the social order is broken and in need of reform (restructuring), we organize and work on our institutions.
Understanding this, the proper course of action when confronted with a “political” problem, i.e., one affecting individuals as a result of flaws in the institutions of the social order, becomes clear. First address the immediate individual needs and relieve human suffering as far as you are able. Then, you attack “the problem behind the problem,” whatever institutional flaws caused the problem you want to ameliorate.
For example, if people are starving, giving them food for the day solves the immediate, individual problem: hunger. It does not, however, solve the underlying problem that, if it remains unresolved, will mean that you have to keep feeding people every day. You must therefore ask yourself why people are starving — and avoid the simplistic “Because they have no food.” That much is obvious, and gets you nowhere.
On looking into the matter, we find — for example — that people are starving because they cannot afford to buy food. They cannot afford to buy food because they have no money. They have no money because they are not productive. They are not productive because they do not own the means of production.
Since most production of marketable goods and services in the modern work is carried out by capital (land or technology), and human labor is being replaced by advancing technology at an accelerating rate, the obvious systemic solution is to put as many as possible of the people in the position of becoming and remaining capital owners.
We necessarily conclude that to stop with individual measures such as the corporal works of mercy, however essential they may be in the present state of society, is a serious error. We must also organize and work to solve the underlying, institutional problems that are causing the individual problems, or we have done nothing. As it says in the Bible, “[W]hen you shall have done all these things that are commanded you, say: We are unprofitable servants; we have done [only] that which we ought to do.” (Luke 17:10)
So what, specifically, should we do in the fact of “political” problems?
That is what we will look at tomorrow.