As we saw in the previous posting in this series, Leo XIII, in common with John Paul I a century later, faced the serious challenges socialism, modernism, and the New Age presented to traditional institutions of civil, religious, and domestic society. Both popes were fully aware of the dangers the “new things” represented.
|Pope John Paul II|
The difference was that John Paul I was only able to indicate the direction he wanted to take, which, by design, coincidence, or providence depending on your point of view, John Paul II appears to have carried through. This writer tends toward the providential, for if John Paul I had not been elected and made the direction of his pontificate clear, it is highly unlikely — in this writer’s opinion — that his friend and adviser John Paul II would ever have been pope. Leo XIII’s pontificate was also, as we have seen, similarly almost by chance . . . if you dismiss Providence.
Unlike John Paul I, however, Leo XIII was able to present his program and carry it through, although in many respects it was thwarted in its implementation for reasons that will become readily apparent. Matters came to a head with the issuance of Rerum Novarum in 1891.
Although it is not the most remarkable thing about the encyclical, Rerum Novarum — which many people cite as the first social encyclical (mistakenly, in this writer’s opinion; that should be Mirari Vos in 1832) — does not once use the term “social justice.” It is a little like finding out that Adam Smith, presumably the high priest of capitalism (again mistakenly, in this writer’s opinion) never once used the term “capitalism” or referred to “capitalists.”
|Pope Leo XIII|
The reason, of course, is that the socialists had coopted the words decades before, turning the popular understanding of social justice into another term for “the democratic religion” of New Christianity/Neo-Catholicism, which is to say, socialism. Leo XIII was already faced with the intimidating task of recapturing the terms “Christianity” and “Catholicism” from the socialists. He had no worry to spare about relatively new philosophical concepts, regardless how misused they might be.
Again surprising many, the most revolutionary thing about Rerum Novarum was that for the first time in history, an encyclical did not simply condemn something and explain why it was wrong. Instead, Leo XIII outlined a proactive program to counter the glamour of socialism, modernism, and the New Age.
This resulted in an irrefutable argument against the socialists and others intent on changing natural law and shifting from the Intellect to the Will as the basis of the natural law, as well as presenting an alternative based on reason. Paradoxically, it also gave the New Christians and Neo-Catholics much more material to work with and distort. It is, after all, rather difficult to reinterpret a simple condemnation (although that had been done with In Supremo Apostolatus, Gregory XVI’s encyclical condemning slavery in 1839), but very easy to put a different spin on an alternative and claim that it is consistent with the very thing that is being condemned.
Rerum Novarum opens with a harsh condemnation of socialism, along with an equally harsh criticism of capitalism. This confuses many people who ignore justice or assume that charity somehow replaces instead of fulfilling justice. Where the capitalists are portrayed as predominantly heartless and almost without charity, however much they might meet the demands of strict (commutative) justice, socialists — and this includes all forms of socialism, whether democratic, religious, or communist — are depicted as wholly without justice, forcing a warped and distorted pseudo charity on unsuspecting workers.
That is, in fact, why socialism is utterly condemned, while capitalism is “only” criticized. That is, capitalism is criticized if by “criticized” we mean exposed as a shameful fraud that restricts full membership in the human race to a relatively tiny élite, with the great mass of people unable to exercise their natural rights to life, liberty, and private property in any meaningful way.
|Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen|
For its part socialism doesn’t merely restrict the exercise of natural rights, especially that of private property, it abolishes them as natural rights altogether. The fundamental theory of socialism is that the abstraction of the collective created by human beings has rights that actual human beings created by God do not have.
This, of course — as Fulton Sheen explained in his first book in 1925, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy — ultimately means that the collective is greater than God! God becomes a tool to be employed when useful, and an outmoded concept to be discarded when no longer of use.
“But” — the socialists and others say — “what about where Rerum Novarum talks about a living wage and redistributing wealth on the basis of need? Didn’t Leo XIII change the definition of private property? How do you respond to that?”
We can respond to that by quoting the encyclical itself on this very point. There was absolutely no change in the understanding of the natural law or any natural right, nor did any supernatural virtue such as charity replace or supersede any natural virtue, such as justice. As Leo XIII explained in § 22 of Rerum Novarum,
The chief and most excellent rule for the right use of money is one the heathen philosophers hinted at, but which the Church has traced out clearly, and has not only made known to men's minds, but has impressed upon their lives. It rests on the principle that it is one thing to have a right to the possession of money and another to have a right to use money as one wills. Private ownership, as we have seen, is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. . . . [N]o one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, . . . But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one's standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law.
|Pope John XXII: private property a natural right.|
Here we see a number of key elements in Catholic social teaching and, by extension, those social ethics that apply to every child, woman, and man on Earth without exception. First and foremost, there is a clear distinction between access and use, that is, between the right to something, and the rights of something, between having a right, and exercising a right. It is therefore “one thing to have a right” [to life, liberty, private property, or anything else], but quite another thing altogether “to have a right to use [life, liberty, private property, or anything else] as one wills.”
Next, we see one of the most important applications of this principle: “Private ownership . . . is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary.”
The socialists are therefore wrong when they insist that no one has the right to be an owner until and unless the collective deems it useful or expedient. Private property is a natural right, that is, built into human nature itself, and is not only legitimate, “but absolutely necessary.”
|No one has a right to do wrong.|
Does this mean, then, that an owner can do whatever he wants with what he owns? No. That conclusion is only possible if we ignore the fact that all human beings have natural rights absolutely but can only exercise them in a limited manner.
All rights, whether natural, civil, statutory, or contractual can only be exercised in the manner in which society has deemed legitimate, with the “limit on the limitation” being, of course, that the exercise of a right may not be defined in such a way as to nullify the right. For example, abortionists say “You can live any way you want as long as we let you be born in the first place,” while socialists say “You can own anything you like as long as the State can take it from you any time it likes” — which are just other ways of saying you may only live or own at the sufferance of another.
In general, the limit on the exercise of any right is that a right stops where it becomes a wrong; no one by exercising a right may harm one’s self, another human being, a group, institution, or the common good as a whole. As noted, this applies even to one’s self. Despite what some libertarians say, you cannot deprive even yourself of life or liberty, although you can voluntarily give up exercising the right to private property . . . for yourself, not for others.
The socialists have another card to play, however. Didn’t Leo XIII say it is a duty to distribute any surplus to the poor?
Yes — but that is a moral duty, not a legal duty. As Leo XIII said, “It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law.”
There you have a complete repudiation of the socialist claim that redistribution of wealth belonging to others is any form of justice, whether you call it legal justice, social justice, distributive justice, or anything else. Redistribution on the basis of need is charity, which cannot be coerced. Nor does charity replace justice.
True, an exception is noted for “extreme cases.” There is, however, a catch to that. It is very dangerous for someone to be his own judge in what constitutes an “extreme case.” A politician, for example, might decide that since he cannot be elected without promising to redistribute what belongs to the wealthy, he is justified in doing so. After all, if he doesn’t get elected, he will not have a job and he will be unable to carry out all his plans for social betterment.
The businessman might decide that he can’t make enough profit unless he cheats customers by cutting quality or increasing prices. He justifies this on the grounds that he needs the extra money to finance growth and create jobs for the very people he is robbing.
A drug addict needs money for a fix or he will go into withdrawal. The teenager needs new shoes or her friends will think she isn’t cool. The list is endless — as long as the definition of “extreme” rests with the one benefiting by it.
|Aquinas: there are certain rules to follow.|
The Catholic Church, however, has a definite list of criteria for what constitutes “extreme cases” when redistribution is justified, even in the event of what would otherwise be deemed theft . . . with the caveat that while someone may incur no moral guilt, actions may carry a penalty imposed by human authorities if someone takes the law into his own hands and redistributes on his own authority. These are:
· The need must truly be “extreme,” that is, someone or his dependents is in danger of death or permanent disability unless assistance is given.
· What is taken and redistributed must be out of the “superabundance” of others; not mere abundance, but out of what the person clearly does not need to maintain his station or position and that of his dependents.
· Enough may be taken to meet the extreme need, but no more.
· Restitution should be made when or if possible.
· The redistribution should be carried out by duly constituted authority, especially if the danger is to the whole of the common good, as in the case of a natural disaster, such as earthquake, flood, or famine that causes widespread distress.
It was not obvious in Rerum Novarum but would be made explicit in less than half a century by Pope Pius XI, but there is an additional criterion in social justice: organize with others to remove any systemic or institutional causes that resulted in the extreme need.
All this, of course, was only what the Catholic Church had been saying for centuries. It was nothing new. What was new, and what took the socialists, modernists, and New Agers completely by surprise, was Leo XIII’s proposed solution to the greed of capitalism, the envy of socialism, and the evils of the “new things”: widespread ownership of capital.#30#