This past Sunday marked the thirty-ninth anniversary of the death of Archbishop Fulton John Sheen (1895-1979). Ordinarily we would have posted any reflection on his thought pertaining to the Just Third Way on that day. We don’t post on Sunday, however, and yesterday was the day reserved for CESJ’s “electronic apostolate” (so to speak), and Sheen would have been the first one to appreciate the fact that “the show must go on.”
|Fulton J. Sheen|
Anyway, what popped into our head during one of the few free moments we had while rushing around to various musical events (you do NOT want to be in multiple musical milieux during Christmas when EVERYONE schedules EVERYTHING for the same day, and there is no parking for performers) was Sheen’s oft-repeated dictum, “Right is right if nobody does it, wrong is wrong if everybody does it.”
Now, we have a few problems with that from the standpoint of social justice, but this is neither the time nor the place to consider them, and they are not germane to this discussion. What we want to look at today is the question about the meaning of right and good. Everybody thinks that everything he or she wants is right and good, but is that right? Or good?
This brings in the question of natural law. Simply put, natural law is the general code of human behavior. The fundamental precept of the natural law is that good is to be done and evil is to be avoided.
What is good? Whatever is consistent with human nature. What is evil? Whatever contradicts human nature.
|"A small error in the beginning leads to big errors in the end."|
Right away, however, a small problem occurs. Small, that is, to people who do not realize its significance or who fail to appreciate the fact that a small error in the beginning leads to great errors in the end — a little saying of Aquinas, with which he opened his treatise on “On Being and Essence” (for those of you into deep philosophical discussions).
Not surprisingly, of all the errors of the modern world — and there are a great many of them — perhaps none is so great, or seems so small, as the change in the basis of the natural law from the Intellect to the Will. That is, the reason-based position that something is right and good because God is so changes to the belief that something is right and good because God — or someone claiming to be speaking in God’s name — says so.
All things are subordinate to the natural law. This is reasonable — that is, based on the Intellect, or reason — for in a reason-based system, the natural law is God, and therefore can be discerned from God’s Nature reflected in His special creation, man by the use of human reason alone. To be subordinate to the natural law, therefore, is to be subordinate to God.
|H.G. Wells: "the Higher Man of Today."|
In contrast, the first principle of those who reject God and reason is that all things, including the natural law (meaning God Himself), are subordinate to whatever is desired. Where Jesus said, “Thy Will, not Mine,” those who reject God say, “My will, not Thine.” As Fulton Sheen noted, this puts man at the center, while God becomes the servant of man:
In the twentieth century man makes God to his own image and likeness. “Instaurare omnia in homine” is the motto of contemporary thought, with Swinburne it sings “Glory to man in the highest,” with Mr. Wells it pleads the cause of “the higher man of today,” and predicts the day when “men will be like Gods.” (Fulton J. Sheen, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy: A Critical Study in the Light of the Philosophy of Saint Thomas. New York: IVE Press, 2009, 320.)
This has profound implications. The natural law is based on what can be discerned from human nature through the use of reason. That is because human nature is a reflection of God’s Nature, which (God’s practical and speculative knowledge being absolutely perfect) is self-realized in His Intellect.
If something is contrary to reason, then, it is necessarily contrary to human nature, and vice versa. Being contrary to human nature, it is necessarily contrary to God’s Nature, and is wrong — always wrong, no exceptions.
In consequence, those who reject God also necessarily reject this concept of the natural law. If something is contrary to whatever principle or desire such individuals or groups happen to assert, it is considered wrong or evil. This is despite the fact that what they object to may be in full conformity with human nature as discerned by the force and light of human reason.
|Leo XIII: charity fulfills, it does not replace justice.|
For example, for centuries some people have demanded that the distributive principle of charity, a supernatural virtue (to each according to his needs), must in some way replace the distributive principle of justice, a natural virtue (to each according to his inputs). This “charity” is often erroneously called distributive justice, social justice, or some other equivocation — terms with legitimate meanings, but that have been twisted and distorted to fit a predetermined position.
Charity, however, fulfills and completes, but does not abolish justice. Once the demands of justice have been met and someone has been rendered what he or she is due according to his or her inputs, charity takes over to perfect or complete the process and provide whatever else is needed. (Rerum Novarum, § 22; cf. Quadragesimo Anno, §§ 4, 110, 125, 137.)
Replacing the mandate for justice completed by charity with a demand for a “charity” that contradicts or abolishes justice nullifies the natural law. It does this by undermining the fundamental precept that good — justice — is to be done. Similar demands are that the other supernatural virtues of faith and hope replace the natural virtues of prudence, temperance, and fortitude.
|Chesterton responded to Wells|
Other justifications to abolish justice or the other natural virtues are not lacking. These include the greater good of humanity, the expedience of the State, or anything else that can be asserted as the Will of God, the People, common humanity, the Spirit of the Age, etc.
Even these, however, rely on replacing justice due to each individual with love presumably due to something else. This is usually Collective Man or humanity as a whole, which presumably overrides the claims of mere individuals.
Actual, living human beings thereby become things. As things have no natural rights, and the condition of being without rights is the legal definition of slavery, every human being becomes to all intents and purposes a slave or “mere creature of the State” . . . unless one is of the élite that controls the State. (Cf. G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man. New York: Image Books, 1955, 176.)
So, yes, Fulton Sheen was correct: Right is right if nobody does it, and wrong is wrong if everybody does it . . . but it really helps if you know the difference between right and wrong!
We’re also left hanging about what to do if an individual is helpless to ensure justice (right) because he is trapped within an unjust system and cannot do what is right without incurring ruin for him- or herself and everyone around him or her. That’s something we’ll look at when we take up this subject again.