In the opening of Act II of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, Little Buttercup informs the Captain in cryptic terms that many things are not as they might appear at first glance. Confused, the Captain responds in kind, trading a list of random aphorisms for Buttercup’s “incomprehensible utterances.”
|Sweet Little Buttercup, Aye!|
Of course, in true Gilbertian fashion, Buttercup’s warning later turns out to make perfect sense . . . once the assumptions in the World of Topsy-Turvy are accepted as the norm, and if the audience does not look into them too carefully or critically. (E.g., two men who were mixed up as babies together end up with a significant age disparity, and then change professional careers once the error is revealed, one marrying the other’s daughter.)
As we saw in the previous posting on this subject, something similar happens with greater frequency than anyone cares to admit. We see this, for example, when trying to understand the social justice doctrine of Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869-1945). Although widely accepted as social justice orthodoxy and a brilliant application of the principles laid out in Rerum Novarum, Ryan’s thought has a great many holes and contractions that are glossed over, a number of which are detailed in The Church and the Social Question (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Policy Research, 1984) by Dr. Franz Hermann Mueller (1900-1994).
Mueller, a student of Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., (1854-1926), went into a great deal of technical detail as to why, in his opinion, Ryan’s analysis of Rerum Novarum and the particular program he developed did not appear to be consistent with common sense, Thomist philosophy, or Catholic social teaching. To take one non-technical example, Mueller quoted Ryan’s explanation as to why his social program was neither fascist nor socialist.
|Msgr. John A. Ryan|
Ryan believed the best answer to objections his program was socialist “is the fact that the policy of public ownership is gaining ground every day in every country, and that no country now enjoying it has any thought of reverting to the other system.” (Ibid., 105.) As Mueller noted, “Ryan anticipated the accusation that his program was socialistic or paternalistic, but this, he felt would be an attempt at refutation by name-calling, not deserving serious attention.” (Ibid., 106.)
In other words, Ryan first declared that his program was not socialist because socialism was gaining acceptance everywhere . . . which is not an answer. Further, he refused to answer a direct question as to whether what he proposed was socialist on the grounds that he did not have to answer such rude and insolent questions . . . again, not an answer.
There is a great deal more in Mueller’s analysis, but the reader might want to look it up on his or her own. Used copies of The Church and the Social Question are available at quite reasonable prices and might even be in libraries.
What we are looking at today is something that Mueller and virtually everyone else has taken for granted for over a century. This was ever since Ryan burst on the scene in 1906 with his doctoral thesis, A Living Wage, followed up a decade later with his magnum opus, Distributive Justice (1916).
That is, everyone just assumed, for good or ill, that Ryan took Rerum Novarum as his starting point and developed his social doctrine as an application of the principles in the encyclical. Depending on what authority you choose to believe, the agrarian socialist Henry George (1839-1897) either did or did not influence Ryan’s analysis (Mueller believed that George’s influence was pervasive, while a recent head of the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought was of the opinion that George had no influence).
In Distributive Justice, Ryan ignored commutative justice, the justice that governs equality of exchange (the law of contracts), that is, “equality of quantity.” (IIa IIae, q. 61, a. 2.) Significantly, all forms of justice presuppose the validity of commutative justice; (Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 1807.) “Without commutative justice, no other form of justice is possible.” (Ibid., § 2411.)
|Orestes A. Brownson|
The etymology of the terms distributive justice and social justice as Ryan used them is a fascinating study in itself. For over a century, commentators have assumed that Ryan began with the classic Aristotelian-Thomist understanding of distributive justice, and then developed it in light of the social justice teachings of Rerum Novarum. Authorities have struggled in vain to reconcile the contradictions implicit in this assumption.
The facts tell a different story. Ryan derived his concept of distributive justice and its equation with social justice not from Rerum Novarum, but from the utopian and religious socialists of the 1840s. Distributive justice and social justice were used interchangeably as expressions of the principal doctrine of “the Church of the Future.”
As conceived by Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876) before his conversion to Catholicism as well as other adherents of the various “religions of humanity,” the Church of the Future was essentially a terrestrial paradise in which people worshiped humanity. In this framework, distributive and social justice were equivalent terms meaning distribution on the basis of need. This was a direct result of heavy influence by the theories of the utopian socialist Charles Fourier as filtered through his American disciple Albert Brisbane. (Adam Morris, American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019, 82-83.)
Thus, Ryan’s social thought did not derive from his interpretation of Rerum Novarum. Instead, his interpretation of Rerum Novarum derived from his social thought. What this meant specifically we will examine in the next posting on this subject.